Duplicating the Arts out of existence?

Records, Cassettes and CDsLet’s do a little thought-experiment, a mental exercise.

Imagine that someone invents a magical computer program and makes it available as a free download from the internet. The program allows a person to create perfect, functioning copies of manufactured items out of thin air – a kind of ultimate 3-D printer. For example, if you have just bought the latest mobile phone or other electronic device, simply show it to the webcam on your computer, click the button and instantly a perfect working copy of the device appears from nowhere. You can now make new phones to give to all your friends. You can even send the phone to them over the internet and it appears right in their hands.

Next, imagine that someone figures out a way of using the program to duplicate gasoline and stream it over the internet into your car’s fuel tank. Suddenly we all have as much fuel as we want, for free!

How many people do you think would buy the next model iPhone and how many would just copy their friend’s phone?

What would that do to Apple’s profits?

How many people would buy gasoline when it could be streamed, albeit illegally, for free? After all, one’s chances of getting caught are negligible.

How ethical do you think it would it be to copy an item that cost a company millions of dollars in development and manufacturing?

Would people feel guilty at all about copying computers, cell phones or gasoline?

What would be the impact on the oil business? Apple and other companies? The economy as a whole?

What incentive would there be for companies to create new products when they know they are not going to make much, if any profit from them?

How long do you think it would be before the whole thing was shut down by the powers that be?

You can probably see where I am going with this. With recorded music, film, television and books, the above scenario is already here. The ease and availability of internet sharing and streaming means that almost any media content is just a few clicks away at zero cost, often mere hours after it is released.

Much has been written about our current “everything-for-free” culture and its effects. I think that we have hardly begun to see the effects and unintended consequences of these things, as they have been around for such a relatively short amount of time. Let’s take a quick look at some history, then what is happening in the present, and finally speculate a little about the future.

Media piracy, in one form or another, has been around for a long time. Back in the days of vinyl albums, the music industry bemoaned the introduction of the cassette tape. This, they said, would kill the industry, as people would just tape albums from their friends rather than buy them. And tape them we did, but the cassette copy would have inferior sound quality to the original album and would not get you the artwork, lyric sheets and so on that came with it. Often, taping an album would be a precursor to buying it in order to get that original quality recording and all the extras. Yes, people taped music and gave it to their friends, but, aside from the aforementioned quality issues, taping was a real-time activity and making multiple copies was a time-consuming business without expensive equipment.
Professional pirates did have that equipment, and there was a lively trade in bootleg cassette copies of albums and concert recordings, but again, because there was physical product involved, there were steps that could be, and were, taken to curtail this. What is more, and perhaps more significant, is that many people seemed to care about piracy; they felt that the bands they loved were being deprived of income that they had worked for by taping their albums.

The advent of the compact disc, with its digital-quality sound, widened the gap between the real product and the cassette copy even further, at least until the widespread availability of writable CDs and drives allowed people to duplicate albums on CD with no loss of quality. Once again, mass duplication required lots of time or expensive equipment.

Then along came the mp3 file. Suddenly, music could be converted from CD to a file that was small enough to send by e-mail, even with a dial-up internet connection. The appearance of Napster and other peer-to-peer sharing networks meant that there was now a huge amount of music floating out there in cyberspace just waiting to be downloaded, and all for free. We now had, in essence, the magic duplicator I described at the beginning of this article. Similar processes soon developed for ripping video files from DVDs and so on.

The lawsuits started and eventually Napster was shut down, but the genie was out of the bottle. The technology was now freely available to anyone to share media over the internet. Torrent sites, MegaUpload and others soon followed, and artists’ entire discographies were being uploaded and shared, as were movies, software, books and anything else that could be turned into digital form. Efforts are ongoing to shut down pirate sites, but so far without much success.

Turning specifically to music, legal means were and are available to purchase music downloads, such as iTunes, and many people used them. However, another unintended consequence soon became clear: Customers were no longer purchasing entire albums in such great numbers, so revenues dropped dramatically.

