The music industry's men in black
Years ago, in the days before MP3 players, an American friend of mine moved to Germany. His stay was to be temporary, so he'd left all his records, cassettes and CDs behind. The move had also cost more than he'd expected, so he decided not to buy a radio.
A month in his new apartment was more than he could take. "If there is a hell," he said, "it's a world without music."
Music defines popular culture in our time, in a way that literature did in the 19th century and theatre did before that. It helps us to share, and learn from, the problems and emotions of others; it provides a backdrop to whatever we happen to be doing; and it keeps us awake when we're driving. It's the soundtrack to our lives.
Yet, strangely, our popular culture does not belong to us. Most of it belongs to four very large corporations: Warner, Sony, Universal and EMI. The first three are American companies, headquartered in New York City; the fourth is British, headquartered in London.
In 2005, when CD sales really started to decline, I attended a conference of audio publishers, including European representatives of the above companies. The first thing I noticed was that, for being in a creative profession, they seemed remarkably unimaginative. They were all men, and they were all wearing very similar black suits.
The second thing I noticed was the way they talked about other people's creative efforts as if they were their own — as though they were in the business of selling oranges or bottled water or ceiling fans. The artists had legally and fairly sold them the rights to their work, in exchange for distribution and publicity — but the music moguls had an odd kind of attachment to the "product".
The European head of one of the four major labels looked like he was going to cry. "Teenagers are stealing my music" was the gist of his emotional half-hour speech. His company was going to have to cut thousands of jobs. You couldn't tell that from looking at him, though. He was, at most, 30 years old, and his black suit was the most expensive of all.
The conference morphed into a long discussion about digital-rights management and how much of it customers might be willing to put up with. They couldn't stop pirates, they said, only make things more difficult for them. What they didn't talk about was why people were pirating music in the first place. Because it's possible to do so? Certainly. But maybe popular music is no longer worth the price.
Supply and demand govern the dynamics of capitalism. When the supply is too great, the value goes down, regardless of quality. Too big a difference between value and price can lead to a black market.
Two weeks ago today, Jammie Thomas-Rasset from Minnesota was ordered to pay $1.92 million in the most extreme record-industry lawsuit to date. The 24 songs mentioned in the lawsuit represented 1,700 others that she was said to have uploaded to a file-sharing site. Thomas-Rasset, or her four children, or a computer virus, or someone using her password (she claims it wasn't her) was wrong to do this; but the lawsuit was a desperate reaction by a clueless industry.
Its mistakes are too many to count: interchangeable artists are each sold to us as the greatest ever; albums are still published with two good songs and lots of filler; for 20 years, we were made to pay 50 percent more for CDs than for cassettes, even though CDs were much cheaper to make; and so much older music remains unavailable, often because it's not clear who owns the rights. By contrast, people do still pay good money to go to concerts.
When composing songs, musicians often start with a riff or a melody they've heard somewhere else. "All music is plagiarism," a professional guitarist once told me. "It's all been heard before." Should we be surprised if consumers now see it the same way?