UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Artists ask where’s the money?

“Like, where’s the (bleep)in’ money?”

Leave it to hip hop icon and pop culture philosopher Snoop Dog to clarify the issue regarding the streaming of digital content and the related labor strikes by writers and actors that has currently brought film and television production to a screeching halt. As the nation took the day off this week in honor and celebration of labor, it’s worth pondering the very real labor situation happening in the entertainment industry. For a segment of workers who contribute nearly $100 billion to the economy every year, the issue of compensation in a rapidly changing world of artificial intelligence and digital streaming is a watershed moment.

Snoop Dog went a bit off script recently while at a Milken Institute event where he was on a panel discussing the fiftieth anniversary of hip hop culture and rap music. As the panel discussed his career and the business side of hip hop and the recording industry, Snoop paused to pose a simple logical question. “I mean, can someone explain to me how you can get a billion streams and not get a million dollars? That don’t make sense to me. I don’t know who … is running the streaming industry, if you’re in here or not, but you need to give us some information on how …. to track this money down ’cause one plus one ain’t adding up to two.”

Snoop noted how when he began his career, there was a tangible way to track the money. If the record company sold a million albums at $9.00, then there was a set amount of money and the artists received their percentage. Snoop and countless other artists now ask how data can show that people watched, say, 300,000 hours of a show, but the artist isn’t receiving commensurate money for that huge consumption of the goods. 

Streaming of digital content, as opposed to the sale of CDs, is the problem which first arose in 1999 when the company Napster established the practice of digital file sharing. This was much like illegally copying cassette tapes in the 70s and 80s, only easier and far more extensive. But Steve Jobs and Apple’s innovation of iTunes leveled the playing field. Jobs and Apple, while making millions with their new technology, also guaranteed artists they would receive payment for downloads. That was a game changer – and one more example of a true visionary. Jobs was a ruthless businessman, but he also had the spirit of an artist.

The actors and writers are striking for numerous reasons. Working in the arts can be a precarious position because it’s rarely a full time job with a company providing benefits year to year. Thus writers and actors depend on the income of residuals during the time between gigs. And if the company continues to make money from the product during that time, the artists should as well. When Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David sold the syndication rights for Seinfeld, they earned a staggering sum of $225 million. That, of course, is evidence of just how much more money the networks made by endlessly showing reruns. That’s why just two years ago, Netflix paid $500 million for Seinfeld, NBC Universal paid $500 million for The Office, and WarnerMedia paid $425 million for Friends. Clearly, these networks make huge outlays for content, knowing they will earn massive returns on their investment.

In the era of data science, the industry has the ability to track penny for penny how much a piece of art is earning. They also have a responsibility to be transparent in their use of new technologies, including streaming and AI, another aspect of the strike. One problematic development is the industry’s use of AI to regenerate images and likeness of an artist, but suggest that it’s not really the artist so doesn’t deserve compensation. Author Jane Friedman had a truly dystopian moment earlier this year when someone used AI to write books in her style and subject matter and begin selling them on Amazon in her name. Initially Amazon refused to take them down, though the company shockingly relented when her professional organization intervened on her behalf. 

As a writer and teacher of literature, I know all too well the value of the creation and the history of compensation for writers and artists. In the spirit of Labor Day, it’s worth talking about fair compensation for workers, especially creators. Artists deserve their share, especially because there is no art without them. As Snoop Dog would say, “that’s fo’ shizzle.”

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com