Rob Patterson

Music Isn’t Free, But It Shouldn’t be a Ripoff

Quite a convergence occurred a few weeks back within the record business, or rather what remains of it. Soon after the band Radiohead announced that they were offering their new album, In Rainbows, as an online download direct from the group for a price that consumers could choose to pay, a consortium of major recording labels won a lawsuit against a Minnesota woman accused of file sharing.

Talk about a hollow victory ... Yes, the ruling does reinforce the rights of copyright holders to protect their financial interests in creative properties against being shared via the Internet. In principle, that’s a good thing. The majority of creators in the arts are not wealthy. Even my social democratic tendencies don’t go so far as to deny that people should benefit from their creative works, and if they become popular, they should benefit in proportion to that popularity.

But in practice, especially in this case, the ruling is nearly obscene. A young woman doing what many of her peers are doing lost a judgment to large corporate record companies that are in near panic, mainly as a result of their own lack of vision and sheer vanity. Given the kind of record deals that have been the tradition in the music business -- lend musical acts money to make an album, then charge them for the loan against royalties (along with promotional costs and such), and then the company still owns the album. Even the Mob isn’t that rapacious -- one has to wonder who the rip-off artists are in this equation.

This ruling comes a good decade and a half after record companies should have seen the writing on the wall and pioneered digital delivery rather than ignored or even resisted it at every juncture. Plus, the high cost of recorded music in stores includes a healthy chunk for all the acts the companies lose money on -- only some 10-15 percent of what gets released makes any substantive profit, according to best estimates -- as well as the large sums the labels spend to put the best-selling acts over (much of which gets charged against those acts’ royalties).

So now a woman has to pay $220,000 in damages and legal fees for sharing 24 songs. And the way technology seems to progress, the major record companies will still have a hard time trying to stem the practice of digital file sharing (or piracy, as it’s also called).

Meanwhile bands like The Charlatans and Nine Inch Nails -- it is rumored also Oasis and Jamiroquai -- are following suit by offering albums for download at whatever fans choose to pay. Jane Siberry has been doing so for two years now.

Recording acts with any clout in recent years have managed to get their deals with labels reconfigured -- the Dixie Chicks and Linkin Park are two high-profile examples -- so financial arrangements are more equitable to the artists. And Radiohead, whose deal with EMI ended with their last album, are said to be talking to labels for the distribution of physical copies of their work.

Yep, the labels are now struggling the get the rump end of the music market -- retailing plastic -- as well as suing music consumers and finally winning their first jury trial. Some of them are agitating against iTunes, contending that they don’t get a fair slice of the pie from download services, which continue to proliferate. Why? Because there’s money in them there hills.

Accounts say that Radiohead fans are willing to pay from about $2 to 10 bucks for their new album, and a very informal survey of consumers in a Boston Herald article felt like $10 is a fair price. It’s basically the iTunes price as well, and my idea of a fair album consumer cost for as long as it started to exceed that price I paid when younger.

If record companies had been selling CDs for $10 since the price of the discs themselves fell, around the time that they could have led the charge themselves into digital delivery, one has to wonder if things would have turned out a bit differently. Maybe there wouldn’t be at least two generations out there with substantial numbers of music lovers who, to some degree, feel they should get music for free.

For some time I felt a twinge of regret about the record business crumbling, but that passed a while back. I’m old enough to remember when it was a business of genuine music aficionados, even if most of those colorful characters were also tough businessmen and some actual rogues and rapacious thieves. Now it’s a bunch of floundering incompetents who expect consumers to cover the costs of their mistakes, inefficiency and lack of vision -- the musical version of the Bush administration and taxpayers will pay for their bumbling for decades to come.

Consumers have rebelled and won, even if they are still being sued. Artists have come to realize that they have power and independence. The landscape is being reconfigured. Long live the music business, because as long as people still make music that people want to pay money to hear -- and I don’t believe that will ever end -- there will be money to be made there. But the record business as we knew it is dying. Even if the $10 album can help what it is turning into become viable, we won’t see the advantages as well as possible losses for some time to come.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2007

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