Stop Confusing Music with Copyright
Imagine a world in which there is only bottled water. Then, quite rapidly, changes in technology connect every household to a municipal water line so they can have tap water.
Suddenly, you don’t have to pay for water every time you want to drink it. And even though you’re paying a small monthly fee for access to the municipal water line
This is what’s happening in music. We’re hooking up and turning on the taps. We’re reclaiming the water as a public resource.
Recently there was a putrid click-bait post on Digital Music News titled “Why Streaming Music Isn’t Like Bottled Water“. It’s part of a trend — albeit a trend quarantined to snarky music bloggers and obscurity-fearing professional musicians — to paint streaming services as the great evil.
What bothers me the most about knee-jerk demonization of tech companies is that record labels are really the ones to blame. It was the labels that used lawyers and lobbyists to bring copyright under corporate control. Don’t hate the industry that’s trying to make it more fair!
I would agree it’s naive to think tech companies would have anything but their bottom lines in mind when it comes to decision-making, just like the corporate oligarchy controlling music copyrights. Nonetheless, look at all the great music that has come out of the labels despite them being largely evil empires. The same will be true of tech companies, but they still have a long ways to go before they can compete with the unabashed exploitation of musicians at the hands of the labels. Remember McLuhan: “The medium is the message.”
Sure, making music more fair means the 1% of musicians who earn 95% of the profits in the music industry are going to have to take a hit to their paycheck. That’s the shift caused by technology in many corners of society, in music it is embodied by the streaming services. The record labels are the ones who want to see the 1% hold on to their money, because they collect over 50% of their revenue before it makes it to the artist! Who’s screwing who?
Back to bottled water. It’s been a popular thing for technologists to say that “music is like water” because… well… it is. It’s kind of common sense and obvious. Tens of thousands of people have agreed. This is why the click-bait trolling article was written in the first place, like a kid kicking a bees’ nest.
If you visit the link, you’ll notice I started to refute the article point by point before getting overwhelmingly bored. I’ve been fighting against the trolls who demonize the music tech industry for years. It’s getting tiresome. What’s more, the world I talk about — the world in which music flows like water — is already here. We’re never going to regress back into the world that the copyright maximalist musicians are trying to complain us back to. This much is clear in their total lack of advancing any workable solutions for increasing the value around music.
Here’s the problem: Musicians (and many others) are confusing copyright with music.
Music is Free
If you don’t understand why music is free, please take a second to hum a song. Now try to put a price tag on it. You can’t. You need some sort of way of gatekeeping access to that song in order to create value around it. There are two ways: build a fence to keep people out, or build a fence to keep people in.
Copyright is the fence built to keep people out. Patronage is the fence built to keep people in.
Copyright Productizes Music
Copyright has been the way we’ve generated value around music for roughly 200 years, first by protecting sheet music, but most importantly by protecting the song recording. For the first time in the music business, the gates didn’t have to be physical to create value around song. Prior to the invention of the recording, the only way to create value around music was to attract patronage — the main way of doing so was to be paid for a performance. The way to create value in a performance is to charge those who pass through the entrance. The gates were physical and literal.
With copyright, the gates became more like music — ineffable, conceptual. Over time, listeners and musicians were brainwashed by the copyright industry to combine copyright and music into a single concept — “sonic product” — the idea of music as a product to be packaged and sold like any other consumer good. The free music, like that on the radio or TV, was just promotion for the sale of the product — a free sample.
But the product of music isn’t like consumer packaged goods. The “packaging” is copyright, a law that you can’t touch, smell, taste or hear.
That’s where the bottled water analogy comes in.
Streaming music is tap water in a world where bottled water used to be the only choice. Oh sure, you can saddle up to the water fountain of radio, or the office cooler of music television. But to have on-demand access to the water that you want, a bottled-water system makes no sense when tap water technology is here. Sure, plenty of listeners will continue buying bottled water because of its perceived convenience or quality, the rest of us are thirsty and just want a drink.
We’re undergoing the same kind of fundamental shift that happened when music moved from performance to recording, from patronage to copyright.
