May 21st, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Music Piracy - But First, a Few Definitions

Before I say anything meaningful about music piracy, I want to nail down definitions of a couple of controversial words. These are words that everybody hears, and that many people use. These are words that that most people understand, but in some vague sort of way, and they're only barely aware that they don't all mean the same things by them. So if I'm going to talk about this, and I feel like doing so, then before I do so, I'm going to clarify exactly what I mean by certain words and phrases. And of course, by doing so, I'm going to make it clear just what I think about the current ongoing situation. And since we're talking about an economic and political issue here, I'm talking about job titles, not social roles or what have you. When I have occasion to refer to people who make music or whatever but don't get paid for it, I will refer to them as amateur musicians or amateur whatever.

  • A musician is someone who gets paid to play or otherwise perform music. A professional musician is someone who earns their primary income from, and spends the majority of their working hours, playing or performing music.
  • A recording artist is someone who makes recordings. A professional recording artist is someone who derives their primary income from, and who spends the majority of their working hours, either making or selling recordings.
I would use a separate term for someone who is famous as a musician or former musician, but who neither plays much music any more nor sells many recordings any more, who is now primarily famous for being famous, as they say. Let's call them "rock stars" or "pop stars," in quotes. You know, like the famous difference between an actor and a movie star.

For example, my friends who perform as Beltana got paid, in cash or considerations, for oh, I don't know how many concerts this year. Not enough to live on, yet, but they did get paid for it. They sold a few home-made CDs, too. But for the majority of the buyers of those CDs, the CD is primarily a piece of concert memorabilia, like a band t-shirt, and it was bought at a concert, so I count that as money they got paid for performing. Venus Beltana and her band-mates are semi-professional musicians. On the other hand, Madonna Ritchie will probably spend about 50 days this year performing music, let's say maybe 38 concert dates and 12 days in the studio just at a guess. The other 315 days of the year, her primary income stream is from sales of her records and her primary job is selling those records. Madonna is a recording artist. Using those same standards, Jimmy Buffett is a musician (admittedly, one with a very successful adjunct merchandising business) and Brittney Federline is a recording artist (who also makes some of her money for performing gymnastic routines to recordings of her own music).

Now, here's one of the things that gets swept under the rug in most discussions of music piracy. The overwhelming majority of musicians do not receive any meaningful income from, or spend any meaningful percentage of their working hours on, sale of recorded music. The St. Louis Riverfront Times lists 390 music venues just in St. Louis, and that counts only places that have live music playing or live DJs mixing. Multiply that by about a hundred cities, and add in the scattering of music venues across the smaller towns of America, and I'd say that off-hand there probably about 50,000 music venues in this country. Figure that the average group of musicians in a group that plays in such a venue is four? And figure that the various venues booked on average three acts per venue this week? So, this week alone, my back of an envelope calculation says that 600,000 musicians were paid to perform music. Oh, but wait -- this doesn't include college marching bands on full scholarship, who are getting paid a full time living to perform but receive most of their pay in barter. It doesn't include symphony orchestras, who usually only pay their musicians for playing or performing. It doesn't include the various military bands who got paid all week to perform music. You can probably think of more examples. So the actual number is probably at least several thousands, maybe tens of thousands, more.

How many recording artists actually got paid to work in America this week, do you think? Maybe a couple of thousand? Probably a lot less. What's more, in terms of actual dollars of economic activity, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that the economic activity of those 650,000 or so musicians at least equaled, and maybe even exceeded, the gross economic activity of the record labels. But the money that goes through the recording industry, as opposed to what really deserves to be separately called the music industry, is much more concentrated; most of it flowed through two or three conglomerates. This puts those conglomerates in a great position when it comes to having their voice be heard in public and in front of legislative bodies. Recording artists, because of their visibility, have become the tail that wags the music industry dog.

There were obviously musicians before there were recording artists. There were musicians for thousands of years before even copyright was invented, let alone recording technology. Hell, there was rock and roll before there was much of a recording industry. Elvis played the same music back when he was a musician that he played (less often) when he became a recording artist. The Grateful Dead made money, good money, every year of their careers, until the mainstream "success" of Touch of Gray turned them into recording artists, and that was the first year that they ever lost money. It was also the beginning of the end of the band (and more importantly, the beginning of the death of Jerry Garcia, because as a working full-time musician he had much better control over his drug habit than he could sustain as a professional recording artist and part-time musician).

One of the reasons that I'm such a fan of European imported electronic music in digital format is that the overwhelming majority of it is produced by musicians. Techno artists, and even more so mixing DJs, make the overwhelming majority of their income and spend the overwhelming majority of their working hours, preparing for or performing live gigs. There, they use the audience of dancers the way a recording engineer uses his sound gauges, to tell what's working and what's not, to fine-tune the performance on a second-by-second basis. Unsurprisingly, they record these performances, and the ones that really were successful in moving the audiences they digitize and give away on the Internet, or sell on home-made CDs at cost. Do they do this in hopes of landing a recording contract? Maybe some of them. But the really good music is being made by people who see Internet distribution and hand-to-hand distribution of homemade CDs as a marketing technique aimed, not at getting them a recording contract, but getting them more opportunities to get paid for performing.

Even if the worst-case dire disaster predictions coming out of the record companies came true and those companies all disappeared overnight, with no replacements because the business model had finally broken down, the overwhelming majority of the musicians in the US would never feel any impact on their livelihood. All we'd be missing is a handful of artificially inflated celebrities, and whatever economic activity was previously associated with them would find other entertainment outlets to be spent on. There might not be a whole lot of nationally or internationally famous pop music, just like there already mostly isn't in jazz, dance music, or classical music. Has the absence of pop-stars destroyed, or in any way impaired, any of the musical genres that don't have big-name recording artists? No. So rock and roll wouldn't miss them either.

And by the way, I'm not the only one who thinks so.