I've been following with considerable interest the whole Emily White furor. The nutshell version: an NPR intern named Emily White admitted that she has more than 11,000 songs on her iPod but has only ever paid for 15 CDs. This triggered an upswell in the ongoing debate about file sharing, piracy, ethics, and practical issues pertaining thereunto, most notably an impassioned criticism from David Lowery, the frontman of two rather obscure bands called Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker.
Many different people and sites have weighed in on the matter. The most interesting take I've found yet is from Jay Frank at billboard.biz, who argues that people aren't stealing David Lowery's music because they've never heard of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker (I happen to have one CD of each, both legitimately purchased), and most people don't steal music if they're curious about it, they just stream it and move on because they don't want it cluttering up their hard drives. He thinks that the decline in revenue experienced by musicians is due to greatly increased competition and a diluted market, and that fame and name recognition makes more of a difference to musicians' bottom lines than questions of who pays how much for what. He makes a reasonable case. But then, so do Lowery and, for that matter, White. And so do many of the thousands of people who have commented on this issue at dozens of sites.
It's the carrier you can charge for
Be that as it may, the "meta" issue that's roiling the waters in the arts business (which were never placid to begin with—let's get out in front of that) is that the way producers control the trade in creative content is to control the carrier medium. That is, you don't buy music, you buy an LP, or a CD, or a cassette tape; you don't buy the words of a novel, you buy the bound stack of paper they're printed on. You don't buy the news, you buy some folded-up sheets of newsprint. And every upset in the way the content is carried creates shifts and changes in someone's business model. Lately, of course, digital dissemination has been raising particular havoc with all sorts of formerly reasonably settled business models. Newspapers and magazines are suffering; music labels are howling that piracy is their ruin (never mind that a case could be made that music labels historically pirated the work of musicians in the first place); and Amazon with its Kindle, and more broadly the whole concept of the electronic book, are like a vast black stormcloud on the horizon of the book publishing business.
The implications of all of this would take an essay of book length even to outline. Not to mention that everybody's got an opinion about every little facet of it, which could consume further infinities of verbiage. Each form of content is different, and the changes in each are different, and the implications of all those changes are all different. The situation is...complicated.
But the main thing, to me, is that it's usually the carrier, and how it can be monetized, and how the proceeds are divided, that matters; and, in my view, the particular circumstances of the carrier in each case is essentially arbitrary, almost random, depending on some transitory state of technology and on the greater or lesser effectiveness of the business model, the rules (laws, customs, and contracts) that are in place, and the state of competition.
I personally have a curious relationship to these issues, as I used to work in magazines and now deliver content to an audience without needing to pay overhead. But on the other hand, the most effective way to monetize this site has been by selling prints, which are not images but pieces of paper...carriers for an image and a signature. So I can sort of see both sides of these issues.
Imagine (not the Lennon song)
I just wonder what photography might be like if, by some happenstance, the carrier medium for a photographic picture were less like what it is, and more like, say, a 45 rpm single record in 1966. I can't imagine by what means it would happen, but imagine if, every time someone viewed a picture taken by you, you were to receive a dollar, or a cent, or even 1/100th of a cent. Or imagine if a "like" on a social media site was worth a nickel.
Most photographers wouldn't become rich overnight—I wouldn't—but billions of dollars would begin funnelling toward the producers of photography that aren't being funnelled in that direction now. The transformation that such a state of affairs would visit upon photographers, and photography as a whole, would be marvelous to contemplate, a long domino effect of resounding implications.
And why isn't that the way it is? Well, it just isn't, that's all. When I was a boy an LP cost $3.99, and it was pretty much the only way I had to hear music of my choice when I chose to. Those who produced and sold the carrier—the 7" or 12" disk of vinyl in a cardboard sleeve—controlled the market, and commanded my dollars. They don't any more. Now you can sample every track for free and buy just the tracks you choose and choose not to pay if you like. Why the difference? Just because that's the way it is now. It was one way back then and now it's changed. There's no justice in any of it, necessarily, only circumstance. In 1880, songwriters died paupers; in 1980, they made vast fortunes; in 2080, who knows? For a time, certain parties benefit more; later, other parties do. In one period, everyone makes money; in another, no one does. It all seems very arbitrary to me, a complex shifting mass of competing desires and rules and technological effects and social customs.
I don't have a conclusion here. This whole complex of issues is far too vast, as I say, to even delineate in a short blog post of a few hundred words. It's interesting to think about, though. It's possible that Jay Frank's outlier conclusion might be right. In a world of intense competition and a surfeit of product, "the game is about exposure and awareness...It's not about royalty rates, thievery, or even quality of music. It's all about how [we] get people to know [we] exist."
