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Skeptical thoughts on the future of the Music Industry

by Brian Thomson

July 15, 2011

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Donate An article by U2 manager Paul McGuinness on music piracy is drawing many sceptical comments ... nearly all of them disparaging. To cut a long story short: the piece is a description of efforts to make Internet Service Providers (ISPs) police copyright on behalf of media providers. It's not the first time this has been tried, with no success so far.

I learned about the piece from industry analyst Bob Lefsetz, who has details and his comments here. My personal reason for scepticism about McGuinness' comments stem from his apparent disconnect from music entirely. He manages one of the biggest bands in the world, but I see no sign that he actually likes their music, or any music: it's all about the industry and his part in it. He talks about integrity, about supporting artists - but he's organised U2's (and his) affairs so that they pay as little tax as possible in their home country (Ireland): their finances operate out of the tax haven of Amsterdam. This is not someone who should be lecturing us on ethics.

One McGuinness statement is drawing particular opprobrium:
My campaign has focused on the role of Internet companies and the crucial difference they could make if they confronted the systemic copyright infringement that has helped wipe out so many musicians, bands and labels in recent years.
If there's anything that's "wiping out musicians", it's having the nearly-dead weight of a "record label" on their backs. The NPR Planet Money people recently put out a podcast describing the process that goes in to creating a "summer blockbuster" song, in this case for Rihanna. It's not cheap. The actual writing of the song wasn't that hard, but making its parent album meant assembling a team of songwriters for a LA "writing camp" a year ago. Huge entourages in a top recording studio, masses of promotion ... and all for songs I have not heard outside that podcast. (The song that was pushed hard as the "summer song" is called Man Down, and it barely made the R&B Top 10.)

Meanwhile, outside the industry, you have artists like Amanda Palmer or Mike Keneally, doing their own things on minuscule budgets and the kindness of strangers. They don't have a problem with piracy at all, for some reason: when their fans hear something they like, they happily pay for it - because they know it's real and has real value to them.

My point is this: the "music industry" has no inherent right to exist. McGuinness is deluding himself if he thinks that he and his clients are "owed" a living. For starters: he makes the classic (i.e. old) mistake of treating every instance of piracy as a lost sale at the street price. This is the natural result of his view of music as "products", as items to be bought and sold. But a CD or a concert ticket is not music; it just grants you access to the possibility of music. If I buy a piece of hardware, such as a cellphone, it comes with a guarantee - but I expect no such guarantee from music; the flipside of that bargain is that I get to decide what is music to me, or not. This is supported by the music industry, but by no-one outside that industry.

Where do I stand on music piracy? I've never actually pirated music, and I'm quite happy to pay my way, to provide value for value. Where I have received value from music, I've paid for it, and I accumulated a fairly extensive music collection in the 1990s, on CD before conversion to MP3 format. After I moved to a different country in 1999, I almost stopped buying music entirely, but have made a point of supporting independent musicians whom I think are doing good work that I want to hear. I don't think it's a coincidence that those musicians are the ones who make music out of a love for music, and who don't demand to be paid for every note they sing. They do retain ownership of their work - in opposition to the standard music label practice of demanding copyright is signed over, and treating music as work-for-hire - a definition that removes all sense of authorship from the author of a work.

If McGuinness and the music industry have their way, we will keep moving further and further away from what it means to experience music. We will pipe industry "product" in to our iPod headphones, we will sit in the audience at huge tightly-scripted shows such as U2's; that's OK as far as it goes, but music can offer us so much more than these mediated experiences. I have been to quite a few concerts in my time, but I have had more rewarding experiences helping to make the music - whether by standing in a choir at school, hanging around a piano, or in a circle around a camp fire with a couple of guitars. I support artists, but I no longer "buy music", because I refuse to treat music as a product.

What does that mean for the future of an industry that sees music as a product, and its creators as mere workers? It's going to be interesting ...

by Brian Thomson

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