Music Wants to Be Free, Musicians Want to Be Paid

Musician Bemoans Death of the Music Business

It all sounded very appealing thirty years ago when a Bay Area programmer first explained to me the concept of the entire catalog of recorded music being accessible from a home computer. I wanted that.

But between ’84 and when it actually came to pass, I made a career in music. Thanks to longstanding statutes and agreements for remuneration of songwriters, I reaped a small bounty writing songs for kids TV. I developed a vested interest in the music racket.

The Music Racket

Songwriting is largely done on spec. Most songs aren’t hits and make no money. But when a song is a hit, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Each broadcast, mechanical sale, re-use in another medium, means another payment, practically in perpetuity. It’s a populist method. Theoretically it rewards talent and compensates writers for the unpaid toil of honing their craft and writing songs that aren’t hits. It’s a racket.

Pandora’s Box

But that racket’s been systematically undone by Pandora, Napster, Mega, Spotify. Between stealing and streaming – which amount to about the same thing – there’s less and less in it for songwriters and musicians. And Pandora & co have opened a Pandora’s Box: film, publishing, journalism, and even education, are all being “democratized” and de-professionalized.

This digital onslaught is not merely a technological inevitability. It’s a racket too. The Tim Westergrens and Kim Dotcoms have become multimillionaires by concertedly undermining the livelihoods of a vast creative class. They’re shrinking the pie and taking most of what’s left.

New Business Model

At this point, I’m supposed to talk about the need for a new paradigm: an increase in streaming rates; more attractive (and expensive) subscription services; a surcharge on the manufacturers of digital devices, web services, service providers and pipelines. Those ideas all sound great but I fear they are weak tea to the methamphetamine of free.

Who Can Argue with Free?

Because, face it, everybody wants a limitless music library, free news, free education. Who wouldn’t? A generation has grown up believing that’s how it works.

Think Different

One way or another, musicians need to carve out a new racket in the changed landscape. I’d like to keep a populist approach, but maybe something more radical is in order: public subsidy. If digitalization is the engine of efficiency and economic growth it’s hyped to be, why should it put us out of work? Let’s harness it to put us “out of work” productively. Pay us a stipend to do what we do.

After years of Silicon Valley companies foisting “revolutionary” gadgets on us, and touting “world-changing” blah blah blah, perhaps we should take the digital agenda at its word. Music wants to be free. So does rent and food.

The Digital One Percent, rather than fighting government with their strange right-wing libertarian bedfellows, should join us in pushing for a massive expansion of government art subsidies. Beginning with those in the “intellectual property” industries, let’s put the entire creative class on the government dole, with commensurate tax increases to cover the expense.

That sounds like a racket I’d want to get into.

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11 thoughts on “Music Wants to Be Free, Musicians Want to Be Paid”

  1. Nice song, Brian!
    I dig a lot of what you’re saying but I’m not sure why you’re calling the music biz as it was a “racket.” A racket in my understanding is when you conduct an illegal business, like making people pay to “protect themselves” from people like you…and breaking their kneecaps if they don’t. The old music business was unfair and kind of arbitrary. It wasn’t a racket, except I guess if you’re going to start talking about payola and stuff. But that isn’t what you were talking about. You were talking about writing music for Disney cartoons or getting a hit.
    One big thing I miss in our present sitch is that very real possibility that you could maybe write a song and it just might grab people by the ears and become hugely valuable. It was always a long shot, but it was a shot! Now, unless you DO get a song in a hit movie or on a TV show or you are among the fortunate few who still dwell on Mt. Olympus (like Beyonce) you really have no hope of reaching masses of ears and “striking it rich” no matter how fucking catchy your song is. And that will over time tend to mean that fewer and fewer people will make interesting exciting music. It was the chance of hit that made so many go for it. Why will they do it as the payoff recedes?

    1. Good points, Bill. I was using “racket” in the sense of an easy and lucrative business or occupation.

      I think you could argue that the current situation has made music more interesting in that more musicians AREN’T trying to write mass hits. Maybe this is countered by the fact that there are too many people making music. At any rate, there’s no music shortage, and such a huge variety of little niches and nooks and crannies.

  2. Where do I send my nickel?
    But seriously, I couldn’t agree more with what you say. What has happened to the music world is what has happened to manufacturing and the middle class in general. It is all part of the arrogance of BIG MONEY, that thinks making a few people rich will solve all our problems. Measuring prosperity through GDP is just absurd, but that is what our society seems to accept. Yes, by all means, lets put public tax money into the arts. If we did even half of what the Europeans do we’d be much better off.

