compulsory reading, intellectual property rights, music industry

The future of the music industry.

Last week’s ousting of Bertelsmann’s CEO Thomas Middelhoff prompted a lot of newspapers to reconