Whine of the Rent-Seeker

Twitter has claimed me as another victim. I have my first Twitter argument to show for it. It started when I replied negatively to @mickeybuckno‘s support for the content of an interview between the owner of Deep Elm Records, John Szuch, and “the Norwegian music press”. I’m unaware of an efficient method to share the argument here, but you can get the gist of it from this Google search result. Most recently, @DeepElm messaged me directly as follows:

Please read this from start to finish Kurt: http://www.deepelm.com/filesharing will take 5 minutes of your time

Which brings me to this post. That underwhelming and hyperbolic article demands a response that I couldn’t possibly flesh out to a thoughtful extent in 140 characters. Also, I had already read it and having satisfactorily beaten English, I find this particular reading assignment rather annoying. Therefore, the cold hard truth about the recording industry, for labels major and indie alike, will sound colder coming from me.

No one ever went to a record store with the intent of buying intellectual property, even before the advent of relatively inexpensive internet access, cheap CD-R drives, and useful codecs. Rather, they went in search of physical media–vinyl, cassettes, and compact discs, which have significant manufacturing, distribution, and inventory costs–with which they could put in their stereo systems to reproduce music. Even though the some of the companies behind these media colluded to keep prices artificially high, the thought of paying for something tangible, collectible, and somewhat fungible made sense. Furthermore, upon breaking or losing such an item, one would find himself shit out of luck. If consumers ever honestly believed that they were dealing in intellectual property, they would have demanded discounts upon purchasing albums they already owned in other formats, or fresh copies at little to no cost in exchange for their worn out vinyl. Now that modern technology has enabled us to freely replicate, transmit, and store (musical) information, we see the recording industry suddenly pulling the intellectual property card, now that it’s in their favor to do so. And so the rent-seekers whine that their formerly hapless tenants should start to consistently avoid their hotel-ed Park Place, calling us thieves and pirates just because we’ve found better ways to spend what we have of our disposable incomes. How pathetic.

Instead of wasting their resources lobbying for stronger protections and governmental intervention, suing fans, and calling names, members of the recording industry need to innovate and devise new business models. Small labels and individual acts probably have an advantage in doing so insofar as they lack the corporate inertia preventing them from experimenting with new ways to make money with the music they compose, record, and perform. As such, I find it upsetting to read Szuch’s paranoid, delusional, and self-important complaints that acts like Radiohead are “devaluing music”, that equipment manufacturers are preying upon helpless music labels, or that the fate of music itself hinges upon the preservation of labels like his own and their aging business models. Get over yourself, John! At least Radiohead is trying something. At least equipment manufacturers sell worthwhile products. And let’s not forget that music predates the recording industry. Even amid increasing sales of digital copies of audio tracks via the likes of iTunes, no one is buying intellectual property. Consumers are paying for services that they find worthwhile, they’re avoiding the wrath of the RIAA, or they’re just trying to get money to their favorite musicians. Ultimately, unless they intend to make litigation their new business model, members of the music industry will have to stop relying on the notion of intellectual property. You can’t expect people to honor it when they’ve never done so before. If you really want to survive, come up with a worthwhile product that doesn’t exist solely in the realm of litigation.

Suggested reading: Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s