Home > Internet > Musicians, Labels, Bankers and Retailers: Who Gets Paid What in the ‘Digital Music Age’?

Musicians, Labels, Bankers and Retailers: Who Gets Paid What in the ‘Digital Music Age’?

Here’s something to get you seething, especially if you’re a musician. I came across it the other day in a book I’m reading: William Patry’s (2009) Moral Panics and Copyright Wars (Oxford U. Press).

Patry is a lawyer at Google, but as he admonishes us at the beginning of the book, don’t mistake him as a shill for the company. No, he seems much smarter than that and he gives us a learned treatise on copyright, its history, and the repeated ways in which the copyright industries have tried to whip up the public, nay, the politicians who write the laws, into moral panics.

As he notes, the Copyright Wars have broken out repeatedly for nearly 300 years. In each case, morality and the sanctity of the artist is invoked, yet mostly as a way of legitimating claims that allow the distributors (who are also often the financiers) and not the creators to obtain the lion’s share of the spoils from whatever art form is at stake — books, music, films, etc.

In terms of moral panics, the basic ingredient is to make the industry’s problem a public problem of the highest order, one in which deviants — mods and rockers in the UK that lead to Stanley Cohen’s pathbreaking sociology on ‘moral panics’ in the 1970s that Patry borrows from for his own title– threaten the fundamental foundations of society in one way or another. Now, it is pirates and people who rip and burn music, so the saying goes, that threaten to suck the lifeblood out of cultural creativity.

Patry, perhaps not surprisingly comes down full-square on behalf of the communication and media technology companies, the ones who make things from the VCRs and DVDs of yesteryear to the computers and smart phones of today: the Apples, Nokias, Microsofts, LGs and Google’s of the world. Copyright industries, in a tale well worn, but novelly told by Patry, are the enemies of innovation.

It’s a great read for anyone who wants to see how media technologies over the past four decades have been shackled by the music and movie industry’s penchant for either eliminating or blunting new capabilities that would allow people to say, record a broadcast and watch it at their own time (time shifting) or shift it from one device to another so that they can watch, read or listen to their content on a device or at a place of their choosing (space shifting). Great stuff indeed.

Now here’s the part that really got my goat, from page 118, where Patry breaks down who gets what in terms of the revenue generated from the sale of music. When CDs were king, musicians received about 9 percent of the sales revenues, the big labels (Warner, Sony, Universal, EMI), about 46 percent and the retailers (Walmart) 45 percent.  Key point: those who created the music to begin with were the low folk on the totem pole.

Now, fast forward a few years to the ‘digital music age’, where stuff is downloaded or streamed online from the likes of Apple, Amazon, Spotify and the 460 some odd other legit sites now in operation, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. So, have things got better or worse for musicians?

Worse. When it comes to digital downloads, musicians now get 8 percent (vs. 9), the label’s stake has soared to 68 percent (vs. 46 percent), the digital download sites get 15 percent (although Apple typically gets 30), and those who finance the transaction — credit cards and Paypal — get 9 percent.

It is a bit of a crazy, upside down world when those who facilitate the purchase of music actually get more than those who created the stuff in the first place. This is the intermediaries’ grubby tail wagging the musicians’ creative dog.

It is an index of a world out of whack. It is a world in which it is not pirates or music swapping amongst fans that are the problem but a set up in which the source of it all to begin with rank at the bottom of the heap.

More on how and why all of this ties back to Google, Patry’s place of business after all, and the rest of the ‘consumer electronics’ and ‘network’ industries in the next few days.  There is a tension between the latter and the ‘content industries’, and they are constantly at odds with one another, albeit just as often aligned. As Google introduces its own ‘digital swipe payment’ system, it now gets to stand midstream in the flow of money between media sellers and their audiences, as Visa, Mastercard, Paypal now currently do.

Google, like Apple want to bundle music and other media, with search or devices, and in their own digital lockers, or the more cuddly sounding notion of the cloud. In each, the bundling practice is presented as convenient, effective, technologically sleek and seductive overall. The name bandied about for such arrangements is ‘Total Systems Integration” (TSI).

I’m not sure why this is necessarily a bad thing. However, TSI sounds a lot like the notion of “one system, universal service” that AT&T rode to monopoly status for nearly a century. It sounds administratively technocratic.

Timothy Wu writes nicely about this in the Master Switch. I’ll write more about it, as I said above, in the next day or two. You may find the ‘refresher’ that I offered a few weeks ago on how the telegraph and telephone gave birth to the recorded music in the 1870s.

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