Today, the mp3 is going the way of the Compact Disc, the cassette tape and vinyl record. Streaming music is where it is at. The growth of internet-connected mobile devices means that listeners now have, almost literally, any music they can think of available on-demand, streaming to their device wirelessly either for free (ad-supported) or at a nominal monthly fee thanks to services like Spotify and iTunes Radio. Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime do a similar thing for television and film, and Scribd and the recently launched Kindle Unlimited do the same for books. And these are just the legitimate, legal services.

The above services are all fantastic for the consumer; however, they are far less impressive for the creators of all that content. If musicians thought the income from a 99-cent song download was a comedown from a $15 CD, the income from a play on Spotify, to pick one of the streaming services, must seem like a crash landing. The average payout per play, according to Spotify, hovers somewhere around the half-a-cent mark. Note that this is an average, meaning that some artists will receive more and some will receive less. It’s not such a wild guess that the major-label artists will be getting the better deal, although still receiving tiny payments. Even assuming the half-cent earnings per play, this means that two hundred plays are required to earn you a dollar before taxes. By comparison, assuming you made $0.66 from that mp3 download sale, two hundred downloads would have netted you $132 before taxes. Quite a difference.

The knock-on effects of these changes are different for established major-label artists from the effects on independent ones or those at the beginning of their careers. The big names have lost a significant part of their earnings, it’s true, but they still have the backing to be able to put on extensive tours, often with corporate sponsorship, with lavish stage shows and skyrocketing ticket prices to recoup some of those losses. Plus, in the case of long-established acts, they (hopefully) have the money they earned during the years when album sales were strong. New acts and independent artists now face much tougher challenges to making a living at their craft. I have discussed elsewhere the difficulties of earning money for live performances, and even if an artist could somehow gain some recognition among the thousands of other independents streaming their music, they would need to be clocking up in excess of 20,000 streams a day to make something like the equivalent of minimum wage.

Realistically, if things go on the way that they are, music will be another area where the middle classes will be largely eliminated. There may be a small number of big-name artists earning a decent, though probably modest by their past standards, living. For everyone else, their artistic endeavours will have to be supported by another job, by a rich sponsor or by being independently wealthy. Recorded music may be available for free, but instruments, recording equipment and so on all cost money. The idea of a professional musician may vanish, with music being a pursuit for those who can afford to do it as a hobby. Going back to my earlier question about the magical duplicator, what incentive would there be to devote one’s time to the creation and production of music or other content if there was no realistic hope of ever making a living from it?

If that isn’t a grim enough view of the future for you, consider this. Not one of the streaming music services has yet made a profit. They are all surviving on venture-capital funding. That isn’t going to last forever. The investors will want to see some return on their investment at some point, and if they don’t, the money will dry up. What will happen to streaming music then?

Many writers argue that it is entirely possible that the outcome of all of this may eventually turn out to be positive in the end for both artists and their fans. I certainly hope so, but at the moment I cannot see how that may be. There may be a very long road ahead before we get to any kind of positive outcome. There will continue to be people with the desire to write and play music. There will continue to be people who want to listen to music. What remains to be seen is whether there will be any cultural shift back towards people seeing that music as having some perceived monetary value. Perhaps music can somehow be made collectible again in the way that albums were. Several people have suggested ways in which that could happen. Perhaps it will take a generation or two without any professional musicians or any significant evolution of new musical styles to make people realise what they have missed.

Whatever happens from here, the truth is this: Music is important. Art is important. Books, film and television are important, because they are all part of our culture. People have expended thought, passion, energy and effort in creating them. Even this web page, precisely because I have taken the time to write it, becomes part of that cultural document of what it meant to be alive in 2014. These things reflect who we are and what our cultural values were at a given moment in time. They are our contribution to history, and that is too important to lose.

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