Free is Not the End (a Fingertips Commentary)

(The following piece was written for an essay collection entitled Chaos We Can Stand, to be published by the music tech blog Hypebot in the coming months. Each of the essays in the collection is inspired by Clay Shirky’s recent book, Cognitive Surplus, in particular his assertion that innovators should push for “as much chaos as we can stand” in implementing new technologies. The rest should be self-explanatory.)

Towards the conclusion of his book Cognitive Surplus, social media theorist Clay Shirky argues for letting technology innovators do pretty much whatever they want, insisting that we gain in the long run as a society when these “would-be revolutionaries,” as he calls them, are not hindered by existing structures of any kind, be they economic, social, cultural, whatever.

Allowing innovators to innovate without constraint does not, however, mean that as a society we end up with chaos, or even anything like it. Shirky is simply arguing for an appropriate division of labor here: let innovators innovate, because that’s what they do. And let society at large figure out the eventual best use of the innovations, because that’s what society at large does.

Not at all a radical statement on the benefits of widespread chaos (although it’s easy to misread as such), Shirky’s words on the matter instead offer a sly but definitive argument for the crucial role non-innovators play in the diffusion of technological innovation into the wide world.

We may as well let those who would innovate try everything, he says, “because most of it will fail.” These so-called “radicals,” he notes, “won’t be able to create any more change than the members of society can imagine.”

What’s more, he adds, the innovators themselves cannot correctly predict the eventual ramifications of their own innovations, because “they have an incentive to overstate the new system’s imagined value,” and because they “lack the capacity to imagine the other uses to which the tools will be put.”

Chaos, in other words, is not an end point but a starting point. It’s a simple truth, but one almost all “would-be revolutionaries” forget.

Shirky’s words, properly read, shed interesting new light on the trouble the music industry has had over the last 10 years or so as new technology has been introduced, unleashing a fair amount of what certainly looks like chaos in its wake.

The innovators, you see, have done their work. It was not the job of those responsible for the creation of MP3 files or P2P file-sharing technology to worry about how their innovations might wreak havoc on existing business models, occupations, or tender artistic psyches.

But—here’s the news flash—it is our job to worry about all of those things, and more. It’s our job as members of society not to succumb to technologist hype or the self-serving rationales of any interest group determined to spin the technology in their direction. It’s our job to make sure we only start with chaos, not end up there.

And this is a very hard job in the 21st century, make no mistake. It’s well and good to let the innovators dream big, but it’s another thing when some of their more anarchic ideas get tossed into the interactive free-for-all/media sideshow that has come to define public discourse.

The combination of social-media-addled mobs and eyeball-crazy web sites, not to mention ratings-happy broadcast media, can make it really difficult for important and reasonable cultural considerations to be properly tended to, or even rationally discussed.

Think about how P2P file-sharing spread so rapidly, and how little most of the people sharing music that way gave any clear thought to the morality of what they were doing—as if basic human justice were somehow no longer necessary because we now had a new and very convenient toy. And think about how today, 10 or so years later, we have millions of people who appear to believe there is nothing wrong with taking, for free, something that the thing’s owner did not intend to give them for free.

And—perhaps more importantly—there are untold numbers more who, whether they think it right or wrong, feel there’s “no going back,” that there’s nothing anyone can do about the rampant sharing of music, whether for or against the wishes of those whose music it is.

But it was not, to repeat, the job of those who introduced the technologies that fueled the P2P networks to think about the chaos it might create. It is most certainly our job, however, as human beings attempting to function together, not only to think about it but to begin, slowly and steadily, to rein it in. Chaos is neither a business plan nor a way of life.

To abandon our humanity in the face of new technology, however gee-whizzy, is to forgo an important function, and to risk widespread cultural—and, even, dare I suggest, spiritual—damage.

