Archive for May, 2010

The Future of Music

May 8th, 2010  |  Published in Art and Literature, Everyday life, Political Economy

Recently The Atlantic published a piece about how “a generation of file-sharers is ruining the future of entertainment“. The piece is pretty silly, since it conflates “the future of entertainment” with “the profitability of the major entertainment corporations”, and in particular the record industry. Marc Weidenbaum has a nice explanation of how absurd that is. But even if you believe that the profitability of these companies is somehow necessary for us to have culture, the concern for their health seems to me wildly disingenuous and misplaced. Their troubles are not a function of “freeloaders” or the evils of the Internet. They are a result of greed and an unwillingness to part with an obsolete business model–an unwillingness that has been encouraged and abetted by the state and its approach to intellectual property law.

Here’s my solution for the record companies. All they need to do is offer a service that provides:

  • Unlimited downloads of a huge selection of music from both recent years and past decades…
  • In a high-quality format…
  • With absolutely no copy protection or other Digital Rights Management…
  • For no more than $5 per month.

Why do I think this might be a success? Because it already exists. The SoulSeek network is a file-sharing service that contains a huge selection–at least for the kinds of music I tend to like. And though it’s free to use, for a $5 donation you get a month of “privileges”, which essentially put you at the front of the line when downloading from other users, which makes the whole experience much faster.

I’ve given a lot of money to SoulSeek over the past couple of years–nearly $5 a month, as it turns out. And I would have happily given that money to a similar service that gave full legal access to copyrighted downloads, and passed some of that money on to the artists. But it doesn’t exist, because the record companies still believe they can force us to pay for $12 CDs and $1 iTunes song downloads. They don’t cling to that model because it’s the only one possible, but because they’re too greedy and short-sighted to try anything else.

Of course, the record companies and their apologists would immediately claim that the model I’ve described isn’t economically viable, and they could never make enough money from it to do all the good work they supposedly do to find and develop young artists. But even at $5 a month, there’s a lot of money to be made here. If unlimited downloads at a monthly rate caught on, it could come to be something like cable TV that a large percentage of households pay for as a matter of routine. I don’t think this is all that implausible: people like music almost as much as they like TV, and what I’m proposing would be an order of magnitude cheaper than cable.

According to the cable providers’ trade assocation, there are 62.1 million basic cable subscriptions in the United States. This number of online music subscriptions, at $5 per month, would bring in around $3.7 billion of revenue. In 2005, total revenue from the sale of recorded music in the U.S. was about $4.8 billion. When you consider how much cheaper digital distribution is than manufacturing and shipping physical media, the unlimited-downloads model looks pretty competitive with traditional sales.

Now, maybe this model wouldn’t catch on in the way I’ve suggested. But if people continue to prefer buying their music a la carte, there’s no reason a subscription-based service couldn’t coexist with iTunes style pay-per-download. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of incentive for the big copyright cartels to move toward the system I’ve sketched out here, because the Obama administration seems intent on using the repressive power of the state to force people into consuming media in the way the media conglomerates would prefer. Atrocities like the ACTA treaty are moving us toward a world of pervasive surveillance in which our cultural wealth is kept under lock and key for the benefit of a few wealthy copyright-holders.

In light of all this, the correct response to anyone who decries the moral perfidy of file-sharers is derisive laughter. The media companies have chosen to transition into a form of rentier capitalism that requires them to wage war on their own consumers. In that environment, it can hardly be surprising that the consumers fight back.