Protecting the music industry from those pesky consumers

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Freddie
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    Any culture that truly appreciates music, or the arts in general, must preserve the role of the professional artist. Sgt Pepper couldn’t have been recorded by dedicated amateurs; Lawrence of Arabia couldn’t have been made by dedicated amateur’s; Half Life 2 couldn’t have been made by dedicated amateurs.

    What’s more, we should want to be a culture that has professionals creating culture. Why is the consumer inviolate? Why has the ability and right to consume become this holy mission, elevated above and beyond our creative and artistic capacity? I want to live in a culture that values artists, culture, and all of the things in life that can’t be reduced to gross materialism or the reductive mathematics of exchange.

    I suspect that the consequences of the death of the professional artist will be vastly more profound than you know. Right now, it’s likely there is music that you could have listened to and loved that doesn’t exist, because the person who would have made it couldn’t, because he was busy having everything inviolate and transcendent about his self bleached out by wage slavery. That’s a great loss, but one you’ll never measure.

    It’s true that alarmism comes and goes. It’s also true that presentist triumphalism endures, that the enforcement of optimism endures, that the bulldozing of cultural value in the name of progress endures.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Freddie
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      says:

      @Freddie,
      Surely Freddie you aren’t a passionate defender of the corporate oligopolies that dominated the field in the 80’s and 90’s? There’s a very wide gap between seeing the end of their lucrative domination and seeing the end of the professional artist. Yes some of the old models are dying (to my considerable woe PC games seem one of them) but new ones are developing. Game wise we’re seeing a shift towards dedicated gaming consoles who’s games are very difficult to pirate. Music wise it’s beginning to look like the truly highly successful music stars of the future will be middle class rather than fabulously wealthy, an egalitarian like you would celebrate such leveling I’d assume. Movies are more touchy, I haven’t a clue where they’re going but some kind of compromise between the producers and consumers is going to be reached.Report

      • Avatar Will in reply to North
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        @North, I don’t think you have to defend “corporate oligopolies” to recognize the current state of affairs isn’t very satisfactory, either. The new distribution model may be OK for pop starlets, but I’ve read that we’re literally not creating classical music anymore. However ill-defined, art is possessed of some intrinsic quality that isn’t captured by what consumers are willing to spend. And I really don’t think we should use market viability as a proxy for determining music’s artistic or cultural value.

        For what it’s worth, Sweden and Canada have actually been pretty successful at cultural protectionism:

        http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7776-whats-the-matter-with-sweden/Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Will
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          @Will,
          Classical music? Last I checked we were pouring out reams of it to accompany movies, television and game soundtracks as well as for its more pure enjoyment. I never thought much of the protectionism of Canada and Sweden but it bears remembering that what those countries are protecting; they’re protecting it from American culture. That said I suppose one could make the case for more direct government support of the arts; heck we do it already with the NEA.

          But what does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China? It all seems beside the fact. What we’re talking about here is how distribution systems and marketing systems have changed and how they’re affecting artists and media companies. Can we lie the coarsening of our culture at the feet of the distributive power of the internet and progeny? I’m skeptical.Report

        • Avatar Peter in reply to Will
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          says:

          @Will,
          I have to agree with North in that I don’t think it’s correct to say there is “literally” no classical music being created. I know a classical guitarist who makes almost all his money from performances (which range from concert halls to corporate retreats). According to him the revenue from something like CDBaby can’t even buy groceries. He just puts his stuff up there for the odd person who wants to buy it. This may be particular to him, but he managed to carve out a middle class life by playing live music.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to North
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        @North, I think one of the less discussed aspects of all of this that you touch on is that all of the different entertainment media will be affected in different ways because they have such different models. Movies require such high initial investment that widescale piracy or inability to make a profit could be devastating to the release of new, quality material. A poorly (though perhaps very earnestly) made movie on the cheap compared to a big studio film is not comparable to a home recording compared to a big studio album at all.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Trumwill
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          @Trumwill,
          Yeah Trumwill, the subject of movies is probably a post all to itself. With movies I can actually imagine some kind of implosion occurring where they literally stop making expensive movies. Unlike, say video games, I don’t see any impediment to pirating movies short of bandwidth limitations that we are rapidly approaching/passing. Will the movie industry figure out a new way to do the revenue streams? I don’t know.Report

          • Avatar Trumwill in reply to North
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            @North, I go back and forth on this. There would certainly be a lot less of them and the studios would be more conservative about making them, but I am inclined to think that relatively low-risk ventures like James Bond or Batman will continue to be made because as good as home entertainments have gotten, some movies are made to be seen in a theater and people will do so (particularly in the age of IMAX and 3D). But the criteria for what gets greenlit would be much more stringent.

