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?