Friday, June 15, 2007

Music Wants to Be Free

Reader Ben F. writes provokingly in response to Alice's post on file sharing:

Seems to me that a system where compensation is based on limiting supply
is not going to work anymore, given that files multiply far too easily and,
heck, music wants to be free. And that's what copyright is all about --
you can't copy unless you purchase the right to do so. But music wants to
be copied, shared, and experienced. It's the in the nature of sound,
and art, and the art of sound.

Really interesting point, but I wonder what it is about music - besides the ease with which it's copied - that we can say "wants to be free." Are the services of a musician of less monetary value than, say, those a baker, because the former's product happens to be easy to convert to 1's and 0's? Is there some inherent value to analogue stuff than doesn't adhere to digital-stuff? (To put it more concretely: does it make more sense to pay for a concert than for a recording of the concert?)

Or maybe art is somehow purer than other forms of production and only sullied by commerce? Do musicians fall into a separate category because they are in the business of self-expression and will likely produce whether we pay for their products or not?

I'm not sure - and honestly no more ethical than anyone else in this realm. But I must say, as I prepare to spend thousands of dollars on music school and stake my living on compositions and performance, I wonder why I should be paid less for my labors than anyone else.


Via Ross:

Music has spoken to Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and apparently freedom is not what it wants! Rather: "...I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it."


Ben said...

I love this debate. How about this aspect?

_Is there some inherent value to analogue stuff than doesn't adhere to digital-stuff?_

Yep. With digital stuff, it costs nothing to make a copy. Computers and hard drives are so good and cheap now that once you make the first copy of an album, you can make copies 2 through 1 billion for free, and fast.

This is different from almost everything else that people sell. Shoes, drugs, sunglasses, lawnmowing services, whatever -- it costs money to make each additional item. You make shoes for $10, you sell them for $15 to make a profit. Furthermore, economists will tell you that in a healthy competitive market, the market price will go down to the variable cost of production. If there are a million shoe sellers and a million people buying shoes, the pairs that cost $10 to make will be sold for $10.01.

And this one's an easy one:

_To put it more concretely: does it make more sense to pay for a concert than for a recording of the concert?_

Totally. Putting on an effort involves real time and effort and cost. Copying a file of the recording of a concert and emailing it to someone? Free.


alice said...

owned. don't mess with the f's.

Jake said...

Thanks for the follow-up, Ben.

While I certainly agree it takes little to re-produce music, doesn't our debate extend to the compensation of primary producers - the musicians, engineers, etc. who create the digital files in the first place?

To return to our comparison, surely people producing albums work just as hard as those producing concerts. Should we punish the former simply because their product is easier to rip off? (And if we figured out a way to make recordings more difficult to reproduce, do the folks at Downhill Battle or whoever have a right to criticize?)

alice said...

I don't think anyone (including those downhill battle people) is really denying the fact that musicians and producers should be compensated. It just needs to be done in such a way that takes into consideration technology and change, Grandpa.

Grandpa said...

Thanks, Alice, for the follow-up and gratuitous name-calling. Glad we're in this together.

But to continue: I know we all have fuzzy feelings towards those crazy musicians (as opposed to the square soul-sucking types who just pay for studio time, arrange marketing, accounting, legal, and all that insignificant stuff) and want to see them compensated.

Alice mentioned some sort of flat fee - what was it: $10 a month? - which would supposedly get the musicians paid without all the hassle of middle-men.

Ten bucks a month doesn't sound like much to me, but then again, as everyone keeps pointing out: times are a changing.

My question: is the value of music also changing? That is, is it now worth less, to you, existentially, because it's easier to copy?

Should musicians and those in their biz get less money than other artists on account of changes in technology, an accident of their form?

And again, I ask, are musicians or record companies being greedy when they seek to compensate for that accident by making music harder to reproduce - more like sculpture or pizza or anything else you'd be willing to pay more than $10 for?


Ben said...

This is such an easy solution that it seems like there has GOT to be something wrong with it, but how about this:

Musicians will make music for playing live. They will release their recordings, however, for free.

I spoke to an entertainment lawyer at a party last night -- he represents, among others, the Senegalese (?) musician Youssour N'Dour -- and he said that several of his clients welcome the rampant distribution of mp3s of their recordings, for the simple reason that it increases their exposure.

Again, it's simple economics. The cheaper something is, the more people will consume it. And if an album is free instead of $15 or $17 or whatever Virgin Megastore wants to charge for it? You're talking an exponentially higher fan base, especially for lesser known artists who might be worth a free download off of Limewire but not the fifteen bones for the disc.

And when you're more popular, you've got more fans, right? And more people come to your shows? And there are more music venues that spring up? And music becomes more of an experiential, public pleasure than a private one? And -- gulp -- you can make some serious money?

There are problems with this on the margin -- like what happens to acts that cannot perform live, or do not like to, whose music is heavy on production value and light on live antics. But those guys are in trouble anyway. For most bands, maybe this would work.