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Music Industry Piracy Surcharge: A Precursor to Social Art Patronage?

March 14, 2008

I know that my focus is on writing, but I thought that this was interesting. On Wired today, there is an article about a proposed surcharge that the RIAA would leverage on ISPs. Basically, they want to charge every broadband subscriber in the US $5/month, which would then be divvied up between artists based on their popularity on the internet.While the prospect of it being run by the RIAA sounds terrible (it is too expensive and would probably screw indie artists), some form of the basic idea is inevitable. Which doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, really. People’s first reaction is that it is a punishment. But if you look at it as an investment in culture, rather than a punishment, then it begins to make sense.

The current business model (of selling CDs that cost as much as DVDs and suing single mothers for downloading music) is not working. This point has already been well covered elsewhere, so I won’t go into it in depth, but it has three major points:

  1. Charging $20 for a CD is simply insane, especially with the cost of production diminishing.
  2. Downloading music is cheaper, faster, and more convenient.
  3. Treating your customers as criminals is unlikely to generate much loyalty.

So why does a blanket license make sense? The main reason is that it is the best way to actually get paid for music that is distributed online. Sure, there are things like iTunes, but if you don’t want to deal with DRM and reduced quality, then your best remaining choices are to steal it of be robbed at the record store. With a blanket license, you are ensuring that money gets put into the system, and after that, it is only a matter of distributing it. Which is where the problem comes in.

Who gets the money? The obvious answer is that the money should be divided up based upon who popularity. The problem with the RIAA’s proposal is that it would probably only cover artists in their cartel. So obviously, an impartial third party needs to decide who gets the money. For that, they need a way of tracking popularity that isn’t susceptible to manipulation (I can guarantee you that the first thing people would try to do would be to inflate their actual number of downloads). This is a daunting problem, but a technological one, and a solvable one at that.

How much should it cost, then? $5/month? Sure, if production costs were high. But they aren’t. With more than 50,000,000 broadband subscribers, that would work out to $250,000,000 a month! I imagine that if the charge were closer to $.10, it would still make sense, and people would be willing to go along with it. In addition, if you view it as an investment in culture (and therefore in society itself) there is no reason why you couldn’t levy the charge on the entire population (after all, how long will it be before 90% of the population has broadband?). Frankly, it doesn’t bother me that big bands might lose truckloads of cash, I just want artists to be able to make a living, and for that all they need is a steady enough income to subsidize live shows, which is where the real money has always been (and which the increased downloads would help publicize, anyway).

Something like this will happen, sooner or later. The key is to try to make it happen in such a way that it benefits society as a whole, rather than a group of worthless suits who are just now waking up to the the fact that suing single mothers is not a viable business model.
So why, as a writer, am I writing about this? Because there is no reason why online media can’t head the same direction. Everything from ebooks to photography to illustration could be covered by something like this, and will probably have to be. The problems that the music industry faces are the same problems that anyone who creates a product in a digital medium, are similar. So far the two answers are to use DRM (which can never work, being based upon the principle of preventing the user from using the media) and to give it away for free as promotional material. At the moment, the second approach is working for fiction, but when the electronic medium becomes the primary one, it will cease to be viable.

Some things to read and think about:

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2008 11:24 am

    Sounds like a neat idea. I can certainly live with this.

  2. March 14, 2008 3:59 pm

    Good post. I like how you’re looking at this from a cultural perspective — society at large! What a concept. Of course, the argument could be made that with less of a big payoff potential, a lot of artists will go after more lucrative callings elsewhere. But I think most creatives in the music biz are there out of sheer love. If anything, I think it’ll be easier for music to evolve.

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