Tears of Rage: The Death of Levon Helm and the Rise of Crowd Funding - Technology and Science Week


The late, great Levon Helm performs with The Band at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in 1976. Photo by David Gans.

An Editorial:

Earlier this week, Kory French wrote a piece for BreakThru on the continuously exciting prospects that music, technology, and the internet still have in store for us. Of course, the brief history of the relationship therein hasn’t exactly been a healthy or pleasant one.

Case in point: a recent war of words exploded between USC professor and former manager of The Band, Jonathan Taplin, and Reddit founder and tech entrepreneur, Alexis Ohanian, over a variety of issues including SOPA, the state of the entertainment industry, and the recent death of The Band’s drummer and vocalist, Levon Helm.

It all began when the two were invited to a debate focusing on the failed legislation at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored Conference in mid-April. Not even day before Helm’s passing his ghostly presence already loomed over a discussion that resulted in his deteriorating state becoming a symbol for what file sharing has done to aging rock stars.

“Tonight, Levon Helm is dying – basically broke – and Garth Hudson declared bankruptcy last year,” said Taplin in his opening statement, painting a dour picture of musical legends who were once collecting in the ballpark of $150k per year from royalties before the age of downloading. He went on to rail against the “copy left,” who believe that eventually most art and media will be available for free with advertising, and also others who think recording artists should make their money on the road, not in the studio.

In his rebuttal, Ohanian chastised an industry that is determined to “legislate its way back into relevance instead of innovate it,” while leaning hard on the benefits of the group-funding website, Kickstarter. Pointing to the influx of films submitted to Sundance this year that were funded through Kickstarter (roughly 10 percent of the entire festival, all-in-all), Ohanian posited that the site’s micro-patronage model holds great potential for artists seeking increased revenues in the Internet Age.

Which was where Taplin (who helped Martin Scorcese fund his debut film, Mean Streets, in 1973) sort of began to lose his patience.

“Let’s see if Martin Scorcese can raise $120 million for Hugo, his passion project, using Kickstarter,” complained Taplin. “This just isn’t realistic in any possible way.”

From there things got heated and by the end, everyone felt less than satisfied with the lack of closure, least of all the guest speakers themselves. So in a poorly executed effort to extend an olive branch, Ohanian sent an open letter to Taplin featuring the following post he received on his site from Lester Chambers, singer of the ’60s rock and soul group, The Chambers:

Photo courtesy of Lester Chambers.

Many of you who are up to date with the social media activity surrounding Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent movement might be familiar with the image above. Focusing on the injustice that the establishment record industry has handed to artists even less fortunate than Levon Helm, Ohanian tactlessly suggested that surviving members of The Band should regroup and pitch the release of a rarities compilation through Kickstarter. For the rhetorical cherry on top of this cringe-worthy gaffe, Ohanian promised he’d help promote the release via Reddit.

The next day, Levon Helm died of a long standing battle with throat cancer that he’d been fighting since the late ’90s. Though Ohanian had published his letter the night before, the unfortunate news only highlighted any unintended callousness therein.

Upset by the “condescending offer,” Taplin responded in a terse letter to Ohanian, telling him that he and Kickstarter can “take your charity and shove it. Just let us get paid for our work and stop deciding that you can unilaterally make it free.”

That last sentence says a lot about these generalized file sharing debates, the widening generation gap that perpetuates such misunderstanding, and the palpable ignorance demonstrated by both sides here.

The debate itself was inherently designed to have two speakers talking past each other simply by the very nature of their respected areas of expertise. Simultaneously, neither individual represents the parties responsible for the grievances of artists even if they both insisted speaking to each other like they were. As Taplin is not a record executive, neither does that make Ohanian the founder of Bit Torrent.

Realizing these differences may have lead to a more substantive discussion in terms of recognizing actual solutions. For instance, by all accounts, Taplin’s rejection of Kickstarter comes off as the epitome of baby boomer elitism and has-been entitlement. Whether or not $50,000-a-pop movies can provide a filmmaker with a sustainable income, who says you need $120 million to make a good movie or that every starving young director wants to make Hugo?

Other voices across online media and the blogosphere and have criticized Taplin in particular for using suspicious statistics and unscholarly generalizations during the debate, particularly those aimed at his opponent and his companies. Though Ohanian may not know much about music history, Taplin’s suggestion that Reddit somehow makes money off of piracy and filesharing is just as preposterous as imagining Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson making a Kickstarter video.

However, Reddit and Ohanian are somewhat guilty by association. At the beginning of Taplin’s opening statement, he conceded that SOPA was an imperfect law that shouldn’t have passed but that also shouldn’t stop some regulation from being put in place. On the other hand, there was no such conciliatory remark from Ohanian (a vocal opponent of the law and an incendiary voice in its downfall) denouncing the blatant illegality of the piracy services that SOPA righteously intended to bring to justice.

In essence, what this debate conveys is the conceit of both sides that will need to be set aside if there’s to be any progress. Taplin may not make it easier to sympathize with aging millionaire rock stars who expect golden paychecks for the rest of their lives, but that doesn’t make Pirate Bay any more of an ethical operation. Why tech industry gurus like Ohanian don’t take them to task is beyond me, then again, so is the reason why Kickstarter is somehow beneath real artists.