Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Value of Music

Last week, FMC released a document detailing some principles for artist compensation in the digital age.

Reading through the echo chamber that resulted made me think.

We have copyright and patent law:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
"Promot[ing]...the Arts" means to me that our Constitution encourages and rewards creativity that has value. All artistic creations aren't meant to be equal; instead, the Constitution sets up a meritocracy. In short, a creator has an exclusive right for a limited period of time to benefit from their creation IF others put value on it.

In some of the best parts of Larry Lessig's latest book Remix, he discusses what copyright used be for (sheet music and player piano rolls), who it used to affect (not you, me and your grandma), and how a bunch of small, unnoticed changes got us to where we are now. The problem now, of course, is in trying to derive money from a creation that's no longer tangible but freely available.

But doesn't anything that you want have an intrinsic value to you? The problem is only in not having found a way yet to collect money on that intrinsic value.

Skill, talent, creativity and experience have value. I wouldn't go into a restaurant and eat a meal and expect to skip out on the tab. I wouldn't hire a carpenter to frame my house and expect to stiff him. The intangible thing - the song - that a musician creates is no different.

And if copyright is abolished and musicians in the future only get paid on live shows and merchandise and whatever their fans will donate to help them record?

Well, musicians will continue writing and performing music, but it would be harder for some to make a living since they'd have to tour to be paid resulting in more musicians with day jobs; songwriters would suffer since they don't tour; recordings would probably sound worse since more of them would be done on Garageband rather than in studios; the recording/producer/studio industry would shrink since fewer bands would be able to afford a studio recording; recordings might become akin to a vanity press; the way we promote music might change since we'd no longer necessarily be promoting an album...and I could keep going.

Maybe that will be the next incarnation of the music industry. But, for better or for worse, I don't think so. There are too many people with too much at stake for that to realistically happen. The ISP levy experiment on the Isle of Man is an interesting step towards the future.

It doesn't matter how, by whom, or whether the system of payment to musicians resembles the train wreck that it is now. The important part is ensuring that the inherent value of creativity gets recognized.

My guess is that everyone will finally strike a balance that makes no one entirely happy - which is the mark of a good deal anyway - and we'll all attribute today's kvetching to growing pains.

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