Thought experiment! What if copyright did not exist?

Back when I was writing my thesis in 2011 (The Answer is the Ecosystem: Marketing Music Through Non-Linear Communication), my goal was to write a document which could provide artists and labels with sustainable strategies to make money from their music. First I needed to investigate“what had gone wrong.” The industry’s answer was simple: piracy. The more I tried to look at that as a problem to be overcome, the more blocked I got. I came to the conclusion that the problem was broader than piracy and had more to do with moving from channels (linear) to networks (non-linear). I proposed apiracy-aloof strategy which should not be negatively impacted by piracy.

Originally published in my weekly newsletter MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE.

Let’s take this thought experiment a step beyond piracy-neutral. Let’s get rid of copyright altogether. I think it’s easier than ever to survive and thrive in such an environment, and if you can, then you should have no trouble being successful in this day and age.

What would happen to your music if there is no copyright:

  • Large corporations will use your music and try to make money from it without paying you.
  • People will take your music, remove the metadata and claim they made it.
  • People will sample, rip, remix your music without attribution.
  • (sidenote: imagine the consumer value of an app like Shazam in an environment like this!)

This is assuming your music is good enough that anyone would care to do so.

From day 1, you would need a strategy that deals with this reality and allows you to make a living despite it.

First and foremost, you need to develop a unique sound. It has to be recognizable, so that when others try to pass it off as their own, people can identify it and call the fakers out. Fans will be vigilant. Having a unique sound does wonders for building fanbases, because it makes it easy for people to understand what they are a part of (and what not).

Secondly, you’re not going to get paid for anything that can easily be copied. This is not drastically different from how it is today, actually. For instance in The Netherlands, only 15% of the income artists make is from royalties & rights. That’s significant on an industry scale, but less so when it comes to personal income. This means you need a strategy that manages to convince people to spend money on things beyond the copy. Let’s not replace the copy or the stream with some other low-margin headache that you need to sell thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of to turn a profit. You need to sell high-margin products or services to a fanbase that cares. So let’s build that fanbase

Building a fanbase or ‘tribe’ follows a certain pattern:

  • People discover you, so you need to connect them somewhere.
  • Then you need to retain them, which means you’ll be able to contact them and keep their attention on you.
  • Some fans will become active members in your community. They can helpspread the word.

In earlier editions of MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE I’ve talked about using social media to build up followings. I’ve not really talked about video & livestreams much (yet), but in an environment as hectic as one without copyright, I’d follow the example of many streamers and jump on Twitch for some hours every other day. They already have a Music and a Creative category, but they’re not utilized well by musicians. You can be in a constant conversation with your fans, involve them in your creative process or just expose them to it, or if that’s not your thing, play video games, paint, cook, do some woodworking, whatever floats your boat.

This way you will speak the language of the fans. You will understand what excites them. You can find fans that are able to collaborate with you to build awesome products or services that others in the tribe are happy to pay for. True, if it’s not protected by copyright, someone can come along and copy it, but True Fans will know where to get the real thing. People crave for authenticity.

We can take this thought experiment a lot further and it’s interesting to consider what would happen to songwriters, for example, but I’ll leave that up to others for now. Seriously, join the thought experiment and I’ll link your pieces next week. Now starts the rant.

I get quite annoyed when I see artists complaining about piracy or that copyright is too weak or too unenforceable. These are 2 realities that have remained pretty much unchanged for the last 15 years and you choose to set yourself up in such a way that you are strongly impacted by them. WHY!? Because it’s your right?

If anything, I believe the current copyright regime enforces a status quo that does not benefit creators. For one, it empowers huge corporations that do some good things, but also have a lot of agenda-setting power on a cultural and political level. This asymmetry of power is bad. Moreover, it gives artists actual delusional expectations with regards to their business. It needs balancing.

The reality for most artists is: copyright is irrelevant.

  • Your music is going to be uploaded to people’s YouTube channels. They’ll credit you to keep their viewers happy. If it’s a DJ mix, maybe they’ll only credit the DJ.
  • People will sample, rip, remix your music without attribution.
  • And large corporations will use your music and try to make money from it without paying you.

Again, this is assuming your music is good enough that anyone would care to do so.

So don’t rely on copyright. It’s a last resort and responsible for 15% of your income at best.

Be brave. Build your tribe. And achieve your success together with them.

Image by Kmeron.

Originally published in my weekly newsletter MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE. If you enjoyed reading this, please consider sharing and subscribing.

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