Things have gotten particularly hairy here in the music industry because the chaos introduced by technological innovation has been joined at the hip with the powerful, atavistic force of plunder: taking for free what you can simply because you won’t get caught. Satisfying a pretty much reptilian-brain urge, P2P file-sharing became compulsive and seemingly unstoppable.

And so, over these 10 years, the technological innovation of P2P file-sharing has steadily become linked to the idea that recorded music must now be free. This is an irrational and chaotic conclusion to draw but it surely has a powerful allure.

Because the drive to perpetuate the behavior is primal and seemingly uncontrollable, freeloader defenses ultimately resemble excuses addicts give for their habit. “It’s not really stealing because nothing’s being taken,” many will say. “The music industry has screwed us all so screw them,” say others. “We’re already paying to be online; it’s not my problem that the musicians aren’t getting a cut of that,” is a particularly wily defense. Another creative rationale: “In the old days, no one paid for music anyway.”

The arguments are specious and self-serving. (For more on this, see “The Free Music Mirage,” published on Fingertips in May.)

Whatever the specific rationales habitual freeloaders use to justify their craving for taking music for free, one thing they all have in common is a blithe disregard for the cultural value of paid transactions. It’s a huge blind spot. And this is where we, as “members of society,” charged by Shirky himself with reining in the chaos, can begin to do our work, keeping our collective eye on a larger social good than can be envisioned by technological innovators.

Chaos is not easily tamed, to be sure. I suspect Shirky himself has underestimated the extent to which chaos may appeal to certain sub-groups, rendering its mischief more widespread and difficult to counteract than he implies with breezy statements like “the radicals won’t be able to create any more change than the members of society can imagine.” Our world is rather too fractured and fractious to be able to generalize about what one monolithic group called “members of society” will or will not accept in terms of innovative chaos.

But I do believe, as the dust settles on the P2P revolution, that widespread consensus can begin to be forged that will undermine the plunderfest and its perpetrators.

Understand, first, that when I speak of the value of paid transactions, I’m not talking about record company profits. These I don’t care about. No one does, except the record companies themselves, and they’ve long since lost credibility when it comes to money, thanks to their often craven history—from exploitative artist contracts to rapaciously priced CDs to support of unfair copyright guidelines to attempting to “solve” the P2P problem by suing music fans.

I’m talking instead about the interpersonal, human-level value built into the act of giving someone something of value to you in return for something of value from him or her. Typically, of course, the thing of value you hand over in exchange for some other thing is currency, as that has developed as the easiest way to negotiate such transactions on a society-wide basis.

The basic idea of “I give you this so you give me that” has been present in human marketplace transactions for thousands of years. When someone is not willing to play along, we call him a criminal. (Or a toddler, who is developmentally shy of the self-control required to participate in a marketplace.)

Without an exchange of roughly equal value occurring, a marketplace becomes a cruel power game in which one party gets what he wants while offering nothing of equal value in return. Social damage is the inevitable long-term result. That freeloaders are generally unaware of this damage does not mean it is not real, that it is not in fact piling up even as we speak.

I find it interesting that those who take digital music for free that is not being offered for free are not generally attempting to make a grander statement about capitalist society. Few if any seem to be trying to undo marketplace protocol in general, although that would, at least, make some philosophical sense. No, it’s just the digital music they want for free (and okay, maybe movies too, as bandwidth increases).

Therein lies their scam, and their shame. There’s no high ground here for them, despite their often passionate rationales. It all comes back to “take what you can if you aren’t going to get caught.”

Like the relatively young men that they tend to be, freeloaders are filled with a young man’s sense of invincibility and infallibility, jacked up by social-media amplification. No one older and wiser dares to tell such young men what to do, dares to offer a different way that is sensitive to the big picture of history, justice, and culture.