            I would also expect that we would see a lot fewer movies in between really expensive and really cheap. Low-budget movies would become much more attractive to studios and there would be a niche for a limited number of high-budget extravaganzas, but there will be no place for romantic comedies taking place in scenic Hawaii or in New York City with a climax at a mock-up of the Empire State Building or even well-done sports films or things like that.

            I am, of course, purely speculating here. It’s worrying, though.Report

          • Avatar Rufus in reply to North
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            @North, I have a relative in the film industry- he’s a cinematographer on some pretty big movies- and what he says is happening now and will happen in the future is a division of movies into “tent-pole” films- the big budget “event” movies that generate a lot of revenue- and micro-budget films that can still turn a profit. But, he says the mid-range stuff is going to die out because the studios see it as too much of a risk. And it sort of makes sense- you know that a lot of people will come out to see Avatar 2 or whatever, and with the micro-budget movies in which Philip Seymour Hoffmann plays an alcoholic will still do well on DVD and win some Oscars. But, there’s no longer a guaranteed audience for something like The Godfather or Serpico.Report

            • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Rufus
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              @Rufus, hey! It seems I might have gotten something right! Sweet!Report

            • Avatar North in reply to Rufus
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              @Rufus,
              That sounds much like Trumwill’s very pertinent musings Rufus and also sounds perfectly plausible to me. Does it make me insensitive to say that this prospect doesn’t bother me? I’m okay with less of those midrange movies. If they vanished from the big screen I’d think that they’d migrate to television alternatively.Report

              • Avatar Trumwill in reply to North
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                @North, that’s a really good point about migrating to television. I have to confess that the more I think about it the less I am bothered. I favor television shows anyway due to the existence of more time to develop plot and characters. Maybe in a best case scenario we might see more plots that would have been movies developed into Brit-format 6-episode series.

                One other thing is that we might start seeing some of the midrange actiony stuff (the Iron Mans and the like) shifted to animation as it becomes cheaper to produce. Right now such features go straight-t0-video (which in the future we’re imagining is a dead end) but it’s not hard to see them getting more attention as a cheap alternative to CG and other more expensive special effects.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to North
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                @Trumwill , Anything that involves more animation has my full backing. I’m a hopeless geek for animated stuff.Report

              • Avatar Rufus in reply to North
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                @North, Yeah, it’s certainly possible. I don’t know of any examples of it happening, but I could see a director taking their project to HBO, where there are already subscribers.

                The only downside would be for those people who like to see movies in the theatres that aren’t aimed at 15-year old boys. But it’s already pretty slim pickings if it isn’t that one month of the year that they play the Oscar movies.Report

              • Avatar Trumwill in reply to North
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                I hear you on that, Rufus. I live in a small town with a two-drop theater and they almost never have anything that isn’t family-oriented. Even the nearest “city” (pop 30k, an hour away) only has a 6-drop and seems to be almost exclusively dedicated to family fare and teenage movies.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Trumwill
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          @Trumwill, I think you’re right to divide the question.

          Playing music is as perfect a case of non-alienated labor as the real world offers. I don’t imagine that we’ll ever run out of high-quality music for lack of copyright. People do it for free and even suffer gladly for it.

          Making films, on the other hand, is a different creature entirely. Here I am a lot less certain of what should be done.Report

          • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            @Jason Kuznicki,
            In my mind movies have to do two things that can really help them. First if they can create good theatre experiences at a price people are willing to pay they have a niche. Look at avatar without so much a compelling or original story they were able to make massive amount of money through execellent visuals. Avatar was definately a film to see in theatre, or not at all.

