Copyright’s Role in the Future of Music
Copyright’s Role in the Future of Music
Copyright’s Role in the Future of Music

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    Technology has changed the music industry. Does copyright need to change how musicians earn money?

    Last week, I attended the Future of Music Coalition’s Future of Music Summit here in Washington, D.C. On the first day of the conference, panelists and speakers offered their views on a number of issues regarding music and policy. Often, these views differed, especially on whether copyright law should change to protect professional musicians in an environment where people can get music cheaply or even for free. However, a changing competitive environment doesn’t necessarily entail that copyright law needs to change accordingly.

    Among other panelists, Count, a long-time engineer, mixer, and producer, argued that, because people expect to get music for free or close to nothing, music’s “value” has declined. For example, Spotify offers unlimited ad-free access to millions of songs for just five dollars a month. Artists get paid little from these kinds of services (although it’s worth remembering that revenue from Spotify and others actually goes to the musicians behind sound recordings, whereas radio broadcasting revenue does not). Consequently, the panelists said, musicians now find it more difficult to earn a living, and we should modify copyright law to remedy that.

    But as other speakers noted, music’s “value” hasn’t declined at all, and the changing nature of music consumption isn’t anything to be afraid of. Tim Quirk, vocalist of alternative rock band Too Much Joy (and now Head of Global Content Programming for Google Play), explained that music itself is priceless. People have always been willing to pay different amounts for music or to support artists they like, so the off-the-shelf price of an album only reflects a portion of the economic value of an artist’s music. All that’s changed is that the casual listener who never wanted to pay much can get more for free now. In contrast, the more dedicated and the most dedicated fans remain willing to pay for deluxe editions and other perks related to their favorite artists. Valuing a song on iTunes as only worth 99 cents discounts this idea; because of one song, a fan might want to buy all the artist’s merchandise and attend all the artist’s concerts.

    Thus, to make money, musicians have to reach beyond the casual listener and find devotees willing to support them. That’s no easy task, but as Peter Jenner, former manager of Pink Floyd, emphasized, it’s always been hard for musicians to make money. In fact, Jenner noted, the majority of the bands he managed flopped financially.

    Quirk also contended that, actually, today’s possibilities for musicians are much better than before; he said that he’d rather have started his band today than in the 1980s. YouTube, for example, has made it much easier for musicians to reach an audience. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo make it easier for musicians to tap directly into the funds of their fanbase. One of my own favorite musicians, Vienna Teng, recently raised over $80,000 on Kickstarter to shoot a music video for one of her new songs and to go on tour across Canada, East Asia, and Australia. 

    As with any technological disruption, existing players often must adapt to continue moving forward. In the music industry, this means competing successfully for listening time from consumers who could choose to listen to almost anything. But the fundamental challenge has remained constant: artists must make casual listeners into real fans in order to reach financial success. We don’t need to change copyright law just to protect established musicians just because how they might get to that point of success has changed.