Collateral Damage Part Three: Rob Levine

On the subject of the collateral damage online piracy is doing to advertising, we’ve heard from David Lowery and Adam Weber.

Now Adland has an exclusive interview with former executive editor of Billboard , journalist and author of “Free Ride,” Rob Levine.

While David Lowery approaches piracy from an ethical standpoint, Levine looks at the issue from the eyes of a business reporter who covers culture. Not necessarily from the same standpoint.

“I could tell you as a non-specialist that it (piracy) seems wrong to me,” Levine says. But it gets complicated beyond that basic statement, and it's one he’d rather leave to ethical experts. Suffice it to say there are a lot of nuances to navigate. The internetz is not a small place, after all.

So if Levine is not a moralistic sounding board, he does “spend a lot of time dealing with the bullshit factor.” For instance, the accepted attitude that somehow Google is doing everything for good, which he rightly calls "Nonsense." If every medium has a business model, than “Google has set up an environment where it has the advantage.“ It's not good for us in the advertising industry. Because Google's business model is destructive to other business models, too.

The idea that somehow free content can be offset by revenue gained in advertising is an argument that does not hold water. Whether it’s music or advertising, culture is being devalued and leaving us competing for fewer and fewer revenue shares. The ads aren’t going for the amount we thought they would, even before the economic downturn. Placing banner ads on your website will bring in some revenue, but unless you’re a Youtube or Drudge Report or Huffington Post, it will be negligible, and hard earned.

When the conversation turned to advertising, Levine summed up the current state thusly: “Advertising is behind the vanguard but ahead of the mainstream.” And he’s right. It’s kind of like we’re standing on a strange ground as last year’s hipsters. Not quite as cool as we once believed. We are driving on the road next to the middle road. Culturally, we’re not the influencers we so desperately want to be. Considering culturally a lot of things have changed for the worse this shouldn't be such an epiphany.

While the demise in awesomeness may not fully be attributed to piracy, certainly the Free Culture movement is a culprit. A lot of creatives turn to Youtube and Facebook first for creative "inspiration." And because it's all fair game, we'll approach anyone and anything as a source.

Occasionally it pays off, like with Caine’s Arcade. More often than not, if we're really being honest here, it’s a crowdsourced yawn fest like this Dannon Super Bowl ad.

On the subject of music in ads, VW’s Beach House kerfuffle struck a chord with Levine, albeit a minor one. Simply put, our cultural attitude has unfortunately changed for the worse. “Twenty years ago, people would have hated VW. But now it’s like ‘Well they got exposure for it.’…and If that attitude prevails, then they (companies like VW) will have carte blanche.”

Of course we don’t know and probably never will know whether it was client or agency or a bit of both behind that decision. And Beach House is still relatively unknown, so it was a good bet someone familiar with their music was behind the decision. This is troubling to Levine who asks “if you’re a Music Head, do you really want to be ‘that guy?’”

I sure as hell don’t. And while Beach House took the high ground, Levine suspects they didn’t have much of a choice. Not every one is Tom Waits. It takes time and money to sue. And to a band he suspects might be having a break through with their newest album Bloom, the resources are better spent on tour than fighting a company.

It’s a bit different with the Olympics, however. Last week’s news came out that the organizers of the London Olympics are expecting musicians performing at the games to play for the exposure instead of money. When I bring this up Levine asks “Are the organizers being paid or are they doing it for the exposure?”
Oh no he didn’t!

To be clear, this is the London 2012 Olympics Organising Committee (LOCOG). You know, the people who work for the Olympics as sponsored by Mcdonald’s, Coke, Panasonic and a bunch of other companies with deep pockets. You don't have to follow the money to see they have a bunch of it.

Levine sees the attraction if not sometimes necessity of musicians doing work for the exposure, but is quick to point out if you do too many of those freebies and “at some point opportunities to get paid for your work will decline.”

So do you believe the big organization who tells you you’ll get exposure and that’s a good thing, or do you stick to your guns? It’s not an easy answer. It should be, but it isn’t. And perhaps it’s because of the way we spend our lives online, which is still unregulated from a moral perspective.

Levine sums it up like this… “If we see a 22 year old working as an intern to gain experience, we think that’s fine. But if it’s a 44 year old, we think that’s fucked up.” There’s a social norm involved in his real-world example. But “There are no social norms on the internet.”

With no social norms online, it stands to reason our norms change offline. Unless regulations are put into place. And Levine is calling for a regulation of sorts. The reason why is simple: Because we are already law-abiding citizens. He uses speeding as an example. Speeding is fun. “Driving fast feels good. It’s awesome.” But it’s illegal. So “ curtail it, we give speeding tickets. It doesn’t stop all speeding, but it works…if you look at countries where the traffic laws aren’t enforced, the streets are unsafer.”

In other words, if we don’t enforce a rule of law online, if we let piracy go on unabated, then the issue will only grow. And as we’ve seen in this ongoing series, this is an issue that has an effect on other aspects of culture. Even more so, because of the amount of time we spend online.

If David Lowery and Adam Weber represent the ethical and business owner side of the table, Levine is the journalist with a key eye on the economic side who understands not only that piracy and anarchy aren’t good business models online, but they are having direct results on other media business models. Advertising included.

Regardless of perspective, all three are in agreement that online, there is a huge problem going on. And unless we get serious about it, whether through awareness, or education, or the creation or restructuring of proper laws, the problem will continue to influence our offline thinking, too.

Rob Levine’s speeding ticket analogy is an easy way to get across the need for an uncomplicated regulation system that makes sense in the context of our society. However, the biggest concern facing us might not be the question of who will be the one to hand out the speeding tickets. But rather, how much longer we have before the problem has gained so much speed that it can no longer be contained.

See also Collateral Damage Part one: David Lowery
Collateral Damage part two - Adam Weber
Collateral Damage Part Four: Britta Phillips.
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