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.
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.
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.