As such, it’s easy for freeloaders to overlook the inescapable wisdom in the homely cliche about there not being any so-called “free lunch.” But in a capitalist society, this is ironclad truth. There may be millions of people in their teens and 20s at this point who have taken music for free without a care in the world, but the world will eventually let them know, definitively, that there is no free lunch. Someone somewhere is paying and is going to keep paying for their taking for free what was not offered on the market for free, and the price will eventually be extracted from them, one way or another.

The payment may come via a severe reduction in the amount of recorded music that ends up being available. It may come via a severe reduction in the quality of the recorded music that is still produced. Or, most likely of all, it may come via a harmful cultural side effect no one has yet imagined or could rightfully predict.

But a negative price will surely be extracted from all of us, eventually, if we remain on a path that accepts as a given that recorded music can be taken, for free, at the will of the person who wants it.

And yet, at this point, I’m not concerned about long-term repercussions because I have faith, a la Shirky, that we will not, at the end of the day, continue on this path. At some point the lunacy of assuming recorded music can and should be free will sink in. And then, perhaps abruptly, we will look back and wonder how we could possibly have believed that music was something no one needed or wanted to pay for. We will sheepishly remember the various schemes floated, with all seriousness, about how bands (or, even, record companies) were to make their money via t-shirts and tchotchkes.

And we will look at one another with the energetic relief that no doubt gripped pioneer towns once they realized that the outlaws with guns did not represent their endless future.

But that day didn’t arrive with people simply sitting back and waiting. As noted, we have to do our job, and that job begins first and foremost with a public rejection of the freeloader mentality. (Here’s one good example: the newly launched I Buy Music dot net.)

I am not out to judge any specific individual who, for reasons that may have seemed compelling at the time, has availed himself of free music over the last decade or so. But I am here to assert that the behavior in question, taking music for free that is not offered for free, is ultimately rooted in an attitude unbecoming of a citizen. It is neither right nor fair.

That said, I also believe the new technology rather obviously requires some serious rethinking about what constitutes fair use, not to mention what constitutes a fair price. (How on earth can there be CDs at Borders in 2010 with an $18.99 price tag?) I also believe that the technology demands that all musicians and record companies offer some free songs in addition to songs that are paid for—ideally, at least one song per every new batch, whether they come in something called an “album” or not.

But just because we cannot revert to the way things used to be, and just because we must learn to change with changing times, and just because music must now be sold more cheaply than ever before, does not require us, culturally, to throw common sense and decency and dignity out the window. Rather, if Clay Shirky is to be taken at his word, we are compelled now to look at the chaos wrought by unimpeded technology and say, collectively, no. Not that, any more. Free is not the end, only the outlaw-ish, chaotic beginning.

It was a pre-rational urge that compelled the taking of music for free, and it was perhaps an understandable first reaction as we all emerged as internet newborns back in the mid- to late-’90s. That made us internet toddlers in the new century, very sure of our untamed desires and very willing to scream when we weren’t getting them met.

And yet, still, we grow. The 2010s are here. May this be the decade we navigate ourselves out of our internet childhood altogether and move in the direction of becoming digital adults. A healthy future for music, and society, depends upon it.

12 thoughts on “Free is Not the End (a Fingertips Commentary)”

  1. Your comments are very relevant to what I am currently working on. For awhile people were suggesting that unsigned musicians could operate like small businesses and make a middle class living from it. More recently I’ve started seeing some suggestions that music should be given away as a gift and it will all work itself out in the end. Not a pay-what-you-want model, but a “this is my gift to you” model. But that only works if musicians have non-music day jobs that pay the bills or if the music consumers reciprocate with their own gifts back to the musicians. Now if we had a way for musicians to get free housing, food, fuel, etc., this would work. Otherwise, they have to generate an income somehow. I’m skeptical that merchandise and live shows are going to be enough by themselves because a lot of consumers don’t have the money. If you have already gotten the recorded music for free and you have limited funds to spend, it’s likely you’ll spend the money you saved on music for those necessities you really need.

