Natural allies

Today over lunch somebody explained to me some of the dynamics behind the way the music industry lost control of the debate over song distribution. It was something I hadn’t really thought through before, and I found it fascinating.

For many years the recording industry had been taking a hard line with musicians. The general attitude was “We’re putting all this money into production support, promotion and distribution. Therefore we should get the lion’s share of the profits.” Artists responded by learning to depend upon another source of income: Concerts and touring. While the industry was making money hand-over-fist, first on record sales and then later on CD sales, musicians learned to maximize their earning power as performers, rather than relying on the modest cut they received as recording artists.

It all worked fine until the dawn of the age of internet downloading. Suddenly the recording industry found that its natural ally – the artist – didn’t really care. Consumers would have listened if their beloved musicians had asked them not to indulge in free downloading. But the musicians simply weren’t all that invested in the issue.

And so the great unwashed masses of the music-loving public engaged in a massive collective act of intellectual property theft, and the industry was powerless to stop them. In the end, the labels were brought to their knees.

And one could argue that they were done in by their own greed, which had led them to establish an adversarial relationship with their greatest natural allies – the recording artists.

Fortunately for the film industry, directors and actors make their money through film sales, not through film promotion. So Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep and all the other glamorous Hollywood icons are right in step with the studios on this one.

I guess there is a lesson in this: Don’t get too greedy. You never know when you’ll need friends.

3 thoughts on “Natural allies”

  1. But would the listening public be better served with musicians who toured less often?

    Considering that “copyright” is no right at all, but a privilege granted to us by our Constitution, isn’t it a good thing that recording artists have another source of income? Shouldn’t we increase the monetary incentives for creating new music by limiting the marginal amt a single album would make per artist? (Of course, the same thing could happen were the copyright term reduced to a sane amount of time while giving artists a fairer share of the profits while they are effective.)

    On the flipside…is the music business too hit-driven as a result of this? Are musicians driven to produce more at the expense of quality of music?

  2. I don’t understand your argument that “copyright is no right at all”. All of our rights are privileges granted to us by our Constitution, including the right to vote, and the right not to be robbed or murdered. The Constitution is, essentially, an embodiment of our collective agreement about what rights we wish to have as citizens. Copyright protection is no different in that regard from any other constitutionally protected right.

    And in any case, where would you draw the line? Should we be required to give away the paintings we paint? The books we write? The movies we make? And if we do that, then how would movies get financed in the first place?

  3. I’m not saying give away the farm. I am saying that the current regime of copyrights lasting essentially forever (life + 90yrs or life + 125yrs for copyrights assigned to corporations) is unsustainable and not conducive to the promotions of “Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

    I didn’t articulate myself well (in my defense, it was pretty late). The point I was trying to make is that “intellectual property” as a concept is not nearly as intrinsic a right as, say, actual property rights, which as a societal norm is far, far older and certainly not dependent on any written law per se, as copyright definitely is: the concept is much more nebulous. People in the content-creating industries do not seem to understand just how nebulous, and just how fortunate they are that they enjoy a virtual monopoly over the product they create. They are content prosecuting their own customers and trampling their rights, which are just as consequential.

    Limiting the copyright term and protecting fair use rights, at least for music, would amount to a monetary incentive to create more music. As it stands now, the musician is getting screwed out of his/her money by the label- wouldn’t it be better if they could simply be cut out of the equation? Think- payola could be dead. Musicians would get a much bigger piece of the pie – a pie that would eventually run out, so you would need to keep making more pie in order to keep food on your
    plate (and stay relevant).

    I dunno. This is too obviously a rant, and I haven’t thought through everything completely. Most of it is based on what I could remember from Lawrence Lessig’s book “Free Culture”, which could be found here under a cc license:

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