Andrew Keen? Who he? The author of ‘Cult of the Amateur’, a book that infamously claimed that the internet is ‘killing our culture’. He’s also been an internet entrepreneur, founding music website Audiocafe back in 1995.
So, what’s his view as an outsider to the music industry, on the impact the internet has had on music culture? Keen says he was watching the music business more closely than any other when writing his book. “Music was first in,” he said. “The issues that now all media is addressing, from TV to publishing to newspapers to the film industry, were first pertinent to the music business.”
He says he was attending conferences back in 1995 where internet startups and rightsholders were arguing about licensing and business models, in the same way they do today. But Keen’s point: “It’s very hard to figure out a business model when everything is either free or stolen.”
Moderator Jeremy Silver (of the Featured Artists’ Coalition) asked why no major talent has yet emerged from online – is developing real talent something that happens offline? Keen said that he doesn’t believe “we’re all intrinsically talented… 99% have nothing interesting to say. That doesn’t make them bad people – they need to be quiet and listen to others!”
The challenge for media is to find that talent, nurture and polish it, and sell it, just as they have done for most of the last century. “The problem with the internet is it does away with the intermediary,” he said. “The only way to be discovered on the internet is to be a good self-promoter.”
What’s the alternative though? How should old media companies respond? “We can’t go back to the old model – the old model is destroyed,” said Keen. He thinks the challenge is how to build businesses around talent in the 21st century.
“The internet essentially commodifies the copy,” he continued. “So where’s the value – where’s the scarcity? In the old world, the scarcity was in the physical product.” So talent has to manifest itself through scarcity, which in the music world means live work, according to Keen.
“The live music world is quite alive,” he says. “You’re seeing the same with writers and with conferences. In the internet age, where content is commodified, the value lies in the physical.” He also described the live act as the most authentic experience in music.
Silver asked Keen about the reality TV talent show phenomenon – Britain’s Got Talent, American Idol, The X Factor and so on. Keen said he made a mistake in his book of associating the cult of the amateur with the internet only. “Mainstream media has fallen under the spell, and it’s a very seductive spell, of the cult of the amateur,” he said. “The media now is increasingly bowing down to the public, and telling it that the public knows better – has better taste – than the mediators… It’s a form of cultural and economic suicide in the long run.”
Keen also sang the praises of elitism – “all we’re doing is acknowledging a meritocracy… the challenge for people such as yourselves [addressing the audience of music industry folk]is to explain to the public why you’re doing a good job!”
He also attacked the “disappearance of the middle” in the cultural economy. There are still the big hits, which dominate the industry, and then the “lumpen proletariat garbage” from amateurs, but the middle has been destroyed – saying that this shows Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory is “completely wrong”.
Keen also said he thinks the future for culture will be a return to the patronage model – interesting in light of yesterday’s panels on how brands are working with artists.
He did like the idea of fan remix culture – Radiohead making stems available to their fans, or Nine Inch Nails making HD footage available. “It all depends on how talented the audience is,” he said, while admitting he’s not intimately aware of this kind of stuff. But he did like models like SellaBand, where fans are investing in culture.
He also said that “we have to be very careful not to accept utopianism as common sense” in response to a question from Gerd Leonhard (announcing himself as “chief utopian”). “You call it utopianism, I call it imagination” fired back Gerd.
“But there has to be a business model for this, because it’s the future,” said Keen. “For the last 15 years we’ve been promised an alternative to the old world that works, but in music we still don’t see it.” What’s more, Keen said a solution isn’t inevitable: “It’s quite conceivable that the media economy will just wither away.”