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Music, Money and the Internet


Music, Money and the Internet
Music, Money and the Internet

The recent spat over Spotify’s payouts to the music industry has renewed a debate that some artists and listeners have been have regarding Music, Money and the Internet.  Of course, there are people on both sides of the issue. Some believe that money should not be involved in music at all.  Some cite historic precedence to support their argument against money.  Others cite the concept that as soon as money is involved in art of any kind it becomes tainted.  They believe that money’s influence over the artist impairs the pure expression in their work.

Others believe that they are providing a service or creating a product, and deserve compensation for said production.  In some cases, they don’t see compensation as affecting their work, they see it as a means to production.

Who’s right?  And, more to the point: where does music (and even other arts) go now that the Internet has become a disruptive force?  I don’t believe that any argument is completely accurate or genuine, and I feel that the answer lays somewhere between all of them.

History Argument

This argument states that the involvement of money in the creation of music is a relatively new idea or concept.  That, in fact, it’s only when technology enabled the recording of music that things got out of hand, and started going wrong.  I can’t completely agree with this assessment as I believe money, or rather compensation, has existed in the artistic process far longer than the invention of the recording.

If we want to go back to a time when there wasn’t any form of compensation involved in the creation of music, it would likely be prehistoric times.  The history of music is an area of study that is pretty heavily debated.  There are several issues, such as the definition of what is music?  It could be that the reproduction of sounds initially occurred for reasons of hunting, or gaming, or shamanic purposes, or several other reasons.  If one considers the concept of intentionality as the key factor in defining music instead of it being a form of imitation or used as a tool in some from, then it likely evolves around the same time was cave paintings were first discovered.

The thing that is clear is that the concept of sound imitation had a function of some sort initially.  Further, it would be a function that took on one or more social roles, and those roles would likely have had some type of value associated with the role. Some social roles that might be considered are motherese, or hunting, spiritual, or event specific (such as religious or spiritual observation).  The knowledge of exactly what kind of value was established is unclear.

Formally written compositions are thought to have evolved over the last 4000 years.  Fragments of cuneiform have been found which indicate the recording of music in written form.  One scholar believes that Asian musical composition may date back to 1000 AD as some ceremonial pieces have been performed long before being recorded in writing around 700 AD.  The Seikilos epitaph is the first known complete song recorded in writing, and appears on a tombstone.  It has been dated from 200 BC to 100 AD.

The point that this line of logic is leading to is: the value of music was established early in society.  Whether it was tied to the exchange of money is uncertain, but it is likely to have been linked to some form of commerce.  The recording (written transcription) of a piece for ceremonial use would likely have been done in exchange for something of value.  The inscription of a piece of music on a tombstone would likewise have been performed for some type of value based exchange.

Music, Money and the Internet
David with harp

While one could argue that the transcription of music for some form of value based exchange would not constitute the creation of music for some form of commerce, but that is an unknown point.  During the Biblical period the Hebrews were known for actively cultivating music.  It was during this period that it is known to have been a subject in the schools of philosophy, and the first professional performers emerged.  By the medieval period there is known to be secular music as performed by troubadours, trouvères and Minnesänger.   These performers were suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church, but later re-emerged.  By the Renaissance period musicians and composers were known to have been in the service of aristocratic patronage, and papal chapel.

So, at an absolute minimum, the emergence of some type of economic exchange that involved the performance and possibly composition of music has been in existence since the 1400’s, and possibly as far back as 600 AD. Part of the establishment of economic value for music composition may, in fact, coincide with the printing press, which is normally cited at around 1377, with the Gutenberg Bible having been produced in 1455.

(Notes: for quick reference to much of the historical information in this section, please refer to Prehistoric Music and History of music articles in Wikipedia.)

Service and Product Argument

Some people fall on to the side of saying that they produce a service or a product and deserve  compensation.  Certainly the argument that an economy evolved with the emergence of professional performers in the Biblical period along with secular music and patronage makes a strong argument that there has been money involved in music for over 600 years, and possibly close to 1000 years.

However, some people point out that it has been the rapid development of technology that has  increased the value of  music in an unnatural way.  I would speculate that the root of these escalated values can be traced to the printing press, and the legal concept of copyright.

The Statute of St. Anne granted the printers of books (which would include the printing of musical scores) a monopoly over their printed works, to defend against pirate copies of works being shipped into England from other countries.  The basis for this Statute was (in part) the previous Licensing of the Press Act of 1662, and in recognition of the rights of the author, the publisher, and the owner of a printed work.  While copyright was enacted for the rights of printed works, over the years it has been extended to cover many other works, including: maps, performances, paintings, photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures and computer programs.

A Victor V phonograph, circa 1907
A Victor V phonograph, circa 1907 (CC BY-SA) Collection of John Lampert-Hopkins, Norman Bruderhofer

In the UK sound recordings came under the copyright laws in 1932, while in the U.S. sound recordings have been under copyright since 1972. (Although there is a move to bring recordings before 1972 under copyright in the U.S.)

These laws being applied to sound recording revolves around two inventions: the phonograph and the radio.  The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1890 (although there are examples of earlier sound-reproduction devices, they lacked the distinct recording capabilities of the Edison device). The first machines were mechanical, and played cylinders.  Later, phonograph discs emerged, which were called Gramophone discs, or phonograph records.  By the 1920’s electric motorized phonographs came to the market.

