Moving The Goalposts

I love Billy Bragg, his attitude, his on the sleeves politics, his music, everything about him. So I read his op-ed in today’s Times with interest.

In it he argues that Bebo, which may or may not have built it’s audience on the backs of artists who uploaded their music for free consumption, should have shared some of their $850mm payday with those artists.

I think that specific suggestion is not workable for a host of reasons, but his basic point – that creative artists  (whether they be musicians, filmmakers, screenwriters, painters, poets, etc, etc) need a way to make money online and they don’t have one – is directionally correct.

Some of my favorite bloggers have already weighed in on the discussion. Arrington in his classic in your face fashion feels no sympathy and argues that online is the best promotion that an artist can find in today’s world. Mike is right, but the problem is "promoting what?" Merch and touring hardly cuts it and the loss of music sales hurts everyone, including the artist.

Nick Carr, predictably, takes the opposing view and says:

arguments to the contrary are ultimately specious and self-serving.
Exploitation is exploitation, no matter how lovingly it’s wrapped in
neo-hippie technobabble about virtual communities, social production,
and the gift economy.

I am tired of the arguments, no matter who is making them. It’s time to help these artists get paid. There is a royalty structure in place for streaming music. It’s a penny per listen for on demand and about a tenth of that for something less than "on demand".

These rates aren’t right and need some tweaking, but I am firmly in the camp that royalties can and should be paid to artists for the streaming of their music on the Internet. I’d pay them if it were easy to do so. I stream artist’s music all the time on this blog and my tumblog. But I don’t know how many streams are played, I don’t know how much I owe, there’s no easy way for me to pay it, there’s no easy way for me to share my ad revenue with them, etc, etc. As far as I know, if I wanted to pay $1000 right now to the artists, there isn’t even anyone to take my money and send it to the artists.

Who is going to build the infrastructure the artists and the web services need? Who is going to deploy it at the micro-scale that most mp3 blogging happens?

The music industry is all about demanding to get paid, but I don’t see them building the systems to make it happen easily and within the constraints of what an online business model can pay.

I know one thing for sure. Artists, particularly musicians, are entertaining people more and more every day because of the Internet. Entrepreneurs are building a host of great ways to discover and listen online. And if there were an easy and affordable way to cut the artists in for a piece of the action, most would do it in a heartbeat. It shouldn’t be necessary to wait for the $850mm payday to get paid.