(Welfare) Queens Of Noise*

>> Saturday, April 26, 2008

So according to a piece in Slate by Reihan Salam that I read the other day, it seems that Warner Brothers would like to charge every single person who uses the internet $60-per-year to make up for the inability or mere unwillingness of music executives to come up with a reasonable way to make money out of digital ephemeral media. (That phrase being my first attempt to come up with a general phrase to cover ripped, downloaded, streamed, pirated and purchased digital music on the internet, hard drives, portable music players like the iPod, etc.) See, here's how it would work: your ISP (internet service provider, for you casual web visitors) would charge you five dollars a month, which they would collect as part of your monthly bill and then send to--well, somebody, maybe the RIAA or maybe just the Big Four directly, or maybe to participating labels... you know, that part doesn't seem too clear, actually. Crap, you weren't supposed to get hung up on details. Sheesh. No, don't worry about any of the non-RIAA labels or independent artists unaffiliated with any label at all, it's a brilliant plan, trust Salam and Warner and something like it will be necessary because they said so. But back to the plan.

See, here's what's in it for you: if you download music from the internet, you pay five dollars a month and you can download all the music you want. (What if an artist doesn't want to license his work to the online buffet? Details! Stop that! All the music you want! Okay?) And if you don't download music, you pay five dollars a month. But you could start downloading all the music you want whenever you wanted. If you wanted. From the artists and labels who participate. Or something.

You're right, it's a shitty plan.

Salam does mention there are downsides in the Slate piece. Sort of. What Salam doesn't seem to grasp is that the real flaw of the plan is that it assumes that the Big Four are entitled to exist and that these labels are useful to artists, notwithstanding a certain amount of historical ambiguity on this score. If all of the labels, and the Big Four in particular, cared all that much about the artists' rights they love to go on about, they might agree to a modification of California labor law to make musician contracts subject to the same limits as other artists' contracts (most workers for hire can only be contracted for five years; musicians can get tied down to seven, which is rarely to an artist's advantage--if he's successful at a particular label, he has no leverage, and if he's a failure at the label, he may be tied to a label that doesn't really want him and unable to reboot his career with another label), be more flexible about performance royalties (historically lower than songwriter royalties), more willing to resolve intellectual property disputes with their artists through mediation (the old problem of the label refusing to release an "unsatisfactory" album nor returning the recording to the artist to seek independent distribution), etc.

The truth is that the five dollar plan is only good for one thing: whether the Big Four labels are actually signing new acts or distributing successful music, they would get a regular revenue stream out of it. Indeed, they could presumably stop producing music altogether, let all the current artist contracts expire, and simply float off the money collected by the ISPs on their behalf--perhaps using their back catalog as a buffer if any agreement with the ISP requires the actual posting of music on the internet for those people who want to download it.

I'm a liberal. I believe that government exists to protect the people, and that includes providing a safety net for the unemployed and even the unemployable--benefits for those who suddenly lose their jobs or for those who suffer from some disability (when handled properly) are morally good, diminish the motives for crime, promote social stability. (And then there's my cynical and half-facetious "welfare for the rest of us" theory--it's an unfortunate truth that there are some people who really ought to be on the dole instead of subjecting everyone else to their incompetence. Sure, physically they can work, but they're really not people you want leaving streaks on your floor or nailing boards together crookedly, much less trying to land airplanes or watching the dials at a nuclear power plant. I am happy to pay higher taxes for some people to stay at home, please, in fact I can think of a few people I'd be happy to add to the rolls.)

As I was saying when I got sidetracked, I believe in welfare. But even I have to draw the line at a public tax to pay the executive officers at Warner Brothers a subsidy for their failure to put out albums anyone wants to buy. (Yes, I know, most of them probably fall under that "welfare for the rest of us" category I just mentioned. If the CEO of Warner Brothers had to go to work picking fruit, he'd probably bruise all of it. But he already has a bajillion dollars. He doesn't need the money, okay? He just wants your $60/year because he likes calling his accountants and hearing that he still has shitbuckets of money, not because he's almost out of the fixings for Cheerios-and-peanut butter pie.)

