Who Counts as an Expert?

Who Counts as an Expert?

When you read about music industry issues in the news, does it feel like it’s connected to your life? Do you see yourself reflected or hear your concerns included? These questions were on my mind most recently last week, as rapper Jay Z was joined by a crowded stage of pop superstars to roll out the music streaming service Tidal. It’s something I think about every time a big music news story bubbles up.


Among the general population, there seems to be a sustained level of interest in the business of making music that extends beyond our appetite to understand other industries. It’s regrettably difficult to find news coverage about the people who grow our tomatoes, sew our clothes, or assemble our smartphones, but people are still uniquely fascinated with the people who make the music they enjoy.

And yet much of the public conversation about important issues in the music business seems light in nutritional value, or narrowly focused on the concerns and actions of a handful of superstars. If you’re working in a genre or music subculture that isn’t based around mass-market assumptions, your concerns may be absent. We can all read dozens of hot-takes on the latest celebrity copyright kerfuffle, but how many of them examine whether a young composer whose work has been infringed has any meaningful recourse, if she can’t afford expensive legal representation?

One reason for this dynamic is that journalism has been going through many of the same upheavals as other creative industries. Few publications have dedicated reporters assigned to the music industry beat anymore, let alone with a labor emphasis—such topics get passed on to arts critics, or business and technology writers. I’ve only ever really worked in music, so no one would expect me to be able to explain subprime lending or email encryption. But business and technology journalists are often tasked with explaining complicated systems and revenue models, without any specialized training or background.

While some have taken on this challenge and done an admirable job, it’s not surprising that others end up making basic errors—confusing record labels with publishers, or compositions with sound recordings, for example.

FMC Chart: money flow-radio

Infographic from Future of Music Coalition’s “Music and How the Money Flows

There’s also a reliance on faulty conventional wisdom; Future of Music Coalition has published research that squarely debunks common myths, like “musicians make all their money from touring,” but I could spend my entire work week trying to correct these myths every time they appear in popular media and I wouldn’t make much of a dent. Plus click-driven revenue models often incentivize writers to prioritize celebrity controversies over an examination of how non-superstar musicians (the vast majority of us) are impacted.

A parallel factor may be the trend towards “explainer journalism” sites, which “have built their core identity around explaining complicated issues or situations to a well-informed general public” as Henry Farrell, um, explains. The inherent claim to expertise in this mode of writing doesn’t exactly encourage intellectual humility or the weighing of different theories, but encourages boldly assertive claims as an exercise in self-branding and generating traffic.

This is an era that rewards simple explanations: TED Talks that prescribe neat solutions, the ability to learn “everything you need to know about X in one chart.” It’s nice when such things exist, but it’s easy to lapse into a preference for falsely totalizing narratives, and “expertise” is awarded on the basis of whether you can offer such a narrative (bonus points awarded if you can work in an affirmation of entrepreneurial progress that’s basically compatible with our prevailing neoliberal power structures).

But artists know that things are more complicated. You might even argue that making a life as a musician or composer is partly about getting comfortable with constantly navigating that complexity. We know that an approach that works for one kind of musician is not necessarily going to work for peers working in different genres, or different roles with different assumptions about scale. Strategies or business models that might work perfectly well for a chamber music ensemble may not suit a composer who doesn’t perform. We know that rather than the conventional story of an old model of the music business being replaced by a new one, there’s always been a range of many different models, and we choose the models that align with our abilities, skills, interests, and available resources.

But while adopting “it’s more complicated than that” as a default epistemological position will help you understand what’s going on, it can be challenging to find ways to tell these more complex stories. Not long ago, I was speaking to a TV journalist who wanted to know whether or not our copyright laws were “antiquated.” Now, it should be clear that this is kind of an absurd question to pose as a binary either/or. US copyright laws amount to hundreds of pages, assembled over decades, revised over and over again. I explained that while some current provisions might be due for revision, many others continue to provide important protections for creators and for the public interest. Alas, the journalist really wanted a yes-or-no answer, and when I was unable to give her one, she ended up not quoting me on that issue. It was hard to blame her—she only was allotted two and a half minutes.

Another example: the popular sci-fi novelist and tech blogger Cory Doctorow in his mostly un-recommendable new book Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free suggests an axiom for aspiring artists: “Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it,” a variation on the “obscurity is the real problem” adage we heard endlessly during the file-sharing battles a decade ago. This is, of course, demonstrably false: most working musicians and composers have always been obscure by the standards of mass culture. In fact, there are thousands of professional musicians who will always remain ultimately anonymous to many of the consumers who enjoy their work: touring sidemen, session players, etc. Obscurity alone isn’t so much of an issue if obscure musicians and composers are able to obtain a fair price for their obscure labors, whether from the open market, from grants and commissions, or other revenue structures. But Doctorow’s willingness to speak in such sweeping generalities about an industry he’s never worked in hasn’t been a barrier to his self-positioning as an expert on the music business. It may have worked to his advantage, actually.

This leads me to another observation about perceived expertise: working at the intersection of music, technology, and policy means reckoning with the fact that each of these three arenas carries its own ongoing battles with sexism and racism. What this means for me as a white, college-educated man is my opinions are immediately given an assumed legitimacy in many forums. I can opine about technological issues in music and policy and no one will patronizingly ask me whether I know how to code, to borrow an example from Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil. I may not be able to oversimplify complex dynamics, but at least I look like an “expert.”

If this all sounds rather disheartening, I do see opportunities to push back. Musicians and composers are always the best experts about their lives and livelihoods, and they seem to be more and more willing to tell their stories. As busy, frazzled, and overextended as journalists and editors often are, my experience has been that most genuinely want to get it right and like hearing the thoughtful, factually grounded perspectives of artists of diverse backgrounds, including the kinds of people who will never be invited to stand on stage next to Jay Z.

