Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Is downloading the culprit?

The New York Times has an interesting piece on the effects of music file sharing on songwriters who do not perform their music (Songwriters Say Piracy Eats Into Their Pay).
While the basic premise that lower album sales are causing these songwriters financial harms makes perfect sense, the article so oversimplifies the issue it sounds like a well-written RIAA press release.
I doubt anybody would argue that songwriters may have the most to lose of any segment of the music business simply because their pay is almost exclusively limited to royalties. They don’t get concert revenue and don’t sell merchandise like artists, they’re not on salary like the A&R creeps and don’t have stake in multimillion dollar companies like the executives (on whom I’d place the greatest blame for dropping sales.) But while the premise is right on, and an angle rarely mentioned in the press, the scope of the article doesn’t take into account anything but downloading.
The article immediately introduces the “piracy” argument, which unfortunately has become commonplace although it ignores fair use.
"I am hurting," says a 75-year-old composer who made $250,000 in royalties in 2002. His publisher said he drew only about half that in 2003.
Interesting sob story, but Charles Strouse’s big ’02 was due in large part to the enormous success of Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” which sampled his work from "Annie.” Can’t we presume, perhaps, that the rap album and song containing his sample simply didn’t sell as well another year later? Blaming the “pirates” for the obviously short lifespan of a hit album is a little suspect, especially for a composer who has admittedly “gotten fat off this business.”
I’m skeptical of the reporting in this story because it really does nothing more than extend the RIAA’s hard line argument without exploring anything else and further degrades the concept of popular music into nothing more than another cash-cow for large multinational corporations.
Barton Herbison, executive director of a Nashville-based industry group, says there are half as many songwriters in the country music haven as there were a decade ago. You could easily draw a parallel between that time period and the boom of marginalized, commercialized gloss pouring out of Nashville. Never has country music sold so well or been so popular as when it was at its dumbest and most generic. Pushing big-ticket acts to superstardom with slick production and marketing blitz absolutely tore the heart out of the genre, just as it did with rock ‘n’ roll.
What the executive director says next takes the cake, though:
Illegal downloading "doesn't just affect Garth Brooks. It affects songwriters, it affects every studio in Nashville that's closing, it affects the working musicians. What it ultimately affects is the choice of music the public gets. When I have No. 1 songwriters working other jobs, we're not getting more music."
This is a retread of the RIAA’s bread and butter argument and it’s patently false. Truly passionate musicians and songwriters create their art not for money but because that’s simply what they do. Making a living at it is a bonus, ask any guitar god toiling for free beer and 20 people on a Monday night.
Maybe we can hope Herbison is right about one thing: When the dollars dry up for the songwriters and artists peddling the crap that dominates the airwaves, they’ll go away and leave room for those with actual passion and talent.
The article goes on to quote a rep for the National Music Publishers' Association theorizing that illegal downloading has cost them more than $300 million since 1999. That’s quite a figure, but I’d like to hear just how much favorable speculation went into the calculation.
Still, that’s not the point and what the music industry refuses to consider is the fact that they’re own policies in the 1990s contributes, at least in part, to the drop in album sales.
While there are plenty of places to stick blame in the music industry, (Clear Channel, Ticketmaster, Wal-Mart, etc.) I’m just talking about the recording industry. Five major companies own nearly everything and have increasingly turned their focus to just the immediately successful act. Nurturing artists, or even having the slightest bit of faith in them, is a lost practice. If a debut album can’t go platinum in a month, the company doesn’t throw them jack shit in terms of marketing. So the quality releases from the big 5 are getting less each year, with most of the worthy albums coming from established acts who can’t be toyed with. And, for some reason, those cds cost $18.99? Give me a break.
Music lovers will continue to buy good music. Teeny-boppers will continue to buy over-produced crap from the manipulated, image-oriented acts. But don’t expect music lovers to cross over. When a quality, critically acclaimed act does break through and achieve commercial success as MTV/VH1/radio darlings, they’re often shunned by their fan base (see Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay) because music lovers are so disgusted by the big 5.
I don’t buy the line that downloading is ruining the recording industry. It may hurt the bottom line of corporate profits, but that should not be the only focus of a record company. If downloading (illegal or not) succeeds in breaking the big-business structure, then all the better.