Bakelite radio at the Bakelite Museum, Orchard Mill, Williton, Somerset, UK.
Bakelite radio at the Bakelite Museum, Orchard Mill, Williton, Somerset, UK. (CC BY-SA)

While the earliest uses of radio date to military use in the early 1900’s,  commercial radio receivers started being produced  in Europe and the U.S. in 1920-1930.  The early period of radio broadcasts (from the late 1920’s-1950’s) was considered the golden age of radio.  It was during this period that the broadcast of music along with news, dramas, and other programming took form.

The recording of music as a business was first established by Thomas Edison, The BBC and Victor Talking Record companies.  They sought to produce recording for the uses by owners of their devices.  However, by the 1960’s radio stations had evolved into a new format of playing pre-recorded music in place of producing live programs.  In the UK in the 1960’s there were no commercial radio stations, instead a series of pirate radio ships came on the air and offered similar programming to the U.S. counterparts.

Looking at this history, it becomes relatively clear that the recorded music industry emerged and grew up between the invention of the phonograph and broadcast radio.  Interestingly, the copyright of recorded music coincides more with radio than it does with the phonograph.  The perception seems to have been that the recording of a music performance for sale as a product was not worth a lot more than that of music in printed form (yes, it was worth more, but the value was proportionate).  Radio broadcast of recorded music seems to have tipped the balance in terms of the value of records.  And, when CD’s replaced vinyl records as the predominant format, “The profit margin exploded and the money got stupid.” according to Steve Albini. Of course, by this point, the music industry had already been expanding their profits by linking music to soundtracks, using all forms of promotional gimmicks, and other means.

Of course, all of this was to change again with personal computers, the Internet, MP3’s and streaming services.

(Articles used as source information in this section: History of copyright law, Sound recording and reproduction, Statute of Anne, Radio, Phonograph and History of broadcasting.)

My Opinion

Economic value in music dates further back in history than most people recognize. Many composers  derived value from public performance, patronage, and printed reproductions of their works.  When sound recordings emerged as another form of reproduction it was just the next step in the process from printed and public performances.

The value associated with music got out of whack with two historical events: the shift of broadcast radio from self-produced programming to recorded music broadcast, and the inclusion of sound recordings under the protections of copyright law.

Of course, there are a number of other factors that coincide with these events (such as the invention of public address systems that allowed for performances before larger audiences, the emergence of underground or independent music labels, the emergence of pre-recorded television programming, the ability to broadcast via satellite, portable recording systems, etc.), however I would suggest that the majority of these events were coincidental or extensions of the changes in social values instead of being directly influencing factors.

The money involved in the music industry today has reached levels that are vastly disproportionate to the natural social value of the works being produced.  Artists like Thomas Yorke and Taylor Swift that are lashing out against services like Spotify have been brought up in a social environment in which the value of music has been disproportionately inflated.  The Internet has provided a new level of technology that has removed most of the gatekeepers that were the cause of the inflation of the value of music.

By removing the gatekeepers and the barriers to entry that existed under the music industry, new classes of artists are emerging, and proliferating to a lever never seen before.

It’s now perfectly acceptable for an artist to eschew all forms of monetary compensation for his or her work.  They can be a “pure” artist if they so chose by releasing their work for free, or just releasing it to streaming services, or however they want to release it.  The audience they will attract will depend solely on their interest, ability and desire to find an audience.

Other artists have taken to the concept of patronage as re-born through crowd-funding sites, or through technology based patronage (like Patreon).  This allows them to have some form of compensation before producing a work, and allows them to build an audience that will likely follow the work to completion.

Others chose to build a following through performances prior to recording and releasing their works.  The example of jam bands like STS9, String Cheese Incident and Phish serve to demonstrate how this can be done.  This also has allowed them to chose or dictate the terms by which they have entered the mainstream music industry.

Basically, things have reached a point where instead of having a single, clear-cut path within the music industry that served as a filter, and over-inflated the value of music artists are now faced with a multitude of options.  And that multitude of options is staggering to say the least.  For an artist to stand a chance in this new world they have to clearly define their goals, determine what they need to reach those goals, and have the means to put together all the assets to reach them.  Basically, we have reached the age of the artist entrepreneur, if that is what they want for their art.

Should there be money in music?  I believe that the money involved in music should be a direct reflection of the artist’s intent.  If the artist is going to try to make a living from their work, then they will need to approach their work as a business much in the way writers have to approach their work as a business (if you think the current music environment is rough, talk to any writer).

What I can say is this: the days of the big money are over.  That doesn’t mean artists won’t find a way to survive by making their music. The days of the multi-million dollar payouts are mostly gone as the music industry slowly dissolves.  The fact is the levels of money are likely to fall back into line with the original values of recorded music, before radio broadcast and copyright laws bolstered an industry that inflated and frequently abused artists.

In closing I will offer a prediction: as the music industry as we know it now erodes and decays, a new series of businesses will emerge.  These businesses will offer the services that are controlled by the music industry now: promotion, mastering, distribution, management, and so on.  They will be far more accessible to any artist that wants to use their services.  They will be structured around either low percentages of sales, or straight flat-fees for specific services.

The old music industry was like a bunch of ambulance chasing lawyers.  There will still be some people like that offering services to artists.  They will be fishing around on the Internet looking for artists that have videos that are going viral, or songs that are racking up lots of plays on streaming services.  But, with a little investigation, the artist will be able to see through these types of people and determine who has a reputable service, and what they can expect from them.

It’s a bold new world for artists.  And in many cases, that scares them shitless.  But over time, with some persistence, planning, and clearly defined goals I believe artists can find their place in this world.  And I believe they can define what they want, instead of chasing a dream that will likely never happen, or will destroy them in the process.