Digitised Products: How about just giving up?

In a very interesting talk, music producer, Steve Albini, reviewed the impact of the internet on the music industry’s woes. I can’t do it justice in any summary but he basically said that, for bands, things were not very good prior to the internet. The reason for this is that recording was expensive, distribution was expensive and attention was hard to grab. Music publishers were basically venture financiers who paid for the expensive bits and because they were doing all that also paid to grab attention. The internet has flipped the model by making it hard for music publishers to get their money back and also because recording and distribution are no longer expensive. But attention is still hard to get, it is just that no one has a particular advantage in getting it. This is enough to give bands a break today.

None of that is a new thesis. What is great is how Albini skewers the desperate need of music publishers (and those in that ecosystem) to figure out what to do. He basically says that “they’re dreaming” and that’s it.

From my part, I believe the very concept of exclusive intellectual property with respect to recorded music has come to a natural end, or something like an end. Technology has brought to a head a need to embrace the meaning of the word “release”, as in bird or fart. It is no longer possible to maintain control over digitised material and I don’t believe the public good is served by trying to.

Basically, he is saying that the whole notion of getting people to pay for music itself that they want to listen to at their leisure is not worth pursuing.

What I like about this analysis is that it gets us to fundamentals. In music, there are people who want to supply music and there are people who want to listen to it. The problem is that the competition for listener’s attention is intense. That’s the core of the economics of the industry. If there is a fundamental imbalance in competition — in this case, favouring listeners — you can’t assume that suppliers will get much. Unless, of course, the suppliers can supply something else that is scarce — for instance, connections through online communities or, mostly likely, through concerts. The Eagles — yes, The Eagles from the 1970s — earned $100 million last year. I don’t recall any Number One albums from them. It was all from other stuff.

7 Replies to “Digitised Products: How about just giving up?”

  1. I read the Albini piece when it was first published a few weeks ago, and was surprised it did not get more attention, it’s really very good. Glad to see that it is starting to foster discussion.

    NB: If you want to get the background on Albini, and his pretty remarkable story/philosophy, the Dave Grohl Sonic Highways series on HBO devotes much of its Chicago chapter to Albini’s studio. It’s a great show in general, highly recommended.

  2. Music, books, scholarship, remixing, plagiarism. Normative behavior trumps normative morality: sometimes? every time? The strongest argument for legalized abortion is realism.

    25 years ago bands were bled dry touring, making their money from recordings. Now it’s the reverse, and the fans bleed them, not the management. Should all writers be forced to teach to pay the rent?
    The end of publishers?

    Libertarians are the new pedants, supplanting liberals. But pedantry doesn’t work. That’s why it’s called pedantry.

  3. It’s telling that your example of musicians successful in the current situation is the Eagles, from the 1970’s. Who do you think is really great today who is really successful? So far, I haven’t found a young person who think people will still be listening to the music from today in 30 years, much less 50 years or more.

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