Much has been written and discussed about the state of the music industry, and the impacts digital media has had on it. Past IPilogue coverage has included detailed analysis of last year’s copyright pentalogy, the music industry’s assault on Eastern European digital stores, and an interview with the president of Music Canada. The main themes of the debate usually revolve around the typical balance between users and rights-holders. In a recent New York Times interview, musician and professor David Lowery continues the debate over music in the digital age, and raises some controversial points from the perspective of the music industry.
The interview begins by discussing the “Lars” effect – the backlash and resistance faced by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich when he became involved in a lawsuit against Napster. Undeterred by the potential Lars effect, Lowery has been championing artists’ rights and economic policy for years. In the interview, Lowery discusses concerns over the influence of Silicon Valley, in what he describes as the twin perils of weakening copyright law, and diminishing royalties for music. He has particular concerns over online streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. While artists’ royalties have been diminishing, many online music services have been lobbying for lower copyright royalties.
In the US, song royalties are set by the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB). The royalties are notoriously complex, and, many argue, ill-suited to the modern age. However, they form a large portion of artist remuneration making them prime targets for lobbying from all sides. Recently this has included new Silicon Valley companies looking to capitalize on internet distribution. Internet streaming services are now lobbying the CRB to lower internet royalties. Advocates like Lowery decry this as government-mandated subsidization of these companies at the expense of musicians. They argue that royalties should be set by the market, and artists should be free to opt out of the royalties set by the CRB.
Lowery’s main thesis is that the internet and digital revolution have the potential to benefit artists, but have so far failed to deliver. Himself a recording artist, Lowery bemoans diminishing royalties across the industry. While he and other commentators acknowledge the diminishing payout will still result in adequate profits for the labels and top artists, the concern is over the artistic “middle class”; those like Lowery who used to derive sufficient benefits from their works to sustain full time employment being an artist. With the lessening of royalties, the concerns are that the musical middle class will be squeezed out, and all that will remain are the top commercial hits and passion projects created by artists sustained by other employment. Lowery is not a luddite pining for the old days of CD sales, but thinks that the promise of the internet has not been fully fulfilled in the music industry. He argues stronger copyright laws, and more scarcity in the market is needed to restore profits to artists.
Of interesting note were the comments on the article. Perhaps in a sign of changing times, comments of support outnumbered those of criticism. Many thought Lowery was only stating the obvious, and advocating for a robust and profitable music industry which benefits the artists and users alike. Given the backlash against Lars Ulrich in the early 2000’s, it seems like public opinion may be changing. With the easy availability of affordable pay-per-download music from iTunes, Amazon, and others, perhaps the sentiment has shifted towards supporting the music industry.
Alex Buonassisi is an IPilogue Editor and a JD Candidate at the University of British Columbia.