Music Piracy = The Death Of The Recording Artist?
from the how-not-to-move-the-discussion-forward dept
Mike did a post at the end of 2010 talking about moving forward optimistically with our views and expectations of music, movies and media. It's kind of interesting to see the difference in approach between those on either side of the same old debates being had about the subject and how that approach is reflected in people's thoughts and language.
Which brings me to a recent piece by Rick Carnes, President of the Songwriters Guild of America, for the Huffington Post. He asks if music piracy has killed the recording artist. Rick has been discussed at Techdirt in the past, such as when he made some seeminly misguided comments on maximizing per use revenue with regard to iTunes previews rather than what maximizes overall revenue, or that the internet is making it impossible to write music and has "destroyed the profession of songwriting". These are pessimistic words and thoughts. And in his latest article, there is more pessimism that really needs to be addressed.
Rick discusses his fondness for The Beatles and some of the amazing things they did for music and experimental recording techniques. He then goes on to suggest that the reason The Beatles were able to do that type of thing was largely because they stopped touring and could focus their efforts in the studio instead. For the younger crowd, it might surprise you, as it did me, to find out that The Beatles did so little actual touring that, on the whole, they would have to be considered a studio act, not a live act. Basically, they toured between 1962 and 1966, and that's about it. Guess what time period is labeled "Beatlemania". Yup, during their touring years. Why is that important? Because of some of the things Rick says in his piece.
"Today there are few, if any, examples of true recording artists left...The big recording studios are quickly fading into the past and the studio musicians who were able to devote their lives to improving their sound and their technique are a dying breed, replaced by home recording studios and sample-looping software."
I don't see how this makes sense. There are plenty of recording artists around today. But besides that, there's a ton of recorded music being produced. And the reason you're seeing smaller operations spring up to provide studio-style recordings isn't because listeners don't care about quality. It's because the difference in quality has been rendered negligable by advances in technology. This is a good thing for music lovers, because barriers are coming down. I think that perhaps if Rick could see this from the perspective of the music fan, he'd see it that way as well.
"Album sales are an after thought since music piracy has obliterated the ability to support an act through recorded music sales alone. Recorded music is given away as a promotional loss-leader, sold as an adjunct to a new tech device, or as an impulse buy at big discount stores."
To be fair, if we're only comparing The Beatles to everyone else today, Rick probably has a point. But that's a silly comparison. The Beatles are the best-selling musical act of all time, according to many sources. But, even in its most profitable time, were album sales really supporting any significant percentage of the musical acts around? Through the wonder of music label accounting, even in the 60's, music acts were rarely able to make it on record sales alone. And I think if Rick can get away from The Beatles example for a moment, he already knows this to be true. If it weren't, why would it be such an anomaly that most bands couldn't stop touring the way The Beatles did? I'm just not sure things were ever the way Rick says they were. And then there's this.
"In the 19th century, British, Scottish, and Irish music were not protected by US copyright law. This lead to US songwriters having to compete with a flood of free music coming in from overseas. Our native-born composers like Stephen Foster were reduced to writing the only type of music that the British weren't producing, i.e. minstrel songs. The traveling minstrel show was the only place that Foster could eke out a few dollars. The focus of the Minstrel shows was most definitely not the music but the comedy show instead, mostly racist in content. History shows that Foster did not enjoy writing this type of music and was capable, when given the opportunity, of writing much better work. But it wasn't until 1909 and the new US Copyright Act, that protected the work of foreign writers, that US songwriters no longer had to "compete with free."
Ugh. If I'm reading his allusion correctly, I see two astounding claims here. First, The Copyright Act of 1909 was responsible for the obliteration of a great deal of racist comedy in the United States. Secondly, if piracy continues, that racist comedy is going to come back. He can't really mean that, can he?
And I'm a little fuzzy on the logic here as well. You had music lovers in the United States that were being "flooded" with music from overseas. Ostensibly, this is music they wanted, because it was being consumed. So, basically, Rick is saying that less copyright led to a flood of musical output. Wouldn't that be a cultural benefit? But then, in 1909 with the Copyright Act, that flood was stymied and United States musicians were better off...because foreign music was protected? Doesn't that seem to suggest that copyright was used as some kind of import levy?
In any case, I don't think Rick should be as concerned as he is. There are plenty of examples of musical acts that produce amazing studio music and do a ton of touring (The Rolling Stones, anyone?). I recognize that some of this may be political posturing as Rick tries to appease his base constituents of songwriters, but perhaps with a little less rhetoric and a little more discussion, we'll all find ourselves in a better place at the end of 2011 compared to the beginning.