            Second, streaming via netflix, or buying via itunes will dramtically lower the costs of providing home watchable films to the consumer without the feelings of shame and degradation that come with paying the cable company more money for the same film via pay-per-view.Report

            • Avatar Trumwill in reply to ThatPirateGuy
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              @ThatPirateGuy, your comment reminds me of something: it seems that of all of the industries in trouble right now, it’s television that is presently most ahead of the curve. They’re already working on new revenue streams with Hulu and the like and they’ve got Netflix. I think that it required less of a frame-of-mind shift since they are used to giving stuff away with the intent to make profits elsewhere. I think with movies and music, there is a mental block on the notion of what their product should cost and how they should be making their profits. They still have much further to go, but they’re moving there before they absolutely have to.

              I am of the mind that if the music industry had embraced an iTunes-like setup (and Rhapsody, and so on) before piracy really took off, they would be in a lot better place. Once people got used to the idea that they could have easy and free access to their material, iTunes looked like a lot less desirable a deal than it would have when they thought their main inexpensive option was buying a CD used.

              The industry to look out for right now is the publishing industry. They have more in common with music than does movies. While they’re opening up somewhat with ebooks, I think that they’re doing so in a direction that will put them at real risk once people feel comfortable reading illegitimate PDFs on their various devices.Report

          • Avatar Josh in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            @Jason Kuznicki: That is a nice romantic notion, but I suspect the number of people who do it for free, who do it well for free, who do it well for free and can make the time to improve, and who do it well for free and can make the time to improve and promote themselves above the noise is fairly low. We’re still in a period where a lot of old-school tastemakers are helping guide us to sounds produced by the new model, and where a lot of new musicians are getting help and guidance and training from old-school folks.

            And a lot of our strongest artists do suffer for it—when they’re young. As they get older, and often produce some of their best work, they tend to want a more comfortable standard of living, like most of us.Report

            • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Josh
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              @Josh, on the whole I am a romantic like Jason. I believe pretty firmly that the number of people that will make enough money to get by on their passion and on regional music shows and whatnot will put out enough material to keep consumers fat and happy. There is at present a ridiculous excess of musical talent out there and most people aren’t really that attune to actual quality.

              You bring up a really good point, though, about improvement. I know a lot of the regional artists where I’m from spent their twenties and early thirties touring and then hit a wall where they had to move on to something a little more financially sound. They contribute a fair amount to the total volume of music available, though something does get lost if we have a lot of artists but few mature ones.Report

  2. Avatar greginak
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    says:

    I’m not saying anything should be done or that there is even something that could be done to affect any of this. But a key part of the artist dynamic is that the big companies make mega bucks while most artists make somewhere between didly and squat. If the system wasn’t so tilted toward one side this wouldn’t be a problem at all. There is plenty of money to pay artists.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to greginak
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      @greginak, Well yes, and it seems to me that what we’re seeing is the whole system tilting in a way that tends to empower the art creators and the art consumers to the detriment of those middle men entities.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to greginak
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      @greginak, as others have pointed out, though, one of the reasons that the labels keep a lot of the profits from the successful artists is that they have a lot of unsuccessful ones that they have to subsidize. For every breakout, there are 20 that fail to catch on. All 21 artists benefit in some form or another, either by getting their name out there or being given a chance to on a company that lost money doing so.Report

    • Avatar Josh in reply to greginak
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      @greginak: As Trumwill says, it’s not necessarily so much that the system is slanted toward one side—it’s that most artists don’t make a lot of money. Some of them make enough money, but many—in music, in books, in film, in TV, and I would venture in every medium—are subsidized by the success of a handful of others, at least until they get off the ground.

