Saturday, November 24, 2012

Changing views toward recorded music

I frequently encounter the following argument, in this case voiced by Terrence Eden:
Imagine, just for a moment, that your Sony DVD player would only play Sony Movies' films. When you decided to buy a new DVD player from Samsung, none of those media files would work on your new kit without some serious fiddling. That's the walled garden that so many companies are now trying to drag us into. And I think it stinks.

I agree as far as it goes. Many people are involved in walled gardens, and they aren't as good as open versions. I am particularly worried about the rise of Facebook, a site that is openly dismissive of rights such as privacy and pseudonymity.

I am less worried about walled gardens for music because I think about music differently. Let me describe two relevant changes.

First, copies of music are now very easy to replace. Aside from the price being low, the time is now instant: you can click on a song on Amazon or iTunes and have that song right now. As such, the value of a stockpile of music copies is much lower than it used to be; I haven't pulled out my notebook of carefully accumulated and alphabetized CDs in well over a year.

I saw the same thing happen a decade ago in a much smaller media market: academic papers. For most of the 20th century, anyone who followed academic papers kept a shelf full of journals and a filing cabinet full of individual papers. That changed about a decade ago, when I started encountering one person after another who had a box full of papers that they never looked into. Note I said box, not cabinet: they had moved offices more recently than they'd gone fishing for a printed copy, so the papers were all still in a big box from their last move.

The second change is that I have been mulling over how a reasonable IP regime might work for music. While copies of music have been a big part of the music market in our lifetimes, it's a relatively recent development in the history of professional music. We shouldn't feel attached to it in the face of technological change. There are a number of models that work better for music than buying copies, including Pandora and--hypothetically--Netflix for music.

Selling copies has not been particularly good for music in our culture. Yes, it provides a market at all, and for that I am grateful. However, it's a market at odds with how music works. Music is transient, something that exists in time and then goes away. Copies are not: they are enshrined forever in their current form, like a photograph of a cherished moment. As listeners, the copy-based market has led to us listening to the same recordings over and over. On the performers side, we have a winner-takes-all market where the term "rock star" was born.

We would be better off with a market for music that is more aligned with performance than with recordings. Imagine we switched to something like Pandora and completely discarded digital copyright. Musicians would no longer be able to put out a big hit and then just ate the money in indefinitely. They'd have to keep performing, and they'd have to compete with other performers that are covering their works for free. I expect a similar amount of money would be in the market, just spread more evenly across the producers. Listeners, meanwhile, would have a much more dynamic and vibrant collection of music to listen to--a substantial public good. Yes, such a scenario involves walled gardens, but that's a lesser evil than digital copyright.

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