On the other side of the block, an ice cream truck is parked with its music playing. An incessant medley of every kind of tune you can think of, from “London Bridge” to “Deck the Halls” to “Unchained Melody” to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” all textural, historical, and sentimental differences ironed out by the electronic device that’s piping it out. It’s an apt soundtrack to the New Yorker piece about insider trading I’m reading.
The way Steven Cohen and his cronies at S.A.C. Capital shuffle stocks around–not even like money or even anything tangible–strikes me as strange in a way I can’t pin down. Isn’t it funny that there are professions where people become fantastically wealthy simply by virtue of what they shuffle around all day? Chefs manipulate food, potters manipulate clay, writers manipulate words, and hedge fund managers manipulate financial instruments. Money buys things, buys time, and creates opportunities, and it seems a matter of chance that it’s the stuff some people work with in the job that makes them money. Clay just makes pots, words just make books, and both of these things can earn money, which then creates time and opportunities. But when you make money from money, the time and opportunities are exponentially greater. And that’s strange, even arbitrary.
Ice cream truck music also relates music posted on YouTube. I go to listen to something on YT–generally so I can send it to someone, “you’ll dig this” kinda thing–and usually the song will be preceded by an ad. So user “Nucky_4434″ posts a Korn song (as a reeeeally for-example example). It quickly gets about 5,000 “views.” YouTube a/k/a Google sends Nucky_4434 an email (I know because I got a similar one) and says, hey don’t you want to earn some money from this by agreeing to let an ad sho before the video plays? Nucky_4434 says sure why not, and before you know it the video has 1,254,309 hits. The only glitch in this is that as many as 1,254,309 people have, instead of paying Korn for the song, listened to it for free on YouTube. And the only entities that have profited from that are Google, Nucky_4434, and the 1,254,309 users’ smart phone carriers, who have charged them for the data used to stream the song.
Stay with me here. This is a well-documented characteristic of the Internet: that, at the same time that it brings people into closer or direct contact with artists, it also interposes more middlemen. When pre-Internet bands were signed to big record labels, the bands were the last to get paid and were paid the least of all involved in music creation, promotion and distribution. Now it’s no different, simply that along with managers, bookers, club owners, bouncers, merch people, producers, etc. etc. there’s Google, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Apple, Spotify, and good old Nucky_4434.
What does this have to do with Steven Cohen? Money and music have both become data. For that you can thank Claude Shannon, the most influential person of the 20th century, although he is probably weeping in his heavenly cocktail and has been for some time. Claude Shannon worked in Bell Laboratories, which was the R&D department of what was then Bell Telephone, now AT&T. In order to figure out a way to make long distance calls higher-quality, he developed ones and zeros: turning people’s voices into data made transmission cheaper, faster, and reduced distortion, making calls clearer. The unintended byproduct of this is that, 75 years later or so, all music, writing, images, etc. are content and content is data.
We treat everything as data and reward those who distribute it, charge for access to it, stream it, promote it, finance it–and occasionally those who produce it (just enough, however, to create the smidgen of hope that is necessary to keep them producing). Look at any industry and you’ll find that the higher the job title, the more abstract the work, and the more abstract the function someone actually performs, the more they’re compensated for it. This isn’t to minimize the skill required by positions of great responsibility–but is this skill of more value than the unique skill set of someone who produces content? Is forecasting or budgeting or managing for example really 100 or 1,000 times more difficult and therefore rewardable than writing a song?
True, Steven Cohen makes money for a lot more people than just himself when his bets pay off. But a band also makes money for a lot more people than is obvious. The difference being where you are in the queue when they make the payouts.