      It’s interesting: On one hand, there’s this mind-set that we don’t need labels because artists shouldn’t expect to earn a living. At the same time, there’s this argument that the problem with labels was that so many artists couldn’t earn a living! I would suggest that some artists are always not going to earn a living, but that the nice thing about labels is that some could.Report

  3. Avatar RTod
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    says:

    I appreciate Freddie’s point above, but it makes me wonder how old he is. To echo what Ed is saying, if I look at the 6 CDs in my car stereo right now, (all purchased, by the way), I find the following artists: Pink Martini, Guster, The Heavy, Quartetto Gelato, Vampire Weekend and Bebel Gilberto. Question my taste if you like, but these artists have two things in common:

    1. They are all very successful by just about any standard. They have large album sales, dedicated fans, critical acclaim and even some degree on influence to younger artists.

    2. None of these artists would have had any of those things back in the early 1980s.

    I have noticed that people in their teens, twenties and thirties – who have grown up in a world of musical diversity – are under the mistaken belief that it has always been thus. But it hasn’t, and the advent of digital music and all of its trappings (direct access from artist to fan, ability to make music cheaply, and yes, even piracy) is what changed that.

    When I was growing up, you could not be successful as a musical artist without getting radio play, and you couldn’t get radio play without support from a major record label. And if you wanted the support of a major label, you needed to be able to fulfill one of two criteria (but it was best to have both in your pocket): you needed to look like a male model, (that’s right, a MALE model – the concept of female artists was not considered profitable enough in most instances), or you needed to sound exactly like Journey – or Aerosmith, one of the 20 or so already established bands.

    Bottom line is this – more money is spent now on music than ever before. But there are big losers, and the record companies are the most obvious ones. Overblown artists are the other. And while Freddie makes a good point about Sgt Pepper, he neglects to note that for every Sgt Pepper or Born to Run, you had to fuel thousands or Air Supply and Loverboys.Report

  4. Avatar Josh
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    Yeah, “doing something about it” is not really the answer, simply because there’s not a lot to do unless you work in the music industry (outside of, you know, thinking about this stuff and not pirating music). Music isn’t going to die, and these things have a way of organically working themselves out. I said in the comments on William’s post that I think a smaller-label model might supplant the major-label model, and pretty much all the artists RTod mentions above are indeed affiliated with independent labels.

    That said, I’m skeptical about the mind-set that says, “So what? Things are changing! It happened to buggy-whip makers, and now it’s happening to _______.” The thing is, the old models did give us some really good things. It’s easy to grouse about the labels’ greed (though sort of amazing to me that that gripe commands so much of so many people’s attention; good God, of all the corporate sins committed in the last 50 years, that one is worth arguing about for hours?), but I’ll be awfully surprised if the new model yields many productions like Sgt. Pepper’s or Quincy Jones’s work with Michael Jackson. More to the point, it was the major labels’ success in the ’90s that helped spawn the great variety of music we have today. If they hadn’t been pulling in so much cash from selling CDs, we’d never have seen so many artists like Björk, PJ Harvey, the Wu-Tang Clan, and the Flaming Lips blow up. For all its sins, the major-label model did wind up delivering a huge array of sounds to the mainstream—not at all surprisingly, right before it collapsed.Report

    • Avatar Baroness in reply to Josh
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      @Josh,

      There actually was something powerfully good about the old system: It created stars, it made bands and artists famous worldwide overnight. Think of every 80’s one hit wonder: they might have not made any money, but the mere fact that you were aware of them, or remember them, is a powerful thing that the clever ones used as a springboard to other things.
      As exploitative and unfair to the artists labels were and are financially, they made global stars. And that ineffable element of it is sort of left out of the equations by Internet optimists. I think the means of production and distribution in the hands of artists is a wonderful thing, dramatically cool. But to have a powerful label behind you is -still, alas- what makes true stars, real-world famous and not just internet-famous.

      That said, the industry is deservedly in hell at this point, and I encourage the creativity and access of people nowadays. Just agreeing with the premise that record labels were not always completely evil: you can count the dollars and cents, but having tens of millions of people worldwide know you exist, know what you do is something hard to quantify. Again, the clever ones will run with that. Just musing.Report

  5. Avatar Rufus
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    NOTE: I’m getting a capitalized letter after the first paragraph, which seems, to me, indicative of a possible virus here. So, let’s check into that, please.Report

  6. Avatar Paul B
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    The death of the middle-class musician is a terrible thing, but it should be blamed on the technology of the mid-20th century, not the 21st: Hammond organs, Jukeboxes, DJs, Muzak — hell, even soundies. Once upon a time, if there were people gathered in public enjoying themselves, there was a band involved. Now, those gigs have dried up, and no amount of recording royalties can make up for them.

