Move Fast and Break Things

This weekend, I read Move Fast and Break Things by USC professor Jonathan Taplin.

I disagreed with a lot of the points in the book, but still found it to be worth reading.

The book gives a historical perspective on “content” - music, movies, books, newspapers, and other media. Then it contrasts this with platforms - Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

It talks about a lot about the centralization of power that’s going on in large software companies today (similar perspectives to my recent article on the Open Internet). But it also puts our current situation - where platforms make almost all of the money and the artists make almost no money - into a historical perspective.

The author is uniquely qualified to write this book. Right out of school, he helped manage some big-name bands in the 70s and 80s, before becoming a movie producer in Hollywood, and ultimately co-founding a movie streaming service in the early 2000s.

His central argument is that we need more communities like that are favorable for artists - where they get direct access to their customers (email addresses aren’t obscured by the platform) and they get a reasonable share of their listener’s dollars.

He also talks a lot about world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and his vision of frictionless microtransactions so that consumers can more seamlessly pay for content as they consume it.

I mentioned there were aspects of this book I disagree with. One of them is the author’s support of the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have been disastrous for a lot of websites that have a lot of user-submitted content (including this forum).

Luckily Taplin points out plenty of alternatives, such as pressuring websites like YouTube to use the same algorithmic detection they use to detect copyrighted material and prevent it from being uploaded in the first place (instead of forcing content creators to submit takedown requests.) He points out that if YouTube can stop pornography from being hosted there, they can stop copyrighted music and films from being uploaded.

Taplin also talks a bit about the perverse incentives associated with advertisements, and how the nature of trying to identify hits means that most artists won’t be able to subsist long enough to build a real audience. (Another book I read a couple months ago about the advertising industry is Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads which I also recommend.)

He points out that Bob Dylan - whom he managed in the early 1970s - only sold 4,000 copies of his debut album in two years. There’s no way a modern music publisher would be able to take a chance on a musician like this, even though today Bob Dylan is widely acknowledged as one of the most important musicians of the 20th century.

Instead, the new licensing-driven music industry reduces musicians to being judged by advertising executives who aren’t asking “is this art?” but rather “can this help me sell Pepsi?”

This book covers a lot of ground in just an 8 hour listen. I listened to the entire thing in a single 24-hour period (on double speed) while exercising and running errands. It was definitely worth my time, and if you’re interested in the future of art and how technology is steering it, I think it’s worth your time, too.