Music and copyright

I haven’t been able to work out a good venue for this, but it’s been percolating for a while and I need to write something, so here goes.  Let’s talk copyright.


Let me start by saying that, while I lean more toward the “free culture” end of things, there are a lot of problems that people on the techy side of that argument are ignoring when they go into “information wants to be free” mode.  It is true that there is very little marginal cost to producing a copy of a recording these days, and it is true that labels in the “bad old days” were often shitty to artists.  And while it’s true that some small number of artists out there are also rich jerks, those artists are a rounding error on an industry that’s mostly full of struggling folks who aren’t making a living.  Even if you’re on the right side of history when you talk about free distribution and the death of copyright, you are usually gloating and it’s unseemly.  Artists ought to make money from their labors.


We have a sad tendency to dismiss creative endeavors in this society.  There’s an odd sense that if someone wants to do something, if it’s a calling, it doesn’t count as work.  But I don’t see a lot of people suggesting that nurses, or engineers, or programmers, or policemen ought to work for free and be grateful if someone drops a dollar on them.  A lot of people want to be nurses, too.


Another bizarre argument I’ve seen bandied about is the idea that there’s an “infinite upside” to writing a song—do the work once, then profit forever.  That works, perhaps, if you write Louie Louie, or Mr. Boombastic.  But that’s essentially like winning the lottery.  Those are outliers and can also be ignored for any reasonable discussion.  The vast majority of recordings are a labor that won’t really ever pay for itself, and that’s only more true every day.


Also, there are a lot of people who essentially made a bargain with the world that the world is reneging on. Newer artists, sure, know what they’re stepping into, but people who began recording five, ten, twenty years ago built a career on a set of entirely reasonable assumptions that have been suddenly rendered unreasonable.  And it was mostly a kind of shitty career to begin with—see earlier re: undervaluing creative endeavors.  Much like a construction worker in the current climate, or an automotive worker twenty years ago, their life model doesn’t work anymore and it’s not a simple thing to pivot that.  Not only that, but recording music was much more labor intensive and expensive before, so older recordings required a great deal more investment that is now not ever going to be recouped.


There is a great deal to be optimistic about here, but there are real people who are losing out and we owe them both sympathy and help.


I had a whole bit in the middle here about David Lowery’s piece at the Trichordist, but I don’t think I need it so I’m excising it.  No one wants to rehash that, anyway.  If you want me to go over each of his assertions for you, let me know and I’ll do it privately.


There’s a lot to be optimistic about, there are a lot of winners in the new paradigm here, and things are looking good for a lot of people.  Worldwide music industry revenues are actually climbing—the numbers that you keep hearing about falling sales only count recorded music (  People are spending phenomenal amounts more on live music worldwide as recorded music gets cheaper.  Folks don’t pump less money into the music industry, they just consume more, and the more they’re consuming are the less labor-intensive recordings.

And there really are big winners out there who prove that you can still become big, if “bigness” is your measure of success.  Everyone brings up Jonathan Coulton, and then  everyone else dismisses him because he’s a niche nerd act, and that’s fair.  I don’t want a world in which only the Jonathan Coultons can make money playing music.  Have you heard of Justin Bieber, though?  He was discovered after he released his recordings free on Youtube.  There are people out there doing it, and there are more of them every day.


It’s not impossible now, but it may be harder.  And if so it’s on those of us with the know-how to make it easier.  If live music is the way to make money these days, we need to be using our tech tools to connect small artists with small venues at least as much as we’re using them to download music.  If recorded music has to become a loss leader, and it probably does, we need to find ways to minimize those losses.  And if we download music and we like the artist, we need to buy some merchandise or kick in some funds, or we’re not right with the world.


Labels, at the core, are not a bad thing.  They aggregate risk for artists, but because they can’t predict who is going to be a winner, they need to be able to recoup their costs from the ones that do win.  Labels will probably have to move toward a role more like a venture capital firm, funding bands as if they were startups in return for some cut of total revenue, especially if playing live becomes the way to make money.  The music industry could also do with some “angel investors”, individuals who find bands they like and give them smaller startup loans, again against future revenues.  And we need to drive costs further down; not just costs of recording, but costs of promotion and distribution.  We need better ways to “discover” new music from artists that aren’t established yet.


It is simple economical law that the marginal cost of a copy of a song is going to approach zero.  There will be no revenue here, eventually.  But professional musicians predate recorded music by thousands of years, and professional music will survive the internet.  What gets lost too often in the shuffle are the current musicians (and authors, etc.) who put their career plans together in the brief 70-year window when the way to make money was to put a lot of personal time in up front recording music and then try to sell that.  Maybe those people need to find another way to make their living, but those of us who are benefitting from their discomfort owe it to them to make it easier.