In March, following an advertiser revolt over having their commercial messages appearing alongside offensive YouTube videos, Google (YouTube’s parent company) changed its policy of automated ad placement. But Google swung so far in the direction of “brand safety” that it stripped ads from anything that an advertiser could conceivably find controversial—including virtually all news and opinion. Longtime producers suddenly saw their revenue drop to nothing overnight, imperiling the businesses they had built on the basis of hits on YouTube, where millions of viewers congregate daily. One tweak to an algorithm by a massive corporation triggered a wave of existential crises for the purveyors of independent media.
This extreme dominance by a handful of Web-based platforms, and its effect on entertainment and information, is the subject of Jonathan Taplin’s new book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Taplin details how the United States has handed over the delivery system for almost everything written, filmed, or recorded to a clique of libertarians who have hoarded the benefits of our cultural output at the creators’ expense.
Taplin knows his subject well. I’d call the book a “policy memoir”: Starting out as a weekend roadie at the famous 1965 Newport Jazz Festival where Bob Dylan “went electric,” Taplin became a tour manager for the Band and later went on to produce films for Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, and Gus Van Sant. In 1996, he co-founded Intertainer, an early streaming video-on-demand company. From his father, an antitrust lawyer, he gained real insight into the shattering cultural impact of online disruptors.
Though there have been exploited artists throughout US history—particularly among the poor and African Americans—Taplin insists that the music and movie businesses in the 1960s and ’70s were exceptions in that they focused on nurturing talent and sharing the wealth. Through performance royalties and record-label investments in career development, “middle-class musicians” like the Band could make a living even without monster hits. But the emergence of digital monopolies in subsequent decades changed everything, and artists without songwriting credits failed to secure their place in the new distribution model.
Levon Helm, the Band’s legendary drummer, spent the end of his life holding concerts at his upstate New York barn to pay the medical bills arising from the throat cancer that killed him in 2012. Meanwhile, Spotify pays musicians like Helm just $0.0048 each time someone streams a song from their back catalog. Bands made more money in 2015 from vinyl than from streaming.
So how did artists get left in the dust? Taplin covers the origins of the Internet (once thought of as a countercultural platform for personal creativity) and its takeover by the fast-movers and thing-breakers of his book’s title. Platform giants capitalized on the teachings of the conservative jurist Robert Bork, who radically altered the way that courts looked at antitrust policy. As long as prices for consumers stayed low, Bork argued, government should not intervene to promote competition. Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook, took this to mean that tech companies should seek to defy regulations and centralize control, thus solidifying their grip on our primary communications medium. Their motto: “Who will stop me?”