Thursday, May 24, 2007

Copyright. Problems and solutions.

Trent Reznor gave an interesting interview over at the Herald Sun. In it he states, “It's a very odd time to be a musician on a major label, because there's so much resentment towards the record industry that it's hard to position yourself in a place with the fans where you don't look like a greedy asshole."

He goes on to say, “I've have one record left that I owe a major label, then I will never be seen in a situation like this again. If I could do what I want right now, I would put out my next album, you could download it from my site at as high a bit-rate as you want, pay $4 through PayPal.”

This interview exposes the crux of the problem that exists between artists, publishers, and fans. Whether you are a musician, an author, or a painter, there is an underlying problem that has yet to be solved. Let me illustrate it with my own personal experience.

I wrote a book a few years ago. I thought it to be a fun book, and shared it with anybody who expressed an interest. I probably gave away 20-30 electronic copies, and one printed copy. As far as I know, the printed copy was the only read—and that was because I gave it to dear ol’ mom. Most folks, when finding out I had a book to give away, weren’t interested.

Fast forward 18 months. My book was accepted by a publisher and was now in stores. The only changes that were made to the manuscript I had been handing out were a few spelling and punctuation errors. The same people who I had given free copies to were now paying $15 to buy the book. Suddenly there was an interest in my book, not because the content had changed, but because a publisher thought enough of my story to invest $50,000 in bringing it to the public. I had been ‘validated’. The fact that they were interested in it gave the book value. A value it didn’t have before.

There are millions of people who are making music, writing books, or painting pictures. How do we tell what is good? We could review all the material and decide for ourselves, but most of us have jobs. We don’t have time. The publishing industry does that job for us, and expects to be compensated for it. They are our filters (and not very good ones, but we’ll save that for another post).

The publishers and labels perform a second and equally vital service—that of distribution and marketing. I gave my book away to anybody who wanted it, but without marketing nobody wanted it (marketing is all about convincing you that you have a need). And without distribution, there was no way for me to get it to the people who might enjoy it.

Trent Renzor will be able to sell his music for $4 on PayPal, but only because he has been validated, first by a record label, and then by his fans. But equally talented musicians and artists don’t have the luxury of being validated. They can’t get $4 an album. For the most part they can’t even get folks to listen in the first place, even when they give their music away.

So to recap—the problem is that under the current model publishers and record labels are a necessary evil. We can’t do without them. But we resent them because most of our money goes to them, and not the artists.

The solution? Unfortunately this little problem hasn’t been solved yet. And you can bet that the publishers and labels will violently oppose ANY action that begins to encroach on their turf (remember back in 2005 when Google tried to scan books?)

There needs to be a way for artists who have material, and consumers who would find that material enjoyable, to get together. If you’re an artist, and I like your work, I’m willing to pay for it. I’m not willing to pay $20 to a corporation that then gives you a few quarters. But I am willing to pay you.

So… Somebody solve this problem already. We’ve already seen success in other areas. Look at digg and reddit. Thousands of stories are submitted to these sites, and most users only see the best of the best. There are certainly problems with this method but we’re moving in the right direction.

We’ll all be better off for it, with the exception of the RIAA. And at this point, not too many tears will be shed over that love lost.


Tom said...

It seems to me that a couple of options include the eBay approach and the "free samples" approach. Authors, musicians, etc. are already putting free samples of their stuff out there, but that still doesn't solve the problem of establishing a name and some demand. That's a tough one...

Between Before and After said...

I'm reminded of this speech from 13 years ago:

The gist is that there's so much information out there, gatekeepers are more important than ever. Not to keep us from getting the stuff we want, but to help us find it.

There are a few artist-owned record labels that turn out stuff I pretty consistently enjoy, like Discipline Global Mobile, Tzadik and Cuneiform, and CD Baby is a great clearinghouse for indy artists who want to sell their own stuff. But yeah, these are only small, stopgap solutions to a much bigger problem.