Copyright Killed the Music

Don’t you hate when a prediction is realized? A colleague of mine, Stephen Carslisle, recently wrote an article entitled “The Real Cost of Making Music” Stephen is truly a knowledgeable guy when it comes to copyright and music. In the article he quotes someone in the biz who states, “What does not appear to be understood is that the revenue earned from record sales is what allows labels to invest in the next generation of emerging artists.”

Well, there are a ton of “misunderstandings,” and in addition to record sales disappearing, the entire business model for the music industry has been upended. Where did start? How did we, as consumers of music, begin to reward people for their half-assed efforts in creativity? And, finally, what is the future of music?

I have been enjoying music for as long as I can remember. Music has always been a huge part of my life, and while I am by no means an accomplished musician, I am an aficionado who truly appreciates what it takes to be an accomplished and talented musician/artist. All the hours of training, devotion and sacrifices for the sake of putting out great music.

Speaking of artist, what happened to the meaning of that word?? Well, let’s begin at the beginning of the end.

Back in the 90’s, Sean Parker created Napster. As you know, the basic foundation of Napster was that individuals “fund” the online library with their own music, movies and content. That content, for the most part, was protected by federal copyright legislation (of which I am fairly knowledgeable about). These are works created by people who expect to get paid for their efforts AND are entitled to payment. Napster, as you know, was software that permitted these “users” to share their library of content with others, freely. Although they didn’t own this content (only really owned the right to use it for themselves) they uploaded the content to the massive Napster library. Now, in the beginning, I was curious and was one of those users, and downloaded some content myself. However, my internal moral compass kicked in and said, “hey, this isn’t right, not right at all because the creators of this material are not being paid for their work.” At the time the labels figured out what Napster was all about, the record labels tried to go after the ISDN companies, but they figured out a way to insulate themselves against these lawsuits, so the only way the content creators/distributors thought they could protect themselves against the loss was to begin lawsuits against grandparents and parents who were permitting the downloads to happen in their homes. The lawsuits ensued, but then the record companies, etc. realized that this wasn’t working either. This was truly the beginning of the end of the music industry.

Now, as I said earlier, my moral compass kicked in and I stopped downloading the content, almost immediately because I knew it was patently wrong. Unfortunately, people younger than myself, continued to download. Their moral compass had not finished developing and the maturity to realize that what they were doing was wrong, just wasn’t there yet. So, there were no consequences for their behavior. Even though there were lawsuits going on against “adults,” the lawsuits weren’t affecting them. Keep in mind that other file sharing programs were popping up here and there. Most of them have since disappeared because they couldn’t defend themselves against the lawsuits anymore. In essence, what the creation of Napster was saying to the generation of young people who used the program, religiously, was this: “I, Sean Parker, creator of Napster, hereby permit you to steal.” So, now you have an entire generation of people (who are all now considered “Millennials”) that are grounded in this foundation of authorized theft.

On the surface, it just looks like the musicians and artists creating music are victims of theft, a simple cut, if you will. However, the cuts are deeper, deeper than anyone could ever imagine.

Many years ago, long before the internet existed, the thing that brought me the most joy was music discovery. That theme would ultimately become the basis in which I would create an online music magazine. I LOVED learning about new music and sharing it with my friends. It’s just how I was wired. Unfortunately, the only way I knew how to learn about new music was through magazines and then, I’d have to head over to the record store to get a taste of what I had read about. It was an arduous process, but it was all I knew. Once the internet was unveiled, a whole new world opened up to me and now, I could get a taste of the music on the internet before I bought it. Remember you could listen to snippets on Amazon or CD Universe, etc.? This was long before streaming services or Napster were invented. It wasn’t too much longer before Sean Parker thought up the great idea to create Napster. Like I said above, I thought it was interesting, but I already saw how copyright infringement would become a natural part of this platform and I didn’t like it.

My thoughts, shortly after Napster started, was that if people continued to steal music or acquire it without paying for it, the long-term effects would be devastating for everyone (musicians, consumers and the industry as a whole). I opined, silently, that if users continued to steal music, the creative artist wouldn’t get paid for his/her music and be unable to live. That same creative and talented artist would have to go out and get a “real” job to pay for daily essentials and a roof over their head. Ultimately, we, consumers, would be missing out on what could potentially be some of the greatest music in history. The future for musicians/artists and the industry was clear as cloudless day.

Then came Spotify. The concept for streaming music, in theory, is FABULOUS, however, the business model is repulsive. The music streaming industry has created the most moronic price point for listening to music. ($10/month) The devaluation of the industry would continue and I could see even more clearly that we, as music consumers, would begin to lose quality in music.

Folks, it’s happening, just as I predicted 20 years ago. The quality in music is being diluted in a most immediate way. “If you can’t feed the starving artist, the artist will die”…Khila Khani. Art is an integral part of humanity. No matter what the left-brain people try to say, you just cannot survive without it.

So, 20 years ago, I saw the writing on the wall and predicted that without protecting the income for musicians, the truly creative artists, then we, as consumers, would be left with only the Justin Biebers, Pitbulls, Kanyes and Jay-Zees. I am not saying that these people are not talented, but the fact is, NONE OF THEM KNOW HOW TO PLAY AN INSTRUMENT. I didn’t put Taylor Swift into this mix for a few reasons, she is truly talented and she was one of the artists that stood up to Spotify and other streaming services. She was right on. And, while a few of these other above-named artists are self-proclaimed artistic geniuses, the facts are what hit us right between the eyes.

Over the past few weeks, we have watched our rock and roll idols drift away, without younger generations to replace them. Our fear, once all the legends have passed on, we’ll be left with nothing. Nothing, but Kanye.

At the top of 2016, it was reported that “2015 marked the first time in U.S. history that new releases were outsold by catalogue albums.” Someone in that same report responded that this change was due to our legendary music idols starting to pass away and music consumers just becoming nostalgic about their rock legends disappearing from the earth. I would love to agree with this “nostalgia” notion, but I don’t because of everything I know about the industry, because of every article I have read and because of what I have seen over the past 20+ years with my own two eyes.

If we don’t find a way to provide a reasonable income for the up and coming musicians in the world, they won’t be able to afford making the music, real music, with real talent to back it up. We’ll all be left to listen to shitty music, created by lackluster artists and the real talent will be hiding in a cubical or serving coffee at a Starbucks. The industry has lost its way and my predictions are sadly being realized.

P.S. This article was published in the New Yorker on 2/8/16 and while it really provides a fantastic history into the world of Copyright, as it pertains to music, it also echoes my sentiment on streaming and the industry as a whole.