Of course, the multibillion-dollar bottled water will fight with all its might to protect its profits. This is the true crisis in music — corporations ruining music just for profit. Tech companies are also trying to profit, but they’re doing it by building walls that keep people in, not walls that keep people out. The tech industry is building the music taps, the listeners want it, the musicians want it — only the bottled water industry wants to fight it. Unfortunately, the bottled water industry (and the labels) have lots of money and lawyers to ruin society with!
We need to stop confusing copyright with music. Music exists independently from the access-control mechanisms we use to create value around it. This is not to say the forces of business and technology have no role in shaping music. Quite the opposite is true — we tend to underestimate just how much commerce and technology shape creativity.
But when it comes time to talk about what music really is, the cacophony of music bloggers and complaining professional musicians drowns out the truth.
Music is like water. It’s a free but precious resource necessary for human life that must be maintained and made fairly accessible for humanity to progress. And like water, it is constantly under threat of corporate control for the best interest of the corporation, not society.
The record labels are the water bottlers. You pay a premium, and you feel it in your wallet every time.
The streaming services are the tap. You pay a small monthly fee, and metering makes sure the costs and revenues are evenly distributed.
But guess what? The water analogy doesn’t stop there. Do you see the ocean?
In the music analogy, the ocean is the sea of musicians — the majority of musicians — who don’t make a penny playing music. Forget money, they don’t even get a chance to be heard.
Right now, the sea is undrinkable unless you build an expensive system to filter it. This is exactly where the music industry is right now. We’re trying to figure out a way to filter the millions of musicians playing across the world and deliver something of value to the listener. Or, in water terms, we’re trying to desalinize the ocean.
We’ve come to define the hit song as the pinnacle of music, but that’s not true. The pinnacle of music is in every musician being heard, whether it’s by one person or one million. We’re getting there, and it starts with moving past the bottled water industry.
Even as mainstream culture grows even more monolithic, one by one, people are waking up to this new way of thinking about how we create value around what we create. Control is moving from the corporation back to the individual as profit takes a backseat to community. Music isn’t a product to be sold, it’s a service we provide to each other.
It’s the most exciting time to be a musician… and it’s a pretty exciting time to be a human in general.
So pour yourself a nice, tall glass of tap water and toast to the future of music, where all musical thirsts are quenched!
I agree Zak. When we bought a disc, we had a disc and a cover. It was physical and intellectual property. With digital there is no product in your hand, but record companies want the same price. Their rule with pricing is ‘what can we get’?, Not -cost plus reasonable profit, the way most business works. And I agree with you that ‘music is free’. Everyone agrees that music is a gift, and many musicians are gifted. Who pays for gifts?
Nice job of writing a very thought provoking article Zac! As one who has earned a few bucks performing as a professional musician for over 50 years, and one who has written and copyrighted a song, as well as a guy who managed a water treatment plant during the time when bottled water came from being an obscure commodity to becoming the norm, I can readily embrace the comparisons that you are drawing. With regard to bottled water, the majority of those employed by public and private water districts operated their systems in full compliance with the standards set forth in the Safe Drinking Water Act, but there were a few exceptions and the news media and USEPA took full advantage of those situations to scare the public into believing that all tap water was unsafe to drink. Of course that wasn’t the case but it did wonders for the bottled water industry.
There are certainly some parallels with the music business in that those who you have accurately identified are screaming that the sky is falling are trying their best to encourage regulators to do something about it. They control the supply of “bottled water” and whose water gets into those bottles. If you look back at the great hits of the 30s, and 40s one quickly discovers that most were covered by numerous big name artists and the hits kept resurfacing over and over again, sometimes for decades. That’s seldom the case anymore but it allowed more folks to enjoy the music and when it comes right down to it, isn’t that a large part of the reward musicians are seeking regardless of whether it’s an original piece of work or a cover? ( I.e., to play something that others enjoy listening to?) If they like what they hear they might be willing to book you to play more if earning revenue is part of your motive.
