The Stop Online Piracy Act – SOPA – has been taken up by Congress and this puts the future of recorded music back into the news. The SOPA bill – backed by big money entertainment firms – ostensibly provides for the protection of intellectual property by allowing internet domain names to be blocked if a website allows unauthorized downloading of copyrighted materials. Sites like YouTube or Facebook will be at risk if someone improperly posts a movie clip or MP3 file that is under copyright.
The recording industry has been in a state of flux ever since it became possible to exchange music between individuals easily via electronic files. Napster and other file sharing services made it possible to download almost any recording in existence – for free. Fierce legal action by the recording industry essentially made criminals out of their customers and further alienated consumers already reeling from the high price of CDs in record stores.
Apple provided a sane solution to the Napster problem by launching iTunes a few years ago and has now sold over 16 billion files . The success of iTunes is due to the balance it has struck between a low selling price per track, protection for the copyright holder, and convenience for the consumer. In the process iTunes has essentially set the going price for a single downloaded track at $1. Other, similar services have since been established: Amazon is a big player and sites like BandCamp and CD Baby allow the copyright holder to offer tracks or entire CD albums to the consumer directly.
Just as the iTunes model was taking hold and offering some hope for market stability, the technology behind music streaming took off and made the actual downloading of the music file is superfluous – because now you have continuous access to the server holding the music you want to hear. So the search for the correct price point for streamed music is now underway. If iTunes has established that it costs $1 to own the file – what should it cost just to listen to it? Not much, apparently – the Spotify model pays fractions of a penny per listen. This may eventually change, but so far you have to be a mega-pop star to see any significant revenue from the streaming model.
And now comes SOPA – strengthening the hand of copyright holders – with the ultimate goal of allowing an increase in the price point possible for all forms of electronic distribution.
So what does any of this have to do with new music? We certainly benefit by the world-wide distribution possible via the Internet at essentially zero cost. But our music is a niche and much bigger players are now trying to reshape the digital music landscape.
So where does that leave the composer of new music? Is the current $1 going rate for a downloaded track sufficient? Is there any point in releasing your music to a streaming service for fractions of a penny per listen? Should we even care about copyright protection if revenue is going to be negligible? Is infinite distribution and promotion via YouTube and Facebook – even with zero revenue – preferable to some more restrictive model that might evolve under the constraints of SOPA ?
What are you doing now to copyright your music? How is the current Internet distribution system working for you and what would you like to see changed?
[Ed. Note -- Jeff Harrington has been doing the composer-promotion thing on the web just about as early as anyone could. Now working out of France, Jeff has written a bit about his own long experience, and wanted to share that with you all.]
Here’s a short article I wrote upon request from somebody teaching a course in Digital Musicianship. I offer it as a way to encourage discussion about the costs and benefits of the free culture model. Please pardon the informal nature of it…
My strategy… is basically to get my music into as many people’s hands as possible without expectations of renumeration. What happened to my wife and I in the early 80′s informed the process where I invented the free culture system.
We’d both had to drop out of college, me from Juilliard and Elsie from Pratt because of money problems. We were quite angry about this and started a street art project. This was 1982. At the same time we started showing Elsie’s paintings on the street in the West Village, right on Spring Street to be exact in the heart of Soho. We showed these huge paintings with a sign saying, “Not for Sale.”
This was pretty shocking to people and we started getting more and more interested in seeing where that could take us. We created series of non-destructive art works in chalk and with rubber stamps and displayed them all over NYC. Eventually, we became so famous (or infamous) that we started a whole mini-art movement in NYC and started receiving death threats… we ended up having to flee NYC, broke and regroup in New Orleans.
In New Orleans we continued giving our art away through the mail art networks. These were exchanges where you’d send a piece of art to somebody and then they’d send you something back. These turned into zines eventually, and from there into multiples and even gallery shows. When the computer networks started up in the early 80′s with BBS’s it was a natural progression to take our art give-away there.
I was probably the first serious artist to use the BBS system to distribute art, although I’m sure there were a few more; nobody at the time seemed to have come from the street art/mail art networks. I uploaded the score (as a set of GIF images) to my Variations for String Quartet onto a BBS in 1987 which is probably the earliest music give away. I started distributing MIDI files of my pieces around this time. It was very interesting to upload a MIDI file or a graphic and then watch it get uploaded by a fan to another site. At about the same time I started embedding my music into synthesizer patch downloads. I first distributed my Acid Bach series as a component of a synthesizer patch library I created for the purpose of having a compelling download. That is, I designed the patch library so that people would want it and coincidentally listen to my music. This way they’d have a high quality musical experience akin to the MP3 playback today through the use of the same synthesizer. Read the rest of this entry »
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For all you composers big and small who still think that a big publisher contract is the bee’s knees: composer John Mackey blogs in a nicely lucid way about why the deal is nowhere near as good as the dream, and how you can and should be taking control of the full fruit of your labor. This is stuff that, to me, is every bit as fundamental to a young composer as learning I-IV-V-I (& maybe more, these days). Yet it’s rare that we ever see a “Basic Music Business 101″ course — not the first year, not the fourth, not even the sixth or eighth.
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The latest RIAA/MPAA tactic? Enlist a non-profit “justice” organization to create the most heavy-handed (and by the way, factually incorrect) propaganda in the form of a comic, distributed to 50,000 college students. Yes, file-sharing of copyrighted media can be quite possibly illegal; but this “educational” attempt seems right up there with “Reefer Madness” and those Jehovah Witness comic books. Though maybe seen in that light, it’ll become a future camp classic… And of course this is all done purely in the name of the protecting the artist, you and me, right?
You know, I was thinking that the comic has all the elements for a nice, pathos-laden chamber opera… takers, anyone?
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A recent essay by Rasmus Fleischer in Cato Unbound does a great job of explaining the evolution — or better, the progressive convolution — of copyright, what’s become fundamentally different in our own time, and why any model based on our old conceptions of it are utterly doomed in anything less than a world police-state. It’s only fair to point out that Fleischer is part of the Swedish anti-copyright group Piratbyran, founders of the notorious file-sharing site Pirate Bay, so some could read this essay as simply justification for their own “questionable” activity. But Fleischer clearly lays out some real issues here, and there are many good examples of how the meaning of copying and sharing have transcended — and will only move farther from — the old models and enforcement. One of the most mind-boggling is this:
One early darknet [the term for the idea that people who have information and want to exchange it with each other will do just that, forming spontaneous networks which may be large or small, online or offline] has been termed the “sneakernet”: walking by foot to your friend carrying video cassettes or floppy discs. Nor is the sneakernet purely a technology of the past. The capacity of portable storage devices is increasing exponentially, much faster than Internet bandwidth, according to a principle known as “Kryder’s Law.” The information in our pockets yesterday was measured in megabytes, today in gigabytes, tomorrow in terabytes and in a few years probably in petabytes (an incredible amount of data). Within 10-15 years a cheap pocket-size media player will probably be able to store all recorded music that has ever been released “” ready for direct copying to another person’s device.
In other words: The sneakernet will come back if needed. “I believe this is a “˜wild card’ that most people in the music industry are not seeing at all,” writes Swedish filesharing researcher Daniel Johansson. “When music fans can say, “˜I have all the music from 1950-2010, do you want a copy?’ “” what kind of business models will be viable in such a reality?”
I’d urge everyone to read the full essay, since this stuff will directly affect all our work, our entire career.
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