Fast Company

The Band's Ex-Tour Manager Blasts Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian, Kim Dotcom, The Kickstarter "Begging Bowl"

Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian debated USC professor Jonathan Taplin, director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and former tour manager of The Band at our recent Innovation Uncensored event. Afterward, Ohanian continued the debate with an open letter to Taplin. The next day, The Band's drummer Levon Helm died--and inspired this rebuttal from Taplin.

Editor's Note: Last Wednesday, Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian debated USC professor Jonathan Taplin, director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and former tour manager of The Band. The topic: antipiracy, SOPA, and the current state of the entertainment industry. The debate, which you can watch here or in the videos below, became particularly heated over the idea of "free" music--a model that Taplin argues drove The Band's Levon Helm into financial ruin.

Jonathan Taplin with The Band
Jonathan Taplin, right, with The Band in 1969.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Taplin

Immediately following the debate, Ohanian published an open letter to Taplin. Taplin's rebuttal is below.

Please note that the debate took place before Thursday's passing of Levon Helm, who became a symbol during the debate for the harsh realities of the music industry in the digital era, especially for aging stars. Helm was the subject of Ohanian's subsequent letter to Taplin, also written before Helm's death.

Dear Alexis,

Last week at our debate, I talked about the essential unfairness that my friend and colleague Levon Helm had to continue to tour at the age of 70 with throat cancer in order to pay his medical bills. On Thursday, Levon died and I am filled with unbelievable sadness. I am sad not just for Levon's wife and daughter, but sad that you could be so condescending to offer "to make right what the music industry did to the members of The Band." It wasn't the music industry that created Levon's plight; it was people like you celebrating Pirate Bay and Kim Dotcom--bloodsuckers who made millions off the hard work of musicians and filmmakers.

You were so proud during the debate to raise your hand as one of those who had downloaded "free music and free movies." But it's just your selfish decision that those tunes were free. It wasn't Levon's decision. In fact, for many years after The Band stopped recording, Levon made a good living off of the record royalties of The Band's catalog. But no more.

So what is your solution---charity. You want to give every great artist a virtual begging bowl with Kickstarter. But Levon never wanted the charity of the Reddit community or the Kickstarter community. He just wanted to earn an honest living off the great work of a lifetime.

You are so clueless as to offer to get The Band back together for a charity concert, unaware that three of the five members are dead. Take your charity and shove it. Just let us get paid for our work and stop deciding that you can unilaterally make it free.

Prof. Jonathan Taplin
Author of Outlaw Blues: Adventures in the Counter-Culture Wars
Director, Annenberg Innovation Lab
University of Southern California

[Image: Flickr user DVIDSHUB]

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6 Comments

  • Ptak

    Ohanian knows that he's far off the mark,
    but he doesn't even know how to debate the substance of the issue, which is why
    he tries to be the kid next door and distract with silly humor and non-related
    facts in an effort to make Taplin look like establishment old school standing
    in the way of progress. It's amazing how civil Taplin manages to be in his
    response. Recorded entertainment, whether film, TV or music, is by far this
    country's largest export and a shining example of its creative ingenuity. It's
    not even close and this trendy freedom train argument is threatening to
    undermine it. Unlike other products, initial IP product can be reproduced in
    other media and have downstream value for years. The Kickstarter argument of
    raising money isn't the point. Ohanian suggests that the revenues derived from
    those creative and financial labors be free to everyone over the internet and
    that revenues can be created by having an advertiser wrap it up in a brand
    name. Tell the builder of an apartment building that revenues will be limited
    to the branded billboard in front of the building announcing the free rooms
    inside. Tell the Elvis Presley Estate that likeness protection will be the next
    to go, as Elvis should belong to everyone! That actually sounds like a Communist
    argument for state ownership. Patent and Trademark rights will collapse as
    well. The property argument is very clear. The use of Property is a contracted
    right with a 250 year history, whether it involves intellectual property or
    real estate. To use it for a financial gain without the contracted right to do
    so is theft. The guy that drives the car up to the bank so his passenger
    partner can go in and steal the money is an accomplice. The so-called
    "pipes" that provide a similar means of transportation are
    accomplices in the theft as well and to argue their right to do so is nonsense.

  • Fentex


    Why did the Band suddenly stop getting royalty payments 8 years ago?

    Jon Taplins contention is that royalties for The Band, and many others, have dried up because authorised purchases of their music have dried up in favour of wide spread unauthorised copying.

    Personally I wonder why, when people complain that sites like Megaupload are making money off premium download accounts and advertising that the authorised agents of artists (those represented by the RIAA and MPAA for example) aren't providing this money making service? Anger at people making profit by usurping the income morally due to artists seems best sated to me by artist authorised agents providing the service the fans are seeking. 

    Gauranteed high quality, authentic, media from the original producers would seem an easy thing to sell in competition to rip off and scam artists unsertain product.

  • Matthew

    I'm fairly certain that Medicare would have handled Mr. Helm's health care costs ... I think Mr. Taplin, with all due respect, is engaging in a little hyperbole in order to get his point across. I love(d) Levon Helm, but I think intellectual honesty requires the acknowledgement that he was, relatively speaking, a wildly successful musician. He won the Grammy for Best Americana album LAST YEAR. To suggest that he didn't have any money solely because of Kim Dotcom is just absurd. (Ask our friend Google about 'Levon Helm Studios' - Beautiful facility, and certainly wasn't cheap to put together. Disclaimer: I'm operating from the assumption that, since his name is on the sign, he owned it. I acknowledge the possibility that his name was merely on the sign.)

    Moving on ... The music industry has changed. It is a fact. Artists can embrace those changes and leverage the opportunities they create, or they can complain about how much money they aren't making.  In the final analysis, anybody who makes a living by making music is blessed. If they honestly think they deserve to be filthy rich, then they are nothing more than greedy. If I could replace my salary by playing music, I'd be in HEAVEN.

  • Rod Edwards

    Taplin's rhetoric is more or less incomprehensible.

    Is anyone suggesting that Aretha Franklin needs to be touring? Ha ha, good laugh though.

    Why did the Band suddenly stop getting royalty payments 8 years ago?

    If the members of the band were making a "decent" living ("150 - 200k") off of royalties for many years, what happened to that money?

    What do Chinese DVDs have to do with anything?

    Taplin comes across as one the industry stakeholders that fears change because they're invested in the system as it currently exists. 

  • Lonny Kapelushnik

    I think we are mixing problems here. The broken health care system and enormous costs of health care have nothing to do with the changes in the entertainment industry.

    You are upset that Levon Helm had to work at age 70 to pay his medical bills. I am too. There are thousands of other people in the same situation as Levon who are not from the entertainment industry. I am upset about them as well.

    The problem is _not_ the changes in the industry, but the costs of health care.

  • atimoshenko

    Wait, so recent technological developments make it harder for musicians to make money from past, rather than current work? Oh, the inhumanity of it! Look at history – the entertainment business in the 1950s-1980s was an aberration, not a trend.