    Lennie Tristano, for example, barely recorded at all but still managed a comfortable middle-class life in Queens just through steady gigs at various bars and Chinese restaurants (he was also a legendary teacher, but any income from his students would ultimately be coming from the same gigging market). 50 years later, Sharon Jones records for an independent label that by all accounts treats its artists better than the majors — yet she and her mother still live in the projects. That’s a random pair, but I think it’s fairly representative.

    That sucks for workaday musicians, and the situation for geniuses isn’t much better: even if the next Beatles can find a record label to indulge their studio whimsy, they’re not going to have any opportunity to hone their chops with 8-hours-a-night/7-nights-a-week gigs their chops in Hamburg.Report

    • Avatar Paul B in reply to Paul B
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      @Paul B, Incidentally, the major effort to get record labels to pay royalties in the first place–the 1942-1944 recording strike by the musician’s union–hastened the demise of the middle-class musician. Only instrumentalists were striking, so labels started recording a lot of vocal groups, which as it turned out the public really liked! As demand shifted away from big bands towards smaller combos with a featured singer (amplification was a part of this this, too), gigs started drying up.Report

      • Avatar William Brafford in reply to Paul B
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        @Paul B, this is good stuff. I haven’t yet come up with a unified theory of pop music, but if I ever do I’ll have to account for your argument here. I need to read about the recording strike sometime.Report

        • Avatar Paul B in reply to William Brafford
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          @William Brafford, That’s an ambitious “yet” you’ve got there!

          As far as the AFM strike (aka the Petrillo Ban) goes, I’ve never found a real good source on it. I’m a jazz radio guy, and I mostly just know it as an unfortunate hole in everybody’s discography — which happens to cover Duke Ellington’s and maybe Lester Young’s peaks, not to mention the birth of bebop.Report

  7. Avatar Ian M.
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    I’m sure Bastiat would love the Chinese government and their system of liberty which makes their industry work so well and their goods so cheap.Report

  8. Avatar Rufus
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    Isn’t it stacking the deck a bit to pit “consumers” against the “music industry” though? I mean, we’re talking about the problems caused by people generally deciding that music should be free, whether it is or not. Imagine how it might impact a carpenter if enough people decided that wooden furniture should now be free and there were thieves who were happy to accommodate them. Piracy is a huge industry. That cinematographer relative of mine gets anonymous calls offering him big money for digital files of his movies. I guess the pirates make their money back selling $2 DVDs of Twilight 2 or whatever. But I’d imagine that music winds up on the Pirate Bay in much the same way.

    It seems to me that part of the argument here, at least on the part of the public, is that musicians and other artists are doing something that should really be free- that they don’t have any right to make a living by art because it’s not a valid profession. So you replace patronage with public patronage and then with theft. It’s an understandable position since the music industry really has screwed their consumers and artists hard over the years. But it’s hard to agree that society really is right in seeing music as worthless.

    As for the concerts, it’s fine for Bruce Springsteen, but for a band trying to break into the big times, it’s an uphill battle. I have a friend in a band that would seem to be doing okay: they’re on MTV and Conan O’Brien and the radio from time to time. But they don’t make any money from the concerts and tee-shirts because they’re still paying back the label for recording the albums and promoting them. And the albums themselves are being bootlegged online. Eventually, they’ll break up and get real jobs, which I imagine will happen to most bands in the future, if they’re not on the Lady Gaga level. The fact that they used to get a very small cut of the sales of albums that are now stolen by most listeners is cold comfort.Report

  9. Avatar debcha
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    I completely agree that the current situation is fantastic for consumers, and for most artists. As a music fan, I’d prefer to see 100 musicians making $10K a year rather than one artist making $1M a year, because I am likely to find a number of artists I like among the hundred, and that’s unlikely to be true of the one (and also because I think it’s more of a social good, frankly). But I disagree that live shows are the only way for artists to make money – I think that fans will pay for many other things besides concerts.Report

  10. Avatar William Brafford
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    says:

    The one thought I want to add here is very much along the lines of what Josh has been saying. In my opinion, the right response to the problem of the narrow selections and artist-unfriendly business models of the major labels was not piracy. It was to build a better label, like Mac McCaughn and Laura Ballance did in the 90s, and others have done before and after.