The need to hear those perspectives is also a reason why sites like NewMusicBox and others that allow creative workers to speak for themselves are so fundamentally important, and I’m delighted to be contributing this month.


Kevin Erickson is communications and outreach manager for Future of Music Coalition, a non-profit research, advocacy, and education group based in Washington, D.C. With roots in the Pacific Northwest indie-punk tradition, his experience spans many facets of the music ecosystem, including all-ages music advocacy, alternative interdisciplinary arts spaces, community radio, and brick and mortar independent music retail management. He remains active as a musician, producer, and engineer at Swim-Two-Birds recording studio.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

7 thoughts on “Who Counts as an Expert?

  1. Hope

    Doctorow’s book discussed obscurity for artists generally (which he *does* have personal experience in, as a professional novelist), and his obscurity point was only one of several “laws” he listed in the book. It’s a point I found compelling because obscurity actually has been a big obstacle for me as a professional musician, but I know not all musicians are in the same place. But, we should at least not misrepresent his point just to knock down a straw man.

    1. Kevin Erickson

      Thanks for reading! Maybe I should elaborate. I will certainly grant that Doctorow’s point about obscurity certainly could resonate more for some musicians or composers than others and could perhaps be more applicable to other art forms; if he’d qualified it a bit to allow for the existence of business models that land outside of that paradigm, I wouldn’t have found it so frustrating. But to elevate that assertion to the status of one of only three “laws” without such a qualification raised “does-this-guy-know-what-he’s-talking-about-at-least-with-regard-to-music” red flags. And unfortunately, my mistrust of Doctorow’s claim to expertise was underscored as he went on to make a whole series of falsely totalizing claims, extreme outliers presented as anecdotal data, and other serious analytical errors, with specific reference to music and the music industry. (I am less qualified to evaluate how accurate his description of other artistic disciplines may be.)

      I was also puzzled by the structure of the argument about the “laws” themselves, and the way Doctorow seemed to move between law in the descriptive/scientific sense, and laws in the prescriptive “how things should be” sense. I actually found that bit rather troubling, because I do think it’s plausible that some business interests would indeed prefer a creative economy where fame is universally a prerequisite for a sustainable income, but I find that outcome to be sort of a creative dystopia–much of the art and music I’m most passionate about isn’t work that appeals to massive audiences.

      Beyond that, I was amused at the hubris involved in framing one’s assertions as “laws,” especially in light of the Taylor-McNeil article I linked above. Again, I’m sort of stuck on the notion of who gets to be an expert; I don’t imagine that a musician or composer who’d never written a book would be taken seriously if she proposed “laws” that purported to tell writers and publishers how they ought to be running THEIR business.

      None of which is to say there weren’t a number of points made where I found myself in agreement with Doctorow. And if you found more to appreciate than I did, that’s great too.

  2. greg robin

    I think fame is often the only “measure of success” to many of the general population. If one is an engineer, people will say you are fairly successful. If you are a composer/educator, they will say you must not be good because you aren’t famous. I remember Mario Davidovsky tell me once a story about books. It went like this: You are an author? How many books have you sold? 200,000- You must be a great author. How about you? Two books, you must be a horrible author. I alway tell my students most musicians who are famous are chosen. It is best to focus on hard work, craft, and networking. Be the best artists you can be. You may not become famous. So what, success is not about numbers- it is about the quality of your work.

  3. Mark Nowakowski

    Great article, truly, but you lost me at “racism and sexism.” If anything, I think your observation is overstated in both the academic and commercial spheres: the former is absolutely desperate to bring traditional minority groups into positions of dominance, while the second is (at least on the performer side) quite diverse. (Irrational bias certainly exists in both spheres, but it often falls along non-traditional lines, as the old hate paradigms are now officially anathema.) Are these industries and systems perfect? Certainly not. But rather than creating embittered groups at the expense of “protected classes,” I think that we’ve finally reached a point at which we can increasingly be recognized by “the content of our characters” (and the quality of our portfolios) as opposed to our color or who are parents are/were. Is there any doubt about the number of women who are increasingly making their mark in music technology, or racial minorities increasingly dominating as performers?
    Or, in other words, is it more productive to gripe about supposed institutionalized biases, or (whether or not one believes this theory and to what extent) celebrate our growing diversity? It strikes me that regardless of politics and perspective, the second approach is a far more inclusive and productive tent.

    1. Kevin Erickson

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I have three points.
      1. Identifying/confronting institutionalized biases and celebrating diversity seems like a false binary to me. They seem like mutually reinforcing tactics, both of which should be embraced by people who care about equity.
      2. The three spheres I mentioned were music, technology, and policy. In all 3 areas, the evidence seems to me to be clear: we’re very far from where we ought to be. Examples on the gender issue:
      With regard to music http://www.sheknows.com/entertainment/articles/1080274/coachella-and-other-music-festival-lineups-with-the-male-acts-removed-photos
      With regard to technology: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2015/01/08/men-on-the-internet-dont-believe-sexism-is-a-problem-in-science-even-when-they-see-evidence/
      With regard to policy: http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/fast_facts/levels_of_office/Congress-Current.php
      (I could find similar data about race, but I think you get my point).
      3. Finally, with regard to the suggestion that attention to these issues results in “embittered groups,” well, I guess that I’d suggest that being embittered is a choice, and not a very good one. Having people willing to draw my attention to fundamental issues of inclusion, representation, diversity and help me recognize the mechanics of power and privilege, has made me a better and a more effective advocate, probably a better musician, and definitely a more interesting person. It just seems more natural to me to be grateful than bitter.


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