When Musicians Hated Hollywood

To Sousa, the player piano was a menace; to Valenti, the VCR was the Boston Strangler. The entertainment industry’s fear and loathing of new technology are well known and well documented. Steve Blank’s article “Why the Movie Industry Can’t Innovate” gives us a decade-by-decade overview of end-of-the-world predictions. Not only did the entertainment world survive each cataclysm, but in every case the result was a major expansion of business and profit. In Cory Doctorow’s oft-quoted words, every few years technologists must drag the entertainment industry, kicking and screaming, to the money tree and shake it for them.

The “Attack of the Killer Technology” series thus goes back a long way, with no end of sequels in sight. Every now and then, though, the roles get jumbled. In an article called “Musicians Wage War Against Evil Robots“, the Smithsonian provides a fascinating example. In this case, the year is 1930, and the purveyor of technology — of the “evil robots” — is none other than Hollywood. The new invention was the talking picture, starting with “The Jazz Singer” in 1927. The musicians who played instruments to accompany silent pictures in movie theaters could see their jobs disappearing and formed the Music Defense League to combat the scourge of “robotic music”. The League initiated a nationwide $500,000 advertising campaign, and The Smithsonian includes wonderful reproductions of some of those ads. Under slogans like “Trampling Art for Profits” and “Making Musical Mince Meat”, the text sounds remarkably like what we’re hearing today from the MPAA and RIAA about the Internet and about the anti-SOPA movement:

We are not against scientific development of any kind, but it must not come at the expense of art. We are not opposing industrial progress. We are not even opposing mechanical music except where it is used as a profiteering instrument for artistic debasement. For all its virtues, modern industrialism can run amuck under the spur of greed and profits.

Hollywood seems to be OK with technology that disrupts jobs, art, and creativity as long as it’s someone else’s jobs, art, and creativity. More important, after all this time, neither the music nor movie industry understands that accommodating and adapting to disruptive technology actually increases business and artistic opportunities, and that fighting the future simply delays these benefits.

Look, over there: See the tree?


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