  3. Jesse Walkershaw

    Having just finished Joel Selvin’s biography of Bert Berns “Here Come The Night”, I can say with certainty “music is and was a racket”. But that’s just a sidebar.
    Considering the matter of who will make the next great song, if there is no money in it, I would say you and I. The issue will be getting a great recording, and then making the public aware.
    As “Friday” by Rebecca Black shows, with almost 69,000,000 views (yes that’s million), any middle class family can now make a monster hit, and even manage to monetize it to a small degree.
    Viral is …well, viral. You and I may chuckle at “Friday”, it is after all, what it is. Yet it managed to explode online, and is still generating a few pennies for the Black family.
    Back in the day. Jerry Wexler might have signed that kid to Atlantic, sold X million singles (after getting his name on the tune as a writer), and way more money would have accrued all around. So Brian’s point is valid.
    Yet hits are being made. Albeit, not with the skills inherent in the old set up of great engineers, producers, and studio musicians of our childhood.
    So the problem is not who will write the song, the real problem is , as it’s been all along, with no way for the cream to rise to the top, no one can make enough scooping up and distributing the cream, to afford to regular produce work of epic proportion.
    Instead its all unedited bedroom produced dreck, with the most facile popping up to the surface based on the proclivities of teenagers. I much prefer the well crafted dreck that was pushed on us as teenagers by the unscrupulous record business. it was so much more tasty.

    1. Jesse Walkershaw

      As I in no way addressed Brian’s concern about artist and writer getting paid, I would just point out how the scale of things have changed in this new global connected age. And how this has clouded our thinking on this problem.
      Let us look at that 69 million views for “Friday” again. Really, a mind boggling number. Would “Friday” have garnered any sort of number if one had to actually pay for it. I certainly would have never played it even once, cause ridicule is too base to want to actually to pay for it. So I assume “Friday” was only able to shoot up the “charts” based on its low barrier to access. Much like all the cute cat videos so popular in facebook, would you spend one second or one cent on such drivel. Well maybe the stray cat and Lynx in love video, but the rest of that stuff, no way.
      Likewise, if you had to pay a realistic amount for Spotify or Pandora, they would be nonviable. But they were able to build up their number of users, on the way to becoming a fact of life, based on the sheer volume made possible by their lack of content expenses.
      Free may be attractive, but just because these large businesses want to use, and in the course of that using, debase your work, does not make it the only possible option.
      Unfortunately most people believe that neither the laws of man nor nature apply to them. So getting the entire creative class to withdraw their content from these services.
      The only workable scenario I can see is a content creator rights tax, with a percentage taken of all revenue (not profits) from all the services involved in the digital pipeline for content sharing, with payout based on content use. All of which is entirely doable. Then the Black family will make their bundle, and some blogger who writes a review that is read a few hundred times will get a few pennies in their account.
      If Google’s model cant survive on such terms, then they don’t deserve to stay in business on the current exploitative basis.
      As far as who would administer such a system, certainly not any of the current players. ut I will leave that for smarter mousetraps than me.

      1. You’re right, Jesse, about how “free” lowers the accessibility bar for things like “Friday.” But all hits rely on “free” — radio is “free,” meaning you pay for it by listening to advertising, an insidious kind of exploitation. Kind of like funding public schools with lottery tickets.

        1. Jesse Walkershaw

          almost 3 years later to reply, so , much has changed in the interim. Yet the fundamentals remain the same.
          Radio is indeed free to hear, but most pop radio is narrow format, so the very argument I was making about viral content doesn’t apply to your radio point, as it is heavily archived, with the listener having little say in content selection.

  4. OK Brian, this is it — The nickel! Your video makes clear and obvious sense of how we artists can pay our rent. Everyone must see this video right now. I’m gonna forward the hell out of it. By the way, it’s just brain candy! Brilliant! I loved the warped, spinning nickels, the “Yarrgh!” pirate with the nickel eyepatch, the snappy entrance, everything! Love, Suzy

  5. This is what I like to see…using the free distribution system to send out a critique of the very same system. It’s got the genius of a benign 9/11 ‘cybertunalist attack’. The twin towers of Youtube and Spotify aren’t fireproof even with the amount of toxic asbestos they’re lined with. I’m buying the CD, in preparation for the day when one big EMP comes blasting out of the sun during a heavy solar storm (like the one that happened in 1859, the “Carrington Event”) and threatens to disrupt a great deal of vulnerable data stored on all the terrifyingly fragile hard drive memory banks out there. OK, if the grid goes down, I won’t be able to play my CD player, but at least I’ll be able to fondle the packaging as we all deteriorate into the grubby shell-shocked characters from “The Road”. Keep up the consciousness raising and making it fun to boot. Hats off.

    1. Won’t a Carrington-type Event just be our due once we’ve got our heads completely in the “cloud”?

  6. Cynthia Carle

    Sure, subsidize me and the music’s all yours. I’ve made this case on the back of my CD and to scores of teens, 20somethings and even people in their 30s. But it lands as if I’m being ironic. Nobody will take this seriously. There is a snowball’s chance in hell that we’ll see government subsidies for musicians and artists in our lifetimes. So, what else you got to persuade the entitled to pay up?

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