    I’m not offering a solution here. And I don’t think music will go away. But being able to make it as a full-time musician may be harder than ever because no new income sources have been created. Rather, one income source (recorded music) has been eliminated.


  2. Real musicians should make money out of live events. Those who can’t be on the road, they can sell their compositions to other artists. But ultimately, music will have to be pretty much free. Not because music has no value, but because could be made with anyone with a $50 software. You can’t compete with 1 billion people f*#$ing around with loops in their free time. You just can’t. There’s simply too much legally free music in the world, even right now.

    And it’s not about quality. No, it’s not. The fact that a few music nerds like us can tell the difference between good music and “easy” music doesn’t mean that the general population can, or even cares. They just want something on the background while working, or driving. Nothing more. As long as it’s catchy, it’s fine, no matter who made it.

    So, the best and most well known “real” musicians will hit the road. But there will be FEW of them. I’m sorry, but right now we’re over-saturated with “musicians”. 100,000 CD releases last year alone! The market can’t get more of this. So the ones who will follow the profession, will be few and between.

    It’s sign of the times. The world is changing, and so professions change. 200 years ago being a clock-maker was rad. Today, that person would not be needed. It’s how it is.

    There are so many people online right now trying to “find a real solution”. No one can find a solution because there is NO solution. It’s like saying, “I’m breeding horses, and this automobile thing came around, let’s find a solution for our business”. Sorry, but there are none. All you can do, is make your profession rather eclectic, or just do music on your free time, after your day job.


    1. I certainly agree that there are far far too many musicians in existence for any but a small percentage to make money. I will be very happy if/when there are fewer than 100,000 albums being released a year, believe me. Because yes, at this rate, even if there were no digital distribution, most music would have to be effectively free simply because of supply and demand (a point not often acknowledged).

      I see where you’re coming from on the quality thing but personally I can’t bring myself to be quite that cynical. I know most people aren’t that discerning but I also have seen–and love it–when a quality band does break through. And it’s different. You can feel the excitement when–accidentally or not–something that’s actually good also becomes popular. Happened just in the last week or two in fact with the Cee Lo song. (Not the radio edit, which is, oddly, much worse, even though only the language has been changed.)

      As for the world changing, of course it does; I am not someone who pines reflexively for the “old days.” But I refuse to be bullied by technology, which is, I think, part of Shirky’s point, even if most people miss it. More to the point, I am weary of the false analogy that’s often made between the advent of digital music and other moments in history when old technology was rendered obsolete by new. Yes, professions change. Who could disagree? But, let’s think about this. Car makers came along and put carriage makers and horse sellers out of business, sure, but car makers were still making money. Market protocol remained. To say that free music is the change that everyone must get used to, just the way horses gave way to cars, is not the logical conclusion it may seem. We’re getting blinded by technology here. A song is still a song. There is no logic that “requires” recorded music to be free. New technology didn’t make cars free or refrigerators free just because the carriage makers or the ice vendors were put out of business. People who wanted to travel down the road still had to pay for their vehicle, it was just a different vehicle. Lord knows I don’t have the solution here either, and maybe I’m wrong and everything will be free, but what the heck, I’ll go down swinging, because it’s wrong, and it’s not because I’m sticking up for an obsolete profession, it’s because of everything I’ve already written on the matter.


  3. @Eugenia. I’m not going to answer your post in much detail because, quite frankly, it’s a re-hashing of the usual filesharer cliches that we in the industry have heard so many times before. Honestly, I wish there were a checklist available to filesharer apologists that could be ticked off. Something like:

    ‘Has what you’re about to say been said countless times before, throughout the history of the debate, and been thoroughly dealt with and debunked by people who know what they’re talking about at least a thousand times already? If answer is ‘yes’, please don’t bother posting it’.

