A High Price for Free Music

To the ‘feels like free’ crowd, two examples from the summer of 2014 have shown just how strange and illusory is the ideal of a music market with no barriers to consumption and no price to the public. Barriers, it turns out, are sometimes valuable to patrons and sponsors, and costs to the public are not exclusively financial.

Apple’s U2 giveaway to 500 million iTunes users has yet to reveal its strategic brilliance; Emeli Sandé shared a stage on the river Thames with a car, to debut a pedestrian hashtag-inspired song. Sandé left me longing for the uncompromising brilliance of Grace Jones (does Mr Kipling make madeleines?), an artist her ‘team’ have obviously learned from. With wonderful irony Bono’s paean to punk, ‘The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)’ carries the following message at the YouTube link offered by the Guardian website:

“U2 – Songs Of Innocence …” This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Apple Inc..

Sandé is available on YouTube – find it, if you like, via the Jaguar cars website, and your tracking data will add to the marketers’ conviction that they are the smartest cats on the planet right now.

Our sophisticated modern economy offers us many ways to pay for music; it should not need pointing out that doing so is practicably unavoidable, as the price of music used in marketing is included in the price of each and every product. Through taxes and levies we support broadcasters and arts programmes which pass on part of their funding to musicians and the music industry. Most of the money collected for this mode of payment comes under ‘public performance’ schemes. Here is what PWC had to say about it in an IFPI report about just the sound recordings side, published in 2008:

…the estimated range for the potential global value of sound recording performance rights is between USD 1.9 billion (an increase of 56% over current collections) to USD 2.9 billion (an increase of 141% over current collections) annually.

And here are IFPI’s numbers from 2013:

Performance rights income topped US$1.1 billion globally for the first time in 2013, increasing by an estimated 19 per cent in 2013, more than double the growth rate in 2012, and accounting for 7.3 per cent of total record industry revenue.

One step back from this compulsory payment for music is the theme park model offered by subscription services, in which unlimited listening is offered in return for a single, usually monthly payment. This has the virtue of moving the pain of paying away from the pleasure of consumption, and allowing people to express a general preference for music in their lives as well as a degree of preference for which music they listen to.

It also has a significant difference from public performance in that the price to the subscription service is set by the copyright owner in a private and direct negotiation. And that means that the two sided wholesale market – between artists and recording / distribution companies on one side, and on the other side those intermediaries and services – is exponentially more complicated and competitive, even as the eventual cost per listen to the consumer is a simple function of plays divided by subscription price.

Outside the fawning response of the fanbase, critical reaction to models where payment is either indirect or non-discriminatory falls into a few categories. ‘Selling out’ is an obvious one; music industry insiders worry about ‘training the consumer to expect free music’; artists and superfans are concerned that intermediated markets ‘rip off artists’.

These are important ideas in the narrative of popular music. Authenticity of the artist’s voice is valued, and corporate sponsorship undermines it no matter how that corporate might be perceived. The shift from ‘consumer pays’ to ‘somebody else pays’ undermines the independence and authenticity of the consumer, an idea that could probably do with some deep examination as it inverts the very common themes of product and brand authenticity in modern marketing. The degree to which music is seen as an authentic product will govern how much a consumer cares about ripping off artists, but it is surely true that few of us like to be coerced or bribed into something we think might be unfair to others.

There are two deeper and more troubling problems with ‘feels like free’ for music. It would be pointless to say that music should not be commoditised, but that does not mean we need to believe that a hashtag driven marketing campaign is an ideal creative inspiration, or that a marketing department is the best arbiter of the value of the result. There is no way to measure or value the future loss of authentic and personal creativity that the commercial sponsorship of artists might cause, which makes it both harder and more important to care about it. Otherwise we would need to believe that Sandé’s song and U2’s album can be the epitome of musical creativity and expression despite their genesis and mode of emergence into the world.

The other deep problem, as illustrated by Apple’s takedowns on YouTube, is that when you don’t buy freely in a market you pay with freedom in return for the product. For Apple, value is partly about the extent to which they can define and own the space you inhabit. A previously private space – your own music library – has been shown to be shared with Apple; you can delete the album, but cannot regain your privacy. To an individualist like me that is sad. The Ramones inhabited a space that could not be privatised by any corporation, and their record sales are a historical proof of their inability, deliberate or not, to sell out. On behalf of all of us, and co-opting Joey Ramone’s name, U2 sold that space to Apple.

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