Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin review – the damage done by Silicon Valley

Taplin’s starting point is the music of Levon Helm and the Band, but the fight against the spoiled brats of Google, Amazon and Facebook is much bigger

In 2012, Jonathan Taplin took part in a public debate with Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit, about what the digital economy was doing to the creative arts. Taplin, who had once been manager of the Band, and was the producer of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent film of their farewell concert The Last Waltz, had a particular grievance about the fate of his friend Levon Helm, the Band’s drummer. Helm was suffering from cancer, but had been forced back on the road at the age of 70 to help pay his medical bills because the new culture of “free music and movies” had destroyed his income as a recording artist. Ohanian, clearly a little chastened by this tale, wrote to Taplin offering to help “make right what the music industry did to members of the Band”. He suggested a reunion concert or album, funded by kickstarter, and launched on Reddit.

Taplin’s reply, which he reprints here in all its eviscerating glory, points out that this plan won’t work because in the meantime Helm has died. Moreover, he tells Ohanian, “It wasn’t the music industry that created Levon’s plight; it was people like you.” He concludes: “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.” Ohanian, unsurprisingly, did not respond.

This exchange sums up the argument of Taplin’s new book: the titans of the digital age frequently behave like spoiled and ignorant brats with far, far more money than sense; and their victims include many of the artists who create things of real value and who can no longer earn a living from doing so. Taplin’s sense of outrage is palpable and his case is often compelling. Unfortunately, the two parts of the argument don’t really hang together. The first claim is hard to dispute – Silicon Valley does increasingly resemble some kind of nightmarish children’s playground, populated by overgrown babies with no idea of the consequences of their actions – but the evidence he marshals is mainly second hand, drawn from newspaper commentary and some well-known histories of the digital revolution. As a result, it feels a little overfamiliar. The more personal and original sections of the book concern his own experiences in the music and film industries. He harks back to the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s, when people like him and his friends could make their music and movies on their own terms and still get paid for it. The trouble is, this sounds a lot like special pleading. He would say that, wouldn’t he?

The Band were unquestionably important artists and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is a great song, if not quite the transcendent masterpiece Taplin takes for granted here. So, yes, they deserved their original success, and it’s painful to see people like that scrabbling around for scraps in the age of streamed content. But before the digital revolution turned them into victims, the Band were the fortunate beneficiaries of an earlier age of cultural production, as will be true of any group of artists who make it. The music industry of that time – dominated by earnest and slightly pretentious white men, some of whom (like the superstar reviewers at Rolling Stone) had an effective monopoly on their audiences – suited what they had to offer. It also suited Taplin, a Princeton-educated lawyer who happened to find himself in the right place at the right time. He clearly had a hell of a ride. But it’s hard to feel all that sorry for lucky people when their luck runs out.

He leans too heavily on the assumption that the 1960s and 70s represented an artistic golden age whose like we will never see again. Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde aren’t quite enough to build a case like that. Any era will value its own products, and that will be especially true of the people who helped make them. Imagine a period 30 or 40 years from now when podcasting has been destroyed by some new economic model (though it will probably happen far sooner than that). It’s easy to picture the makers of Serial and S-Town pointing out that something of great value has been lost. They will be right, though it’s hard to see many people caring. Of course, Serial and S-Town have their critics, but so does the music Taplin loves: I know people who would rather eat stinging nettles than sit through the whole of The Last Waltz.

Taplin couches his argument in terms of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, which sees vastly outsized rewards going to a few dominant players at the top of the market, and the rest distributed in tiny amounts to the millions of self-starters who can now find whatever audience is out there via YouTube and online retailers. The people who get crushed are those in the middle. Weirdly, though, Taplin identifies the Band not merely as part of the squeezed middle but as “middle-class musicians”. This is ironic because one of Helms’s problems was that he was too busy leading a life of hedonistic excess to have time to write the songs. The only member of the group who conformed to the bourgeois value of hard work was Robbie Robertson, whom Taplin describes as getting up to put in a songwriting shift each morning while his bandmates were sleeping off their hangovers. As a result, Robertson was still making money from royalties – even in the age of Spotify – while the rest of the Band lost out.

The real story is not what’s happening in the transfers between the people in the middle and at the bottom of the scale, but what’s happening at the top. This is now a winner-takes-all market, and it extends far beyond the culture industries. Indeed, making the case on behalf of creative artists versus the brainless YouTube monopolists – The Big Short and Spotlight versus PewDiePie – looks like a sideshow. This isn’t about art; it’s about money and power. The real players here are the people who own the platforms and the networks on which not merely creative production but most of human communication and commerce now takes place. Taplin recognises this and devotes a lot of time to exploring the business models through which Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos et al have managed to gobble up the world. In the face of that kind of influence and reach, firing back with tales of rock stars in their glory days is a bit like taking a peashooter into battle with a hurricane.

Taplin suggests that the BBC might serve as a model for US policy-makers looking for a political and cultural institution that can fight back against the new digital behemoths. This seems pretty optimistic given the kind of political pressures the BBC finds itself up against, never mind the commercial ones. Taplin also notes in passing that the EU remains one of the very few international organisations with both the appetite and the clout to take on Google and Facebook at their own game. He even goes so far as to say that the watchword for how power should be organised in the 21st century is “subsidiarity”. How sad then that the BBC will soon no longer be able to count on even that level of protection.

In the end, Taplin is reduced to hoping that the dominant players of the digital world will come to their senses and realise the damage they are doing. Of Zuckerberg, he writes: “I hope that the young CEO of Facebook will be willing to pause and think about where his company is taking the media business.” So that’s what we’ve been reduced to: wishing for a “good emperor” to hear his people’s distress. It’s a sign of how slavish the world built by Silicon Valley has become. Taplin’s own experience with Ohanian should show us just how dangerous it is to be dependent on the goodwill of spoiled brats.

• Move Fast and Break Things is published by Macmillan. To order a copy for £14.24 (RRP £18.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


David Runciman

The GuardianTramp

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