    Just to re-state, once more, the one incontrovertible fact that the music industry agrees on: Going ‘on the road’ COSTS money. It’s a promotional tool, one of the most expensive there is. Many record companies exist almost solely to provide the huge scads of cash that bands need to tour. One band on (BudNubac) has eleven members. They cannot tour for less than a thousand euros a day. How in the name of all that is holy do you suppose that be paid for? Tickets? They’re an unknown band – no-one buys tickets for unknown bands any more! You’re jumping upon the Lady GaGa soundbyte ‘fileshare all you like, the money’s in touring’ to justify wrongdoing. Just because GaGa makes money from her gigs (huge audiences, huge ticket prices) , you have decided to conveniently use her experience as the basis for your worldview. That’s silly and amateur, you should gather some facts together before publishing your opinions.
    As for clockmakers and horse-salesmen. We’ve heard this one many, many times before too. What you choose to forget here is that the model you propose has it’s logical endpoint in music ceasing to exist at all. It’s true, clockmakers are no longer needed, their skill has become worthless. So now, in the main, they do not exist any more. Fine, you want that for music, you carry on with what you’re doing. Me, I would like my children and grandchildren to know what good music, played well, by professional musicians sounds like. It will enrich their lives in ways you cannot imagine – ways in which your life, through living in a world where such music still exists, has been enriched, only you may not notice it or choose to acknowledge it.

    A wonderful piece. Very succinctly put and argued. My only response is that, if you ever feel up to it (I’ve had a couple of goes, but haven’t published them yet), you might want to look at the negative effects that filesharing has on the individual. As you rightly say above – the effects on society are significant. There are also long-term effects on the self-worth and self-esteem of an *individual*, who knows somewhere inside themselves that they are deriving their pleasure, and to a certain extent, defining their personality, with the aid of a cultural artefact that they know they have stolen, and which is the work of an individual who has requested that they do not do so. It’s something like, well, imagine if every day you wake up you go and call your wife a bitch, despite her asking you not to. Eventually, it becomes your problem, not hers. If you catch what I’m saying? At some point, deriving pleasure through hurting someone else, catches up with the individual’s sense of self-worth. It’s a dangerous game, one which the filesharers will easily laugh off with ridicule, but it’s a ticking time-bomb that will have some very big knock-on effects.


  4. So many great points in your essay, Fingertips. I just wanted to add one more angle. As a mother of grade school kids, I do think education is one way to combat this problem. My intention is to instill into my kids the absolute immorality and danger of internet file sharing (danger as in getting in trouble or frying your computer if it becomes plagued with viruses, a common side effect to file sharing). I also do not want that kind of activity happening on my internet account (which happened to a lot of unaware parents in the last decade). I will offer some hope. Someone I know who has now entered her 30s told me she used to file share but no longer does so. I think this is the case with many of the teenagers and 20 somethings who engaged in that activity but now have outgrown it. Still, I think it is kind of like drugs — kids should be given the message that file sharing is wrong. In school, IMHO. Maybe have a musician travel to schools and talk about how stealing music has affected him/her. This really is about our society, and what kind of society we want. Of course, it goes without saying that the blundering music industry should stay out of this effort. They have created more problems for themselves, than have solved.


  5. Shirky predicts an explosion of creativity because people are watching less television. Is there any evidence that this is actually true, once you count television programming on other screens – ie, iTunes, Hulu and the network sites? I didn’t see any statistics to this effect in the book, although I stopped reading closely after he praised LOLcats and dismissed Russian novels. Anyone?


    1. @Robert-
      Completely with you on Shirky’s main thesis. It makes a great TED presentation but is actually almost silly if you really think about it. Why should the internet be the one thing that is inherently good, independent of what people are doing on it? It seems little more than a way of making technology acolytes feel good *automatically* rather than because they’ve done something worthwhile. But anyway I guess we’ve gone off topic. I’ll bring it back to say I don’t much agree with Shirky in general and actually here was agreeing with that one part of the book rather ironically because I’m not sure he would have taken his own words and used them to support the need to pay for recorded music.


