Filed Under: Intellectual Property
Published On: June 20, 2012
On June 16th, an intern at NPR wrote a blog post where she discussed how she feels her generation no longer needs to “own” music. On June 18th, David Lowery (of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven) made a rebuttal argument in the form of an open letter. Unfortunately, I felt that Mr. Lowery’s argument tread too much on rhetorical fallacy and emotional response while giving historical precedence an undue short shrift. This is a letter that nobody will ever read, but I felt like posting anyway.
I have read your rather lengthy open letter to a 21-year-old college DJ, and despite your attempt to shift the discussion from a realistic one into an emotional and moral argument, I have one item that I think you need to look at. Early on in your letter, you touch on and them immediately dismiss what many of us consider to be the true crux of the file sharing argument.
“Fairly compensating musicians is not a problem that is up to governments and large corporations to solve. It is not up to them to make it “convenient” so you don’t behave unethically.”
To you, Mr Lowery, I apologize. You seem to be mistaken. Convenience and access is exactly the problems that are up to government and large corporations to solve. That is to say, it is a problem for the government and large corporations to solve if these parties wish to stay relevant in the music industry.
Putting it bluntly, you are not entitled to your business model.
You see, in your rush to cast the argument in the light of moral imperatives, you’ve over looked the Darwinian history of disruption and innovation that have created the music industry. Your focus on the current snap shot has grossly overlooked thousands of years for change. I understand, it’s okay. Myopia can do that. I mean, there’s even a cliche that goes something like “those who don’t understand history are something something to repeat it.”
For those new to the argument, let’s take a rather robust look at the story of what we call the music industry and how each new disruptive technology has created a bigger, stronger and more profitable entity.
For the largest part of human history, music was ephemeral. To borrow for a common cliche, to experience music, you really had to be there. There was no real industry to speak of.
However, as the printing press gained in popularity and the price of musical instruments dropped, an industry was created around the production of sheet music.
Sheet music got big. In the late nineteenth and early twenties centuries, Vaudeville songs could be certified hits, selling millions of copies as sheet music. The business was so lucrative that song publishers didn’t want to risk money on something unproven like the phonograph.
Technology, as it is wont to do, advanced. By 1901, recorded music could be mass produced and recorded music playing devices could be to, too. 1902 saw the first million-selling record.
Those who built their business around printing sheet music were at first dismissive, then angry, then horrified at the idea of recorded music. They tried to start a moral panic. In fact, that’s where the mechanical license scheme you referred to your lengthy letter came from.
But moral panics weren’t selling more sheet music. It was too late. The genie was out of the bottle. The sheet music publishers had been disrupted. You’ll never guess what happened next.
You see, Mr. Lowery, the sheet music publishers thought they were in the music business, but really they were in the printing business. The music publishers thought they were entitled to their business model, but they were wrong.
Within 20 years, the music industry was bigger than it had ever been before. Not the printed sheet music industry, but the industry that revolves around people making music.
Of course, after every high there comes a low. People rushed into the phonograph production business and supply outstripped demand. For a time, the phonograph wavered, but don’t worry, there was another technology waiting right there in the wings.
Radio started it’s boom in the Roaring Twenties. Sure, the technology was decades old, but like the phonograph, it took time for what seems like a huge invention today to really build up steam, for the business models to arrange themselves and for the audience to reach a critical mass.
Much like the invention of the phonograph, the then legacy players first dismissed radio as a hobby built on illegal patents. Then they tried to destroy it legally, but that met with a settlement.
In the mean time, sales of recorded music dipped, on average, 15% each year. By 1933, recorded music sales dropped to a scant $6 million dollars, down from a record $106 million a scant dozen years earlier.
Sure that 94% drop killed the music industry. Surely we have no more recorded music today.
No, Mr. Lowery, that is merely how disruption works! You see, legacy players fight change and lose, and then players (old and new) figure out how to leverage that change to build a new industry.
The music industry took a little while to figure out how to take advantage of radio. They tried to add fees and charge licenses, and succeeded in extracting some rent from the radio industry. Eventually, the recorded music industry advanced and we moved into the second golden age of recorded music.
Like most sequels, this one was bigger and better. The recorded music industry pumped out 78s. They pumped out 45s. They pumped out 33 1/3rds. Transistors made home players even cheaper. Demand increased. Sales increased. Suddenly radio, that horrible, nasty, mean disruptor became a welcomed means of advertising music.
How welcome was radio? Well, the very same industry that tried to bury it, once they figured out how to do business with a disrupted model, started paying for more airplay. That’s right, the business model for radio shifted to accommodate the new dynamic.
Granted, pay-for-play was illegal, but it’s not really a bad thing to do something illegal when you’re just trying to make money…right?
The recorded music industry help a pretty firm grip, consolidating and ushering out new formats (when they could control them… looking at you, DAT). Clearly, the recorded music industry had learned their lesson, protect the model at all costs. Do not, at all, be disrupted.
But that’s the nature of the beast. With the rise in processing power and the lowering in cost, digital began to reach feature parity and then surpass the recorded music industry de jour.
And just like every legacy player before them, the recorded industry balked. At first they dismissed the new technology. Then they tried to sue it. Then came the moral panic and cries to protect the legacy business model.
The masses, however, were indifferent. Actually, that’s not true. The masses were, in fact, giddy. The advances in technology meant that previously unheard of amounts of music could be carried around. The entire lives of people could have portable soundtracks. Barriers to discovery were smashed. Things got easy.
On the whole, the music industry did what it always did before. It grew. There are more people making music today, and more people earning money from music today, than at any other point in history. Each year sets a new record.
But there are less people making money from recorded music than ever before. That, sir, is a business problem. Not a moral one.
And the business model is one that is currently being solved. Pandora, Spotify and rdio are all attempting to make money despite the best efforts of the legacy recorded music industry. These are solutions that answer provide the supply. Piracy and file sharing is a symptom of demand and markets that are untapped. Nothing more, nothing less.
Thankfully, many people realize this. Sadly, you do not appear to be one of them.
So, Mr. Lowery, do not attempt to morally justify the killing of emerging technology because you lack the creativity to adjust a business model.
Your myopic nature is not an excuse. You are not entitled to your business model. This fight is already one that you have lost and attempting to draw on edge cases and moral arguments is, at this point, just sad. Get a new business model or go away.
If your new business model happens to be a Quixotic attempts to save failed technologies through inciting moral panics, here is a list of technologies that you might want to consider.
And, if you have time for a personal request, I’d really like to see manual typewriters come back, but can do without VHS tapes.
P. Bradley Robb