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Who are you callin' a "consumer"?

So the debate is heating up over DRM (digital rights management) within the music industry. In the wake of Steve Jobs's recent "Thoughts on Music" blog, in which he claims that DRM was foisted upon iTunes by the RIAA, Yahoo Music has come out against DRM, while music industry execs and software/hardware makers with a vested interest in DRM have begun singing their same old tunes about piracy, artists' rights, and all the rest.

It would sound more sincere if it weren't for people like Courtney Love and Steve Albini telling us exactly how the robber-barons at the record labels treat their artists. And it would sound more convincing if they were at all right about their assertions that piracy hurts their bottom line. (A lot of studies have shown quite the opposite: that peer-to-peer filesharing and DJ "mixtapes" actually help promote CD sales, which makes sense if you think about it.)

But the music industry in its current form will never earn my respect if it keeps using the same tired epithet to describe me: "consumer." A recent rebuttal to Steve Jobs by the fuckwits at Macrovision not only called us consumers, but described the process of listening to music or watching a move as "consuming media."

They just don't have a clue how we, their customers, are using (not "consuming") their product. This is because they don't have the slightest understanding of what their product is.

Someone writes a song. They get together with other musicians and perform it. A company with recording capabilities captures that performance on some media, and another company distributes it to radio stations and CD sellers. Millions of people hear the recording, and hundreds of thousands of them buy a copy of it. Someone else copies the recording onto a file-sharing network, and hundreds of thousands more people obtain a copy.

Then, at some point, someone sings the song in the shower. Or at a karaoke bar. Or sits down with a guitar and writes out tablature.

So at that point, who owns the song? Not the performance, not the recording of the performance, not the media that conveys the recording of the performance, but the song itself?

We all do. Everyone who has heard it.

No other conclusion makes sense. The entire notion of "intellectual property" can be defeated by this one simple idea. It is absurd, impossible, and immoral for a corporation to claim ownership of the contents of your own neurons.

Last night, I was at a jam session with some friends. We had three guitar players, a drummer, and my lovely wife on bass. We weren't really trying to accomplish anything; just make some music, play some songs we liked. We had no sheet music, no recordings, no tablature, nothing but the songs in our heads. And over the course of two hours, we managed to get through about eight or nine songs fairly well, and bits and fragments of a dozen more. Someone would play a riff, someone else would recognize it, and away we'd go.

These were all old songs, most of them twenty years old or more, stuff we'd all heard a million times before and could hear almost note-for-note in our heads. We didn't need sheet music, or tabs, or a recording to listen to. We just knew the songs. But I'm quite sure none of us could tell you what record label put them out, because it didn't matter. We weren't playing the recordings. We were playing the songs.

And we certainly weren't in any danger of taking revenue away from the people who wrote the songs with our little impromptu performance. In fact, I'd guess that if one of those musicians had walked past that rehearsal space and heard a riff they wrote, they'd be flattered. Music doesn't exist if it isn't heard, and it doesn't matter if it isn't shared. Personally, I'd be thrilled to hear a stranger playing something I wrote. It would mean I wrote something that touched someone.

And yet, the RIAA, ASCAP, BMI, all the people who make money from music, would be infuriated if they heard us in that little room. They'd make loud cries of "royalties" and "copyright," instead of just enjoying the music, or singing along. (I have a theory, not yet proven, that music execs don't actually like music at all.) They'd totally miss the point.

Music is not a "product" or "intellectual property." It is an experience. People who listen to music are not "consumers." They are humans. And people who pick up musical instruments and play are musicians, no matter who wrote the song they're playing.

Tell you what, record industry: I'll pay you for the CDs, if you'll admit that you don't, can't, own the songs. No deal? Okay. No problem. You need music. But music doesn't need you.


that's my baby....

fighting the good fight.


Interesting thoughts. A little while I was trying to make sense out of the entire debate as well. All I could think of was that it kind of goes wrong at the point where music industry tries to claim something tangible (rights, but expressed in dollars), while music is actually not. Music is sound, a vibration of air-molecules that is gone the second you hear it; except for, as pointed out, that it remains in the memory. It makes sense to define the piece of plastic that carries music as (tangible) property, or a live concert as a “service” for which compensation is justified... but the music itself (?) I don’t think so.

Technology is making big chunks in the value-chain of music industry redundant; traditional models no longer apply. It may be hard to accept for corporations to slowly but surely see their role as they thought it was “diminishing” and as such may miss out on lots of money, but it is simply reality. It was technology that gave them a reason for existence for a few decades; so it is not surprising it is technology also that will eventually take it away from them. It surely feels like alchemy discovering a recipe to make gold, making all existing gold near worthless, but that’s just the nature of the beast.

Technology does not however mean the end of music (as if musicians and composers can no longer earn a living), nor does it mean the end of music industry. I see technology and innovation as a force of nature that simply dictates people should be compensated for what their value added is. As described above, a recoding studio has it service and gets compensated; a musician records music and will get compensated for the few hours/days work; also a musician will give live performances and get compensated for it. Eliminating and redefining redundant chains in music industry could have benefits to all who DO have a value added.

I must admit it is not easy to redefine one self; and it is actually quite scary to give up concepts you thought were the way things should be. There is however no choice in this. In a similar fashion as evolution, you either redefine your right of existence (in this case how you create value), or you slowly but surely become extinct. Note: there is a difference between creating value and defining value!

Ps. Musicians who are scared of technology do not make sense


.. musicians who are scared of technology do not make sense, since their value added in the creation of music is not being substituted by technology! (I still need to see the first machine/computer capable of dreaming up a "good" new piece).