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“Socialiazing” Music

by Sachin Balagopalan on March 23, 2008 · Comments

I was channel surfing last night and stumbled upon the VH1 Rock n Roll hall of fame awards where Billy Joel was inducting John Mellencamp into the hall of fame. During his speech Joel jokingly eluded to the fact that age was a big factor in the music industry - if you die young you end up selling more records (like Elvis Presely and Jimi Hendrix). He was joking that it probably would have been a “good” career move for Mellencamp when he (Mellencamp) had some serious health issues a few years ago. But now that he survived he had actually outlived the music industry because the record companies don’t sell many records anymore - because of the internet and the downloading and sharing of music.

Billy Joel might have a point here considering the fact that more artists these days (especially the fledging ones) are looking for non-traditional outlets to distribute their music rather than the typical route of signing a contract with a record company. Billy Bragg has an op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times where he talks about social networking sites that seem “artist friendly” by allowing musicians to upload their music to the site without relinquishing any of the rights to their material. The music uploaded by the artist is then available free of charge for members to download and consume. Bragg is arguing the point from a compensation and royalty point of view and specifically in the context of the recent sale of Bebo to AOL for $850 million where the founders walked away with $600 million. The question is should the artist be compensated the same way other investors do in a start-up once the start-up is sold or acquired by a larger company for (in some cases) exorbitant sums of money? After all the free music was probably a key factor in attracting membership and in turn generated huge amounts of ad revenues.

The musicians who posted their work on Bebo.com are no different from investors in a start-up enterprise. Their investment is the content provided for free while the site has no liquid assets. Now that the business has reaped huge benefits, surely they deserve a dividend.Technology is advancing far too quickly for the old safeguards of intellectual property rights to keep up, and while we wait for the technical fixes to emerge, those of us who want to explore the opportunities the Internet offers need to establish a set of ground rules that give us the power to decide how our music is exploited and by whom.

IMO the analogy between a financial investor and a fledging musician is not entirely accurate. An investor who pumps cash into a start-up does so because they believe in the idea/concept/product and are making a financial commitment with the explicit intention of gaining some sort of financial dividend at the end. With a financial investment there is also risk involved - if the start-up fails to live up to it’s potential the investor could lose their entire investment. In the case of a fledging musician there is no risk involved in uploading and making their material available to the masses. The artist does not relinquish control over the material - they still own it. In fact the artist gains a distribution channel for their material which translates to popularity and eventually financial gain. Of-course the social networking site potentially gains membership which also translates to ad revenues.

However one thing that remains unchanged and whichever way you look at it the artist is still exploited. As Billy Bragg points out it’s just the question of who the exploiter is and how it’s done.

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