In the meantime, I have 12,145 piece of music in my computer library, several thousand CDs (many in boxes in the attic), and several hundred LPs. And I paid for almost all of them. Maybe a few handfuls of things here and there I got for free, but they're very much the exception. In some cases I've paid two, three, or even four times for the same piece of music. I pay a fair amount to own photographs, too: I buy books. It's not enough to make photographers rich, for the most part, but at least it's something.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Rob L: "And then there's the example, in extreme edge case form, of Amanda Palmer and her amazing Kickstarter campaign. Very much in line with the 100 or 1000 loyal fans concept discussed here a while back, or several other projects. Perhaps we're seeing a return in some small measure to the era of patronage, where instead of paying à la carte you support the artists you favor."
Featured Comment by almostinfamous: "Well written, Mike. I like this take on the whole brouhaha as well."
Featured Comment by Sarge: "What creates value?
"Conventional business models can be relied to work and endure in markets for tangible goods and services where sellers also tend to dominate. The fewer sellers there are in an industry, the more dominant they become. They can create demand, limit supply, set prices (that they charge consumers or pay producers).
'Also, tangible goods are consumed exclusively. What I eat is no longer available to anybody else. What I own I have exclusive title to. Tangible goods (and services) have both intrinsic value (to the buyers) and scarcity value (to everyone else) which is why consumers are willing to pay for them.
"On the other hand, digital products tend to be virtual 'free goods' with unlimited copies. Downloading a music file doesn't diminish the supply available to others. There is no exclusivity. Why pay good money for something that is accessible to everyone else?
"Non-exclusivity begets market failure. Which is why Steve Jobs' iTunes business model, charging a dollar per download for music regardless of its intrinsic value, works.
"As for TOP's 'business model' enduring in 'the game of exposure and awareness' (Jay Frank) 'in a world of intense competition and a surfeit of [blogs],' its 'intrinsic value to its readers' will have everything to do with it. Some 35,000 folks will be reminded next week what its intrinsic worth is to them."
Featured Comment by Peter Klein: "The Internet has made it possible for the public to steal in such volume and with such efficiency that the concept of intellectual property has become almost meaningless. Yet if your work isn't on the Internet, nobody will know it exists.
"I wonder if we'd have The Catcher in the Rye if J.D. Salinger was forced to give the book away on the 'Net to gain exposure. Or sell to his publisher 'all rights to the work and all its parts, in all forms, original or derived, in all media, now existing or created in the future.' Maybe he could make a living on the sale of Holden Caulfield coffee mugs and T-shirts. If the publisher's lawyers didn't lock those up, too.
"Who decided that Internet entepreneurs are Masters of the Universe, and artists, writers, composers and photographers are mere 'content providers?' Don't get me started...."
Mike replies: Your comment 'yet if your work isn't on the Internet, nobody will know it exists' reminds me of an urban planning paradox that emerged a handful of decades ago. Town centers were getting congested and were built up, so when it came time to put in the expressways, they were routed around the edge of many towns. Whoops! What happened was that businesses sprouted up around the bypasses and the old business districts withered. I used to live in a town in Illinois that was a textbook example of this. The historic town square was so pretty it had been used for movies (Groundhog Day was filmed there), but the County had outgrown the courthouse and it took drivers too long to get through town. So the main road was routed in a semicircle around the edge of town and the courthouse was relocated on it. When I was there, not only were many businesses failing in the old town square while the wraparound road had become a stripmall hell, but when I made comments about how pretty the town was, I'd get blank stares from people from Chicago—all they knew of the town was the wraparound road with the strip malls; they'd never seen to the old town center. So to them, the town was an ugly little blight on the landscape with no charm or distinction.
So it is with the Internet. It's where the people are now—it's where everybody hangs out. It's the main road skirting the old town center. It's not that the old models are being attacked or aren't being sufficiently valued, it's just that they're withering from lack of attention...the traffic has been diverted, so to speak.
Featured Comment by David Comdico: "Thanks for link to the Lowery article. I found it a good corrective to the billboard.biz article which I read first and loathed. I was, however, very sad to read about the suicides of Vic Chestnut and Mark Linkous. I have a couple of Sparklehorse CDs on my rack and they have enriched my life much more than the 15 bucks I paid for them. I can think of numerous items I've purchased since for an equivalent amount that are in a landfill someplace, enriching nothing, not even the soil. Surely, the Jay Franks of the world can provide us nothing more than a Panglossian rationalization for our guilty conscience. The brutal logic of unstoppable technological advancement and displacement is the 21st Century's version of Manifest Destiny."