Musical Piracy? No Such Thing – Own Drummer

There seems to be a lot of talk about this phenomenon, so let me weigh in with my 2 cents’ worth.

I can’t take this one seriously, even as a 10-year veteran of a rock band. Basically, the anti-Napster movement is about royalties and “artistic property”, and the argument is not only ingenuous but silly. If the record companies really wanted to take a stand on this issue, they should have taken it when Sony (? I think it was them) made the first tape-recorders, oh-so-many years ago—or at least tried to enjoin manufacturers from making a recording medium as opposed to a play-only medium (like phonographs). The fact is, copying of music has always existed, even in the days of musical scores (hence the appearance of “publishing companies”), and the music industry has never been able to quell it.

Nor should they. Alone among the artistic community, musicians have another highly-lucrative means for earning income—which is performance. (Actors also have the same opportunity, but not even Mel Gibson could fill Madison Square Garden for a week like, say, Eric Clapton could.) I might be old-fashioned (cries of: “No, Drummer! Not YOU!”), but I think recorded music should serve to play a role of advertisement for the band’s music—in other words, records should exist to create interest in a band’s performances, not vice-versa, which is the current scenario.

Now, of course, this would transfer the control of the band’s fortunes from one set of greedy capitalists to another—from the recording industry to the concert promoters (the latter not especially highly regarded either, and with good reason)—but even promoters can be sidelined if bands took control of the entire process—bookings, insurance, transport, etc. Unfortunately, of course, musicians as a rule have the business acumen of a 3-year-old, and most are unwilling to endure the trauma of actually managing their own careers. Poor babies.

So now we have the interesting phenomenon of a very few millionaire rock stars whining about loss of royalty earnings, made against a group of people (their fan bases) who are, by and large, nihilistic anti-establishment types. Does anyone else see the irony here? (One of my very favorite quotes came when Lars Ulrich of Metallica publicly complained of the “theft” of his music—to which a Napster supporter made the devastating rejoinder: “F*** you, Lars! It’s OUR music!” Truly, an existential moment.)

Which is the other point. Outside of the mega-bands (who are truly a tiny percentage of all musicians), nobody makes any money from royalties, for the simple fact that most rock bands are lousy and their records sell squat. So all those restrictions against copying of records benefit a very small number of people—and other than the musicians themselves, the main beneficiaries would be the record industry, who, speaking from personal experience, are no different to Procter & Gamble in the marketing of artistic creation as “product”, except that P&G doesn’t have the moral perspective of a lizard.

So basically, I would suggest that if bands want to earn lots of money, then they should hit the road and perform—work for a living on a day-to-day basis, just like everyone else in the world has to, instead of living off the proceeds of a ditty composed many years ago. And if that source of revenue is inadequate for their needs or else too exhausting, then they should do what other less-fortunate or less-talented musicians are forced to do—go into a line of business that DOES pay higher wages, like investment banking. Why should they be different from anyone else?

Finally, there is a perspective of technology that needs to be addressed. Had the recording industry created their own version of Napster, with single-user-play capabilities, and set about selling their artists’ repertoires at some ludicrously low price (say, 5c for a hit single), and 50c for an album, Napster would never have been born, because the benefits to the new middle man would have been negligible. Certainly, the actual cost of online distribution of a piece of music (about $50 in total) would have become insignificant when 200,000 copies were sold online at 25c a copy—and the tiny outlay would have made piracy (ie. “swapping”) not worthwhile.

I can almost hear the conversation:

“Dude, can you send me a copy of the new Metallica album?”
“Dude! Like you don’t have a quarter?”

But the record industry has an ingrained and obsolete profit machine in the creation and distribution of CDs, which they were unwilling to compromise. So someone built a better mousetrap and beat them to it. “Free” only has currency when set against something that has questionable value, such as a $19.99 CD that cost about $5 to create and ship. “Free” has little currency against something that only costs 25 cents. Had the record industry decided to junk their CD copiers and sold music over the Internet at insignificant (but still profitable) prices, all the existing fuss would have been a moot issue.

At the heart of all of this, of course, is money. If I make money for myself by using someone else’s work, and do not at least acknowledge that fact by some kind of royalty, then I should be sued. In other words, if I hold a fund-raising event and generate interest (and therefore money) by showing a Disney movie at the event, then Disney should be compensated.

Except that Disney has already made unimaginable profits from the cinematic showing and video sales of “Pinocchio”—just how much MORE money do they want to make?

I am aware of the anti-capitalist nature of this argument, and as a staunch capitalist perhaps I should be ashamed. But I’m not. Johan Sebastian Bach’s family does not collect one penny of royalties from the Disney Corporation, despite the fact that Disney’s “Fantasia” contains Bach’s mighty “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” in its entirety. Disney could only get away with it because of the 100-year “expiration” period of the music copyright laws. The 100-year copyright expiration basically acknowledges that, yes, enough is enough when it comes to earning money from royalties.

So basically, the only difference between Disney’s using of Bach’s work to make a for-profit movie, and my using of Fantasia at my imaginary fundraiser is a matter of timing. So I can’t make (un-royaltied) money using Disney’s product at a fundraiser, but my grandson could at HIS fundraiser, without penalty?

Something about this argument stinks. Anyone care to show me why it doesn’t?

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