A golden age of musical piracy? by mattsteinglass
December 20, 2008, 11:03 am
Filed under: Internet, Music

Matthew Yglesias says government collusion in recording industry anti-piracy efforts is stupid because there’s no legitimate public interest in either promoting album sales or raising musicians’ incomes: “The purpose of intellectual property law is to protect the interests of consumers.”

But that’s not really true. The purpose of intellectual property law in the US is “to promote the progress of Science and useful Arts.” It’s right there in the Constitution, Article I, Section 8. In general that will coincide with the interests of consumers, in the long run, but not necessarily in the short run.

It’s true that, as Yglesias says, this is a moment of unparalleled diversity of musical availability to consumers. It’s also, in my view, a moment of rare creativity in musical composition. That’s in no small part because the same electronic tools that create the option of piracy, and are hence wrecking musicians’ incomes, also give them unprecented direct access to their audiences, afford them options for long-distance collaboration that never existed before, and put vast libraries of sound at their fingertips. But going into the music business, which has never been a profitable career choice, is becoming a career choice that generates just about literally no money at all. Of course huge numbers of people are still making and performing music, but that’s in large measure because the United States created an intense valorization of musical performance as it was creating modern popular culture back in the ’30s-’70s. And that was the era when music did generate tons of revenue. Famously, much of that revenue was stolen before it reached musicians’ pockets, but it took an entire industry to create the idea of a rock star. A lot of money went into making Elvis. And every time a 20-something indie rocker gets up to mug before an audience of her peers at a Brooklyn dive, she’s tapping into the mythos that was created for and by Elvis.

The music industry has had a fabulous decade while its revenues were shrinking. But it’s living on borrowed energy. What made American pop music was ASCAP and BMI — collective agreements between composers, distributors, and the legal industry about how revenue would be shared. Those agreements were made at a time when Americans had much greater talent for institution-building. The rise of the internet coincided with a moment of intense ideological individualism — a utopian individualism (information wants to be free!) — that crippled such institution-building efforts. In the next few years, record labels are going to start crashing the way newspapers have begun to. Then we’ll see whether America can sustain its love affair with musical creation on the strength of sheer cultural inertia. Without some new deal on how to generate and share revenue for the production of music, I think music, at least youth pop genres like indie rock, will likely become a quaint, treasured, anemic backwater, supported by local clubs and philanthropic foundations, like clog dancing.


1 Comment so far
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I totally agree with your point, but I suspect people will continue to make music simply because so many people love to make it.

Comment by jsalvati

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