Paying for music: my 2 cents (pun intended)

Credibility-establishing Editorial Note: I have paid for all my music in at least the last 5 years.  I relish my trips to my favorite local record store to (gasp) buy CDs, and I use several music services that are “legitimate” (like Spotify, Turntable, Pandora, and iTunes).

Like everyone else on the Internet lately, I read this blog post arguing in favor of people paying for music recordings to support artists.  But rather than argue against any of the specific points (a temptation very difficult to resist, especially when he seemingly tries to argue that my CD burning activity in high school was to blame for several suicides), I want to think more about the fundamental question: “Why don’t people want to pay for recorded music?”

In a lot of these anti-piracy arguments, there’s the assumption that artists are entitled to monetary compensation for their recordings.  I believe this assumption is now false, and that’s the real reason for the changes in how people acquire and consume recorded music.

The assumption that artists should be compensated with money for recording music is probably based on economic and technological factors in the 20th century, when the means to produce and distribute quality music were limited to “professionals.”  Recording equipment required experience and expertise to produce anything listenable.  Additionally, getting recordings into the hands of a large audience required a lot of infrastructure - creating the physical albums, shipping them, marketing them, etc..  When the production and distribution of music had such barriers to entry, recorded music had economic value and people were willing to pay for the music that made it through those barriers.  Musicians were operating in an industry, producing something that only a limited set of people had the means to produce.

So what is “economic value?”  I’m using it to mean the perceived monetary exchange rate for a given good or service.  And it is usually predicated on that good or service not being widely accessible - basic supply and demand.  This has always been the case.  If I were a cabinetmaker, I would never pay for someone else to make me a cabinet because it’s a service directly accessible to me - I would have the requisite expertise, means, and desire to perform the task such that the economic value of someone else doing it would be well below the amount I would pay.  But other people are farmers or lawyers or plumbers, and they do not have the expertise or means to make cabinets.  So they would pay me to produce cabinets.  Because the supply of cabinets is low, the supply of cabinet-making skills is low, and the demand for cabinets is high, those cabinets and skills have more economic value.

Have you used music production software lately?  It’s really easy to make a professional sounding recording.  And once you do, it’s super easy to post the file online and then anyone in the world with an internet connection can hear it.  In my mind, music production no longer has the barriers to entry that give it economic value.  Amateurs are often making music that I like more than “professional” recordings.  Heck, even I can make music that I like listening to more than a lot of “professional” recordings.  In my view, recording music no longer carries economic value, so I generally don’t feel the need to compensate musicians with money for their recordings.

If this seems cruel or arrogant or ridiculous, consider this passage from This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (bolding added by me):

Music is unusual among all human activities for both its ubiquity and its antiquity.  No known human culture now or anytime in the recorded past lacked music.  Some of the oldest physical artifacts found in human and protohuman excavation sites are musical instruments: bone flutes and animal skins stretched over tree stumps to make drums. […]  Even more so in nonindustrialized cultures than in modern Western societies, music is and was part of the fabric of everyday life.  Only relatively recently in our own culture, five hundred years or so ago, did a distinction arise that cut society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners.  Throughout most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, and everyone participated.  Concert halls, dedicated to the performance of music, arose only in the last several centuries.

Jim Ferguson, whom I have known since high school, is now a professor of anthropology.  […]  For his doctoral degree at Harvard, he performed fieldwork in Lesotho, a small nation completely surrounded by South Africa.  There, studying and interacting with local villagers, Jim patiently earned their trust until one day he was asked to join in one of their songs.  So, typically, when asked to sing with these Sotho villagers, Jim said in a soft voice, “I don’t sing,” and it was true: We had been in high school band together and although he was an excellent oboe player, he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  The villagers found his objection puzzling and inexplicable.  The Sotho consider singing an ordinary, everyday activity performed by everyone, young and old, men and women, not an activity reserved for a special few.