You spoke of the majority of unpaid musicians, but I suspect that even the majority of paid professional musicians will never make a nickel off of a copyright or recording license. They earn their money playing live performances and the exposure they can get from the high tech options available today vastly increases their opportunity to market their talent across a global market. I don’t know if anyone can fully see the ocean you described yet, but it certainly exists and we know that despite the cries that we’re going to sail off the edge of the world, that has been said before and we all know how that turned out! A gifted person, regardless of whether their gift is musical or any other area certainly has a right to share that gift with others in any way they choose regardless of how much noise (It’s sure as heck not music!) corporations or their attorneys want to make.
I like this line: “A gifted person, regardless of whether their gift is musical or any other area certainly has a right to share that gift with others in any way they choose.”
Right now, we all are forced to operate within the copyright-industrial complex because major labels continue to dictate the terms of the music industry on a whole — how much musicians get paid, and how much labels get paid (about 15% and 85% of revenue, respectively). Technology companies, on the other had, treat artists more fairly, giving from 30 all the way up to 90 percent of revenue to musicians. They’re not the ones to demonize.
Like you said, if you’re passionate about music, you will make it, you will find a way. More often than not, that way is the road. However, with digital technology you can now play shows and charge admission on a webcam, start a crowdfunding campaign and raise thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars directly from your fans. It’s never been a better time to be a musician, and one of the reasons is that we’re less “forced” onto the road because we can keep our fans engaged and monetized online.
Great article Zak. But how do the strictly songwriters (lyricists, composers) earn a living? There are those as I am sure you know. Be interested in hearing your response.
Fewer “strictly songwriters” will earn a living going forward. I’m sure from their perspective, this is awful. As callous as it might sound to a composer that doesn’t perform or record their own works, that’s just not going to cut it unless you are the best of the best. It’s kind of always been that way. Now there’s more competition, and songwriter copyright royalties are less lucrative than they ever were (again, they were never that great for 99.9% of composers to begin with.)
I spend a lot of time researching how many musicians there are. There is no definitive way to state a number because everyone has differing views on what a musician is. From my research, I can estimate there are probably less than 10,000 people in the United States who do nothing but compose music for a living. That number might drop to 5,000. We’re talking a tiny minority of all musicians here (anywhere from 100,000 if you count only musicians earning a living, to tens of millions if you include everyone who plays an instrument).
Most musicians I know are doing many different things to earn a living. They might compose for a video game, teach at the community college, play 50 shows a year, crowdfund and license their tracks to a film. The days of a musician that solely composes, performs and/or records are slowly going away, because technology is advancing faster than some creators can adapt.
I think this is a net benefit, tough. There’s a new type of consumer/creator, in the sense that consumption is no longer passive, it’s creative. Part of consumption now is sharing and expression, in other words, everyone is a “composer” now, even though it’s the most basic version. It looks more like a curator or critic today, but mashups and remixes hint at a future where everyone is their own creator/consumer.
It’s not hard to imagine a world in which stems are downloaded by fans, and each fan has their own mix of the artist’s record.
Now, for the surviving “strictly composers”, I think it’s going to be a combination of branching out beyond their silo, and stepping out of the shadows to have more of a visible role. I know this isn’t practical when you have an ugly fat dude writing songs for Britney Spears, but composers need more of a “brand” so that they can take advantage of revenue streams around direct fan interaction. Otherwise, composers will have to dominate niches.
Lastly, I’d say the future of composition is in artificial intelligence. In 10 or 20 years, musicians will still be playing their own instruments, but computers will become a vital part of songwriting. Much the same way supercomputers run every possible combination of gene sequence to generate the best result, computers will record our songs and help optimize our compositions for ourselves or for listeners based on parameters generated by musicians, corporations and/or fans.
(These systems already exist at the upper echelons of the music business — the big three labels pay certain tech companies millions of dollars to pre-test the “hit” quality songs before millions are sunk into marketing them.)
Scary to say the least for the “strictly composer”, but I think it will actually be a boon for composers. In the beginning, these systems will require the solid knowledge of music theory, a professionally trained musical ear, and the ability to manage complex systems, all traits the best composers have.