    There’s a lot to be said for the idea that rock music will be better once the idea of “making it” is gone. Still, like Freddie said, we’re losing something. There are people who won’t make great art because there’s no way to make a living doing it. Incentives on the margin, right, guys?Report

    • Avatar North in reply to William Brafford
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      @William Brafford, That sounds entirely possible to me William. But the alternative is… what? Internet censorship? Technological devolution? Government regulation? Is there something that can be done about this problem (though I’d call it more an evolution or paradigm shift) that would not also eliminate potential artists at the margins? Let alone cost a fortune, undermine liberty and attract lawyers, crooked politicians and rent seekers like a bloated whale carcass attracts blowflies.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to William Brafford
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      @William Brafford,

      What is gained, though, is not to get for free (piracy) or low cost (eMusic, Rhapsody) what one would otherwise have paid full price for, but rather the ability to sample from insane amounts of music and find a whole bunch of artists whose music enriches your lives that you never, ever would have paid $15 for a CD based on 30-second sound clips and a free song or two.

      As I said in the first comment of your previous post, I do feel bad for the artists caught in the middle of all this, but my life has been enriched not by the saved money (I spend more on Rhapsody than I ever did on CDs) but by all of the music that I otherwise never would have heard.

      I’m not defending piracy here (though I can say that discovering Napster in college proved to be very, very expensive in the end), but models which shaft the artist can nonetheless provide a net benefit to the consumer beyond mere dollars and cents. It’s a pretty uncomfortable truth.Report

  11. Avatar Sam M
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    My question for Freddie is what counts as a “professional artist.” Sure, Sergeant Pepper’s. But Paul McCartney is worth what? A couple billion dollars or something? I amot sure that’s sustainable. At the other end, I used to work in some bars in Baltimore. A lot of them had live music. Some covers, some live. But the guys made $200-250 a gig. Play five or six of these a week, and you are making $60,000 a year, with plenty of time to cultivate your artistry.
    But other cities I have lived in have not had this going on.

    I think the whole “you can’t see the full impact” point cuts both ways. Yes, McCartney made a billion dollars. But to do that he needed wall-to-wall FM play and complete cultural saturation. How many artists did the Beatles crowd out in this fashion? How many smaller local/regional acts would have had some room on the airwaves? How many of these would I have loved? We don’t know. Maybe a completely atomized industry doesn’t serve the culture well, but I am not sure one with the Beatles and Michael Jackson and Def Leppard is all that great, either.Report

  12. Avatar M.Z.
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    The worst step we could take for musicians and consumers alike would be for us to ‘do something about it’. Just look at the auto industry for an example of the ill effects of protectionism.

    Talk about an inapt analogy. The music industry has issues, but labor arbitrage, currency manipulation, government subsidized research and development and subsidies aren’t among them.

    People should be concerned about a rising Gini coefficient. Be it music performer, software engineer, or retail salesperson, rising Ginis are destructive. I realize they paper over this in libertarianism 101. A high Gini reflects less competition and not more. The market obsessed should be very concerned about this. Generally, the disparity is not a case of a superior product but a combination of rents. You are already seeing signs of the quality of pop music going down. Say what you will about Madonna, she was technically sound. A lot of the performers today are not technically sound. Their live performances are awful, and even their studio recordings don’t reflect the quest of perfection of an Axl Rose for example.

    As one who has serious issues with IP rights, you won’t find me offering big condemnations of music “stealers.” When your only property is a rent and you’ve signed your rights to it away to a record company, you are going to have major issues making money unless you really don’t need a record company, a good old chicken and egg problem. The loss of effect IP has meant a number middle league acts are opting to stay regional where they have more control on their income stream rather than going national and losing that. In short, more artists are retaining their property rights.Report

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