Maybe if the labels can't get their acts together, they deserve the diminished profits. Has that fact somehow missed all the good capitalists out there by such a wide margin that it takes a part-time mixed-economy socialist to point it out and say "Huh?"

But what about all those poor starving artists? I've said it before: what the artists ought to do is make their money the way the old fashioned way, by touring and selling merch. That's money going directly into their pockets, as opposed to the two-cents-per-album or whatever it is they're getting out of all those twelve-to-eighteen dollar CDs that are still being sold. And of course the artists can also make money selling music directly: setting up your own website and PayPal account to sell your own digital ephemeral media or hardcopy CDs is neither difficult nor prohibitively expensive. And then there's the charityware approach Radiohead used for In Rainbows, selling music for whatever a buyer thinks its worth. None of these saves the Big Four labels--but if a billion dollar company can't save itself without passing around a plate, it gets what's coming to it.

(*With sincere apologies to The Runaways for the title.)


vince Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 1:16:00 AM EDT  

The thing is that many artists are out there, making a living without the big labels. The biggest place on the net to buy their work is at CD Baby, with thousands of artists. Other, smaller sites also push music by artists who self-release CDs or do so on small labels, like Music Outfitters in Ely, MN (disclaimer: I do their web site and I do a radio show on the local station in town and that plays music they carry and also streams live).

I read that Slate article, and think the plan is full of shit, primarily because it forces people to pay for a service regardless of whether they use it. And this plan can only work if someone forces the ISPs to collect the charge, and that means the government, and that means it's a tax.

Salam says something like this has to happen because piracy can't be stopped. He's right that piracy can't be stopped, whether it's music, or software, or autop parts, etc. But there are ways to reduce it, and Apple lead the way with iTunes.

Salam also notes that artists aren't being compensated in a sensible way. Again, he's right. And who's to blame? The big four. Thus the explosion in small labels and self-releases noted above.

Salam's arguement for a real tax with the money doled out to copyright holders isn't the answer either, if for no other reason that the last thing I want to see is the government trying to control something else, and most likely, given their recent record, screwing it up. The Department of Music Royalties - from the people who brought you FEMA.

There are days I want to start my own country and write my own Decleration of Indepence, where somewhwre it will say "We hold these truths to be self-evident - that there are a lot of stupid people in the world, and none of them are allowed here!"

Thus ended my rant for today.

Eric Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 11:24:00 AM EDT  

Ah, but a great rant it was! Thank you!

The smaller labels have shown a lot more flexibility, by and large, than the Big Four when dealing with ephemeral media--e.g. as far as I know they're not seriously involved in the push to raise internet streaming royalties (and it would be suicidal for them to do so, since driving internet "radio" stations like the SomaFM family offline with prohibitive rates would demolish their best promotional outlet).

The government wouldn't have to be involved if the larger ISPs were bribed into a voluntary program. I suspect the TimeWarner family would be on board with the Warner plan for obvious reasons, and AT&T's only sticking point would be how much it costs to buy their participation. And if the ISPs get the death of net neutrality pushed down everyone's collective throat, lack of participation by smaller ISPs may be moot (they won't have the bandwidth to support piracy).

The last thing I'd say in response is actually to emphasize that first paragraph of yours to anyone else coming by: there is no shortage of damn good music being made today, notwithstanding the mountains of mediocre crap the Big Four are upset that you're not buying. And the internet means that every band in the world is your local band. One of the best music purchases I've made in the past year was a record by three high school students on the other side of the country from me--I saw a video on BoingBoing, went to their MySpace page, and got their first album from CD Baby. My own "give it away"/"maybe the big labels don't deserve to live" argument assumes that we'll all continue to support the artists we love--buying their merch, seeing their shows, and (yes) purchasing music directly from the artists, collectives and/or small labels. Not only is every artist local now, but every niche is equal--if your favorite kind of music is, I don't know, ska-inflected polka performed on kazoo and theremin let's say, there is a community for you and those artists are a mouseclick away. Support them.

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