  6. >Car makers came along and put carriage makers and horse sellers out of business, sure, but car makers were still making money. Market protocol remained.

    Not in this case. In this case, any [talented?] person can download REAPER, a $40 software, and write music. There are so many free VST/DX plugins out there, that if you have some vague idea of audio mixing, and a few tricks for effects, you can produce HIGH QUALITY music for $0. How do you think Toro y Moi, Washed Out, Blackbird Blackbird did it? And that’s not “bad” music they made. It’s good music, highly popular, getting big marks from music critics! And they all used dirt cheap methods to do it. This is a revolution I’m talking about.

    Yes, music creation software has been in existence for a while, but so far all that was created was these loop-based duba-duba-duba crappy electronic “music”, which didn’t fly with anyone. Especially not with music critics. But when software matured enough, apparently around 2009 if chillwave is any such indication, bedroom music became critic-worthy. Became good, because enough of these bedroom artists got a clue how to use music software in its full extend without being derivative. And most of these people gave their music away for free, since it cost them nothing to produce!

    And this alone puts many “real” instrumentalists/musicians out of the job. Not all, but most. Only the best ones will survive, and only these who will tour. To me, that’s reality. And we’re only in the beginning of the revolution. And it’s a GOOD revolution to have, because it gives the ability for everyone to express themselves.

    Same thing happened with digital arts and photography. DeviantART and FlickR hold A LOT of *high quality* works by amateurs, that can be hanged on a wall, for $0. Just download the file (usually just free, or Creative Commons-licensed), and print it with a good paper. Frame it. You’re done!

    A lot of previously artistic photographers have to “just do weddings” to survive! Very few of them survived doing art full time. Only the BEST of them.

    This is what will happen with music too. And 2009 was the beginning of it, with chillwave (thank you Pitchfork).

    >There is no logic that “requires” recorded music to be free.

    I never said that music has no value. But market will demand free music, because 90% of the music out there will be free, not because it must be free, but because it cost these countless bedroom artists, a grand total $0 to produce. There is no way to compete with that, EVEN if your music is better.

    >Honestly, I wish there were a checklist available to filesharer apologists that could be ticked off.

    BlancoMusic, this is unfair. You essentially call me a filesharer, while I don’t pirate. If anything, I’m one of the VERY FEW people who spends OVER $2000 per year for their music purchases. Statistically speaking (since most people are spending only ~$100 per year on music, according to researchers), you do not spend as much money on Amazon/iTunes music purchases as I do! I’m definitely the OPPOSITE of a filesharer when it comes to commercial music! If anything, I buy too much! My husband is NOT too pleased with me!

    My opinions on music are such because these are the opinions I’ve formed by analyzing the situation for the last 2-3 years. It has nothing to do with filesharing, or piracy, or freeloading. I don’t mix with that crowd. I pay my dues. Instead, I mix with the cynical crowd, who tries to see the “problem” from the 10,000 feet. Always trying to see the big picture. And the picture I see, primarily as a technologist (I used to be a software developer, then a tech journalist, now I’m a filmmaker) is this: your profession has become a commodity. Not exactly yet, but we’re getting there.

    Just like my own profession, now slowly turns into a commodity: everyone with a $300 camera can actually shoot a great film. All it requires is talent. The equipment is not a factor anymore as it used to be JUST 2 years ago!!! I’m not talking about times changing within a 20 year period. I’m talking about TWO years! Two years ago, you needed $3000 camera to shoot a 24p movie, today you need $300.

    Even in software, now you can buy online logo design for your company, for $5. Something that used to cost *at least* $500 just a few short years ago! Even in software, only the super-highly skilled will make a good buck from now on. The rest, will just get by!

    Sure, you can’t buy talent as easily as you can buy software or hardware, but there will be ENOUGH good music from these bedroom artists who charge $0 — enough to displace real musicians! The market will yield because of all the LEGAL freeness, not because music has no value, or because professional music is not better.

