Wednesday, February 06, 2008

For a Song

by Travis Charbeneau

How much is a song worth?

This should-be-simple question is fundamental to an ever-more complex intellectual property debate. Normally, to determine how much something costs, you go to the store and check the price tag. Easy.

But millions of us now buy songs off the Internet, where there is no "easy." The old Napster-style scheme, essentially music for free, is supposedly shut down. But new outlets have sprung up, hundreds of MP3 sites that all want your credit card. But ... again, "how much?"

Apple's iTunes emporium originally called the tune at 99 cents. And they still dominate the market. Rhapsody, a chief competitor, fooled with 49 cents, but settled at 89. And, exploiting international copyright loopholes, a huge number of Russian and Ukrainian sites have appeared with high-quality MP3s available anywhere from nine cents to 20. Most famed of these is probably, which was sued for 1.65 trillion dollars by the RIAA. It simply morphed into MP3Fiesta and/or MP3Sparks. Some ex-AllofMP3 customers report that they found their accounts still in good order when re-directed to the new sites. Over 1.5 trillion bucks is big, scary money, unless you don't have to pay it.

We also have "unlimited use" sites that still use file sharing, but somehow have remained legal. The much-lauded, running off the old Gnutella network, has a one-time-only charge of $34.44 for the "pro" version, which gives you lifetime, unlimited access to 12 million songs, plus DVDs, games, etc. If I download just half their catalog for $34.44, that comes to 0.00000574 "cents" per song.

Some out there will recall when The Beatles decided to stop performing. Amongst other difficulties, they felt incapable of reproducing their recorded artistry on a live stage. This worked out marvelously for many groups. For a very short time.

The day when musicians could expect to make money from their recordings alone seems all-but-over. Old acts accustomed to residuals from their records are naturally concerned. New artists find that the Web may get them previously-unavailable exposure, but what then? With recordings going for nothing, they're "lucky" to be left with endless drives to live shows and motels for any sort of "livelihood" ("endless drives to live shows and motels" is also known as "Death"). Established groups from U2 to RadioHead to The Eagles have tried alternative marketing schemes to so-far-dubious results.

It's possible that any musician's prospects of making a living from his or her recorded work may only have lasted around 50 years; the second half of the last century. Like the blue collar autoworker who could put a boat in the driveway and two kids through college on a single paycheck, the rock star millionaire may likewise have come and gone.

In truth, the historical picture isn’t even that sunny. For the first 30 of those 50 years, artists were ripped off by the record companies in the grand old style perhaps best exemplified by Col. Tom Parker's "handling" of Elvis. For the last 30 years we've had "piracy" via technology, from the dual-tray cassette deck to MP3s. This would leave the "day" of the rock and roll millionaire about ten years and 24 hours short.

Some will argue that the whole phenomenon was simply a wild historical aberration. Consider the old expression of a real bargain as something you got "for a song." That doesn't say much for music's perceived worth, reaching way back.

Mozart and his contemporaries were often considered little better than court jesters, and even wore the livery of their masters, just like the footmen. They were subject to the artistic demands of their "fan base," often some tin-eared aristocrat complaining about "too many notes" (see "Amadeus"). And, of course, like Mozart, many died paupers.

Their predecessors, the first guys to take music secular, were the troubadours of the 12th century, forever "on the road," lucky if they could find a house where they might "sing for their supper." Their predecessors in sacred music were most likely to have been monks on a vow of poverty. Nary a hint, much less a popular dream of riches.

Then, starting with Edison, fame and fortune glimmered for the talented and lucky songwriter or actor. New technologies and more abundant leisure time fed appetites and dreams, inspiring and enabling imitation. Eventually, the computer gave us a music revolution. Now, it's devouring its children.

And we still don't know the fair price for a song.

At 12 I bought some Elvis tunes as 45 RPM records. Cost: 99 cents each. I bought them again on LP; the 8-track cartridge, on cassette and the (insanely-overpriced) CD. Now iTunes wants me to pay another 99 cents?

And, again, new songs by new artists are problematic. What's a fair price? And how will we ever find out? And what about the other arts, as books, films, photos, etc. all mutate into the digital equivalent of the MP3? All this "intellectual property" is merely so much information. Once digitized (and any copy-protection scheme can be hacked), it becomes free.

Only artists are crazy enough to work for free.

-- Travis Charbeneau is a freelance writer/musician living in Richmond, VA.

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