Our culture, and indeed our very language, makes a distinction between a class of expert performers - the Arthur Rubinsteins, Ella Fitzgeralds, Paul McCartneys - and the rest of us.  The rest of us pay money to hear the experts entertain us.  Jim knew that he wasn’t much of a singer or dancer, and to him, a public display of singing and dancing implied he thought himself an expert.  The villagers just stared at Jim and said, “What do you mean you don’t sing?! You talk!”  Jim told me later, “It was as odd to them as if I told them that I couldn’t walk or dance, even though I have both my legs.”  Singing and dancing were a natural activity in everybody’s lives, seamlessly integrated and involving everyone […]

The idea of recorded music having economic (monetary) value arose after the means to produce it (at the quality level our culture came to expect) became scarce.  And when something acquires monetary value, an Industry builds up around it.  But that economic value is eroding as the means to produce it are made ubiquitous.

I think this idea explains the differences in how other content industries are faring right now.  The means to produce and distribute print content have also been made more accessible, and you see the newspaper and magazine industries struggling in the same way as the music industry.  (Obviously there are nuances to that whole discussion that I won’t go into).

But Hollywood and the TV industry have not been affected as much because very few “amateurs” have the means to produce the same quality of content.  I’m willing to pay for “Prometheus” because the industry adds value to that movie - can you even imagine how awful an “amateur” version of that movie would be?  But, if software is invented that allows for really simple and compelling effects / CGI, audio editing, camera work, lighting, etc. I could imagine not feeling like Hollywood was adding any economic value anymore and not wanting to pay for movies.

I think another important point here is that these content industries have always involved an uneasy fusion of Art and Capitalism, and that given the choice, people want to lean towards Art.  Put another way, people prefer to think of music as an expression of something emotional and visceral that just wants to get out into the world, not as an industry or a business or a vehicle to make money.  When anti-piracy advocates talk about not paying musicians as a “social injustice,” it simply doesn’t hit home.  You have to pick a side - is music to be treated as Art?  If so, then expecting payment is just delusional.  Is music then a business?  If so, the more broadly accessible means of production and distribution have eliminated the economic value that made recording viable as an industry.  Deal with it.  We didn’t like music being a business anyway.

This paragraph in the blog post highlights how little anti-piracy advocates seem to be grasping the real issue:

The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for hudreds of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time. (Since the works that are are almost invariably the subject of these discussions are popular culture of one type or another, the duration of the copyright term is pretty much irrelevant for an ethical discussion.) By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to continue to let these companies violate the law without being punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality and principals to match what I think are immoral and unethical business models.

There is no immorality or ethics here!  The changes in business model are not caused by morals or ethics, but rather by economics.  When you take Art and monetize its production and create an industry, and that industry is then faced with the realities of capitalism and supply and demand, don’t act like there is social injustice at work.  You can object to the capitalist system, but you can’t argue that things should work the way they did when capitalism was going well for you.

I think the bottom line is that nobody cares if the Music Industry dies because nobody believes it is adding value anymore, and that Music will continue on just as it has since the protohumans first started making it.  That’s why people won’t pay for it.

Follow-up to Editorial Note: So if I don’t believe artists are entitled to be paid, why do I buy music still?  Well, when I buy a CD, the value I perceive is not necessarily that the artist and the industry created this music I’m about to hear.  The value is in the experience of going to the record store; the value is the record store itself, which curates and highlights music I wouldn’t normally find (“discovery” value); the value is in supporting the employees who will filter out the noise.  And I use services like Spotify or iTunes not because I believe I’m compensating artists, but because they give me access to music instantly and easily (streaming!!!).  I use Turntable because it’s a unique social experience.  In short, I don’t pirate music, but not because I believe artists are entitled to money.  Rather I place economic value on other things around music.  And, lastly, I don’t object to artists making money.  But I don’t think any artist should feel like they are entitled to be paid for their recorded music - I don’t think it should be viewed as an economic good or product.

EDIT: A great response to this.  And my response to that response.

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