    This is exactly why ASCAP is now attacking Creative Commons. You read about this in the news, no? This is major, and it shows that the big heads in the business KNOW what to fear: it’s NOT the pirates. It was NEVER about piracy (and if it was, it was misguided on their part). It’s the *legal freeness* derived from these amateurs! That’s what’s going to kill their business!

    >Going ‘on the road’ COSTS money.

    If you’re not willing to make just a modest living on the road, like the old jazz musicians used to do, then don’t be in that profession whatsoever! See, if you’re indeed a great musician, and people know your catchy songs, then being on the road WILL pay back. But if your songs are known only to a few eclectic hipsters, then no, you can’t sustain a tour financially. That’s why I said that only the best and most known musicians will continue this as a full time profession and will have to hit the road.

    >How in the name of all that is holy do you suppose that be paid for? Tickets? They’re an unknown band

    Exactly. That band should NOT be touring at all in that New World Order I suggest. First they have to build an audience (by releasing BETTER music than everyone else — there’s no other way), and *then* tour. And if the audience just doesn’t get build, no matter the effort, they should get another job! Simple as cake. You have a very weird idea about musicians. You don’t categorize them the same as other professions. If a grocery store doesn’t sell, it closes down. And I’m sure you’d find this normal. But somehow, for musicians, you feel that they should have an audience automatically, just because they’re musicians. No, they shouldn’t. It’s just a job, like any other. Market forces and realities will determine if a band, or even bands from a whole genre, is to become popular or not. And if after 1-2 years this doesn’t happen, despite their best efforts, then they should get a reality check, and go find another job. Play or write music for a hobby only.

    And please, don’t reply to me that stuff about artists (painters, musicians, actors etc), that they live for their art, and if they don’t do their art they better die etc. etc. Only about 0.00001% of them lot are actually like this. Like Vincent van Gogh. Great art, but unmistakably deranged.

    I’m sure my personal opinions are uncomfortable for a label guy, and I apologize for this. I don’t want you to feel out of your comfort zone, especially if your livelihood depends on an actual traditional industry around music. But that’s how I see the world, and its economy, and I must speak about it.


  7. But if a grocery store has all its stock stolen, it takes measures to prevent that. The problem is not that the produce is unpopular, the problem is that it’s being stolen.

    The best musicians in the world already do tour, and already depend on grants and bequests to survive. It’s called classical music and it is suffering dreadfully from the loss of income from sales of recorded product. Almost none of the musicians who made a living in the past, or who do so now, from non-classical music got to that position by recording ‘BETTER’ music than anyone else – the best musicians have always been the low-selling classicists. Not that this matters at all, but your ‘view from above’ is being put across here as if it’s an incontestable truth, whereas all you’re doing is applying the criteria that applies to the marketing of services and products which are not music, onto music. That does not work. Music is sold as a response to a range of stimuli that are in no way compatible with the stimuli that prompts the software, photography or grocery market. Why do people insist on making these analogies as if they are the last word on the subject? The music business will survive and prosper, because people will demand more from their listening than the amaterurish, and even the great bedroom lptop bashers. Sheer virtuosity on musical instruments; the alchemy of a well-rehearsed band; the ability to connect with an instrument in a profound way – all will always be in demand, but the model you propose would actually RESTRICT people’s ability to satisfy those needs, unless they happen to be able to attend a concert by one of those few who have those skills. Its a hard time for the industry right now, but because music is so obviously not software or groceries, it will continue to exist and thrive once the current generation of filesharers realise that the free-music model rewards them with nothing of worth. Music’s eternal, that’s the height of it, something that never seems to figure in the wild speculations of the freeloaders.

    Anyway, when Google enter the music market in the next few months, I’ll be surprised if they allow free music to continue, as it will impact their profits. I’m pretty sure they have the means. Although I doubt they’ll be much fairer to artists than the filesharers are.


