Monday, August 18, 2008

Sunshine and Heated Conversation

Yesterday I had a great time sunning, noshing and chatting at Lake Temescal with three of my favorite people - singer/songwriters Sonya Hunter, Jane Selkye and Emily Bezar. I'd never been to Lake Temescal - it's so sweet and the weather was perfect. We brought fruit and cheese form the Farmer's market and drank these stevia sweetened colas that Jane found.

The conversation was spirited and nonstop, and of course we started talking music business after a while. Emily told us about a songwriter on Myspace who got a lot of shit for writing about the rights of songwriters and the issues of free downloading and file sharing. Now, I know great people on both sides of this issue, and sometimes I feel completely unsophisticated and unschooled about it, but I decided to check out her controversial post. The point in question - should people have to pay for music on the web. One of the arguments in response to her post is that CDs cost too much. Here's what was said:

"BUT knowing full well what a CD cost to make, burn & print AND how much *actually* goes to the artist and not some execs already fat enough wallet, I refuse point blank to pay £16-22 ...If we were more convinced that our money was going to the artist or the developer and they didnt charge quite so much for the finished product then yeah, maybe more people would buy albums & games..."

Here's my response:

In response to the "response" - when people talk about how much it costs to produce a CD, I think they're mostly just talking about manufacturing costs, which admittedly are fairly low. What's usually not factored in are the often hundreds of hours of work put in by the artist/s, the cost of recording studios, mixing engineers, producers, side musicians, photo shoots, design costs,mastering, legal fees, etc.

While I'm still not sure what I think the answer is - I mean, the truth is, you can't stop progress - I think it's important to note that it was also "progress" about a hundred years ago when performing rights organizations were formed to protect the rights of composers and musicians whose works were being exploited by that new medium, radio, with no compensation coming back to them.

The first performing rights society was established in France in 1851. In the United Kingdom, the Copyright Act 1842 was the first to protect musical compositions with the Performing Right Society, founded in 1914 encompassing live performances. The rights for recorded or broadcast performance are administered by the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, founded in 1924. Italy introduced a performing rights society in 1882 and Germany in 1915. In the United States, The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded in 1914; SESAC in 1930 and Broadcast Music, Inc (BMI) in 1944.

Simply throwing up our hands and saying 'too bad' to musicians without looking at new ways to help compensate them seems draconian, not progressive.

The truth is that as it stands there is a vicious cycle forming right now that will defeat a lot of great artists while supporting mediocrity. If you already have the money to tour, you may do okay. But you won't be earning the money that might support your live music career off of CD sales anymore. Also - and this is a point that will not matter to a large part of the population - there is going to be decline in the quality of works being produced (there already is). If you have no hope of being paid back for the investment, that's a mighty disincentive. Go back and read the musician,producer and studio credits of some of the great albums of the sixties and seventies and then weep - (can you imagine trying to afford the London Philharmonic if you're NOT going to be selling the CDs?) .

Jane Selkye's "i Gorgona"

Personally, I'm no fan of the major record companies, their way of doing business and their bloated spending habits. But the truth is, they'll probably figure out a way around this or go into a different business altogether (maybe they'll figure out a way to make us spend more money than we already do for a latte). But I worry about us regular struggling artists who are trying our best to eke out a living. It's unrealistic to imagine that we will be able to keep dedicating ourselves to music while making no money at it. It'll become more and more a side hobby, something done on the cheap and while a lot of "stuff" will continue to be produced, I think there will be an aggregate loss of quality and we will see the demise of great studio musicians and producers.

Sonya Hunter's "Finders Keepers"

I also worry about the proprietary attitude people seem to have around music - if they want it, they feel they should get it for nothing. How strange - I mean, that you should have the right to steal and listen to a song that somebody created off the sweat of their backs. Unlike many other items that you would cheerfully put down a few bucks to buy and consume, this little song will last you for years. This little creation - why is it so hard to pay a very small fee for the privilege? Especially since by doing that you help to support more creations by this artist. Why is it okay to take that creation, but not the jewelry somebody made, or the pastry somebody baked. I know that my attitude isn't modern, but please, could somebody once REALLY explain why this is progress? I do want to understand.

Monica Pasqual's "Sweet Remains"

Now, finally, back to that "cost" thing - the idea that CDs cost too much. Let me throw one more wrench at this - how many things out there do we apply value to strictly by how much they cost to produce? Not that many. Value is defined by a lot of different things - and if you think about how much a great song or a great album brings to your life, a buck or two per song might look pretty reasonable.

Emily Bezar's "Angels 'Abacus"

Now, look at it from the other side, what if you decide that since you CAN get away with downloading or copying songs for free you do it. Take that decision down the road a ways - some artists (particularly those who are able to tour and play live a lot, as well as artists who are able to produce very cheaply because of the nature of their music or artists who are wealthy enough not to depend on those buys) will do okay, some will even thrive. But there will be a lot of artists who don't survive this model. And there will be a lot of music that won't survive this model (like jazz, classical - anything that requires a great studio and a budget to put several top quality musicians in the room at the same time). Before you look at this and say - I don't care about that kind of music - you may want to look at it as something similar to species loss. It may not seem important to you, but down the line it's going to have a very nasty effect.


jane said...

Well said, Ms. P.

That record Chris Kee and I made several years ago cost $20,000.00. The only reason it was even made was that our benefactor, who shall remain nameless, had the money, sort of, and just wanted what he saw as good material to be recorded well. We never got anywhere near close to making a small fraction of that money back for him, to my undying dismay.

To persons who think all musicians are egomaniacs doing something frivolous, and therefore should offer their work free, I say, go learn how to play an instrument, learn to sing, learn to write good songs, learn to perform, become a band leader/kindergarten yard supervisor/corporate administrator/web designer/promoter for your own self. It takes an all-consuming commitment, thick skin, a keen business sense, energy beyond the mpg of several lattes a day, and a love of music far beyond the possibility of profit. Not to mention an experience of life that translates into songs that have an affect. The more boob jobs behind the mike, the less one finds of the former.

Bev Barnett said...

I'm often struck by the value that's placed on a plate of pasta, consumed in under 20 minutes, vs. the price of a CD that will provide years of enjoyment. Even if you only count the initial listening time - it last at least twice as long as the pasta.

But then again, I'm not the typical consumer of music.

Margie in Oakland said...

Right on. A great way to frame the issue Monica. A very fair and understandable way even for us non-music making folks. We pay for everything else. Why wouldn't we pay for our music? I like the pasta example. A high end restaurant charges $20+ for a plate of pasta vs. I can buy a box and make it myself for about $1. If not less if I buy in bulk. I can buy a CD or buy individual songs by a professional or I can sing into a recorder and listen to that for a lot less. What would I rather listen to? Easy choice.

Sonya H said...

Ah yes, the ongoing discussion!

When the person wrote:

"BUT knowing full well what a CD cost to make, burn & print AND how much *actually* goes to the artist and not some execs already fat enough wallet, I refuse point blank to pay £16-22 ..."

Does this mean it's ok to download it for free? Is it ok to steal produce because the worker that sowed the seeds it isn't fairly paid? It's an imperfect system, but an artist that is signed to a label has entered into an agreement, and they should be rewarded by the consumers, albeit indirectly and insufficiently, for their efforts.

matirose said...

ok i need to read your post, but i just wanted to say that i'm glad you're blogging and i miss you and i didn't realize temescal had a lake!
love you,