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Music Technology

If nobody is willing to pay you to do something, then it isn’t as valuable to the world as it is to you

David Lowery of Cracker has been getting lots of attention for his long verbal kicking of an idiot. The short version: a girl boasted about never paying for music, and Lowery basically told her that when you download, you’re forcing musicians to kill themselves.

I think both sides are rather overwrought here, so hurrah for legendary producer Steve Albini, who takes issue with the idea that musicians – almost uniquely among artistic fields – somehow deserve to be paid lots of money for what they do:

If nobody is willing to pay you to do something, then it isn’t as valuable to the world as it is to you. You then decide if it’s worth doing for its own sake. If it isn’t, quit. If it is, carry on and who knows, maybe people will see value in it later and reward you. If not, you’re still doing something you want to do.

Albini’s argument is that the war on free is over, and free won. No amount of arguing on the internet is going to change that, so you either need to adapt to the new realities or get out.

my point is that there’s no return in trying to enforce these rights once they die a natural death, but there’s plenty of return in building a new paradigm that embraces the free sharing of music. The old way of monetizing recordings is over, and an industry still clinging to it is doomed.

Albini isn’t saying that’s a good thing (or a bad thing). It’s just a a thing:

Why is there no booming sculpture industry? Why are there no help wanted ads for mimes? Some creative work is valued more than the rest, and which art is so beknighted changes over time. In the near future you’ll see a lot of work for phone ap design, much less for magazine layout.

Creative work is not primarily work, it’s primarily creative, and people do it because that’s how they want to spend their time. Its a rare confluence of circumstances that makes money change hands for it, and players in the game need to have quick feet.

One of the arguments used in these debates is that it’s all very well saying artists need to tour, but what if they can’t or won’t?

If your music/art is not making money in the commercial sphere and you’re not willing to perform live, then the only ways you can make a living would be through the generosity of a patron, academia or grantsmanship. Those avenues are unaffected by content being available for free on the internet.

Downloads have changed the industry. Of course they have. But the truth about music is, like most creative arts, the overwhelming majority of people who do it aren’t financially rewarded for doing it. Even the really successful artists were a minority. Creative industries are famously low-paid: the majority of novelists, for example, earn a pittance – and those are the supposedly successful ones. Most don’t earn anything at all.

As Mick Jagger put it back in 2010:

people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone!

Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone.

So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.

This is not unique to music. Technology destroys industries. Check out the Yellow Pages next time it falls through your letter box, reduced from A4 to A5, hundreds of pages to a handful. Check out the state of high street retail, or travel agents, or Blockbuster video, or anything else whose business model disappeared overnight.

The boom in recorded music was due to control and scarcity: the only way to get music was to buy it on a physical disc or cassette, and the people who made the discs and cassettes controlled supply. That’s gone, and you can mourn its departure all you like, but no amount of online censorship or tracking is going to make it come back again. The kids value videogames and internet connections and iPhones more than they do music.

Recorded music is no longer special. The money has moved, and if your motivation is money then you need to move with it.