    1. Hear, hear, @BlancoMusic. Exactly that: music is not software or photography or groceries and any and every attempt to analyze it as such misses the mark by a wide, sad margin, rendered wider and sadder by the inability of those who analyze matters in that way to understand the limits of their analogies. Music is special–deeply and eternally–and here’s exactly why: it’s our only form of expression that eludes both our eyes and our thoughts, which are otherwise the two things with which most of us navigate and make sense of the world.

      That said, @Eugenia, I truly do appreciate your observations; you’ve made some good points that smartly inform the discussion. (Although let’s aim for somewhat shorter comments if possible?)

      I don’t rule out the idea that there’s some grand sort of “correction” going on here, at the dawn of the digital age. Our popular art forms have maybe, previously, grown too fat, and too entitled? The flood of so-called amateurs* into a previously professional marketplace is surely scary to those whose livelihoods depended on the income previously attainable, not to mention pretty scary to those of us who want to listen to good music. But maybe those income levels were artificial and unsustainable. So maybe this is helping get things back to a manageable level in some way. But, aligned with @BlancoMusic, no way do I believe the output of amateurs is the future of music. (*And by amateurs I should be clear that I do not mean people who don’t make money at it. Some of the world’s most talented musicians don’t make little or no money at it. I mean people who have no training, little skill, and no interest in understanding and developing their craft; people who are in it for a lark because the tools now allow it).

      Most of all, I don’t believe in revolutionary pronouncements and I don’t believe technology changes human nature, certainly not in a matter of a few years. And–getting back to the topic at hand–I do not accept the standard file-sharer’s blase assertion that music should no longer be paid for. And I don’t think technology or software has anything to do with this. Anyone who wants someone else’s song should pay for it, unless that person has chosen to give it away. (Anyone who’s wants someone else’s *anything* should pay for it, unless it’s a gift. Isn’t that pretty clear?)


  8. >the best musicians have always been the low-selling classicists.

    I agree. When I used the word “better”, maybe I should have used the word “popular”.

    >marketing of services and products which are not music, onto music. That does not work.

    Works for me. I don’t see music differently than I see other parts of the economy. You put music in a special category. Like market dynamics don’t work on it, because “music is different, special”. Well, it is special in terms of being something that brings pleasure and requires high creativity. Music is part of who are. Music is very important. But it’s not special in terms of market. It will abide by the same rules that any other product will. That’s my view anyway, and I guess it’s the very root of our disagreement.

    >Sheer virtuosity on musical instruments; the alchemy of a well-rehearsed band; the ability to connect with an instrument in a profound way

    Well, music needs and habits change. You know, before Miles Davis released “B***** Brew” in 1971, he attended a rock festival (which was the reason why that album was influenced by rock). He saw the crowd going wild, over some musicians that didn’t even know how to play their instruments correctly! Some of the singers in the festival were pretty bad singers too. He made a special note of that, and he was very surprised! He could not understand why people made rock popular (at that point, jazz was only selling 3% of the overall music sales).

    The reason is simple. People (like, 99% of them, not you and me) just want a catchy melody that makes them tap their feet. They don’t care about musicians connecting with their instruments. This kind of music appreciation was diminished when jazz died. Consumers are just after this catchy melody that they can hum while driving, or when working, or when showering. They don’t care about their music of choice being high art. They don’t care if their favorite rock band can play their instruments as well as a classically trained musician. As long as they can manage the basic melody live, they’re happy with it. That’s why pop garbage sells.

    >Music’s eternal, that’s the height of it

    I agree! Music will never die. Music is integral to human nature. But this doesn’t mean that we would need many full time musicians in order to have “enough good music”. A lot of what consumers need can be fulfilled by amateurs, for free. That’s the part you fail to acknowledge.

    I guess we’ll know in a few years. We will all still be here reading FT, so we can have an editorial and a discussion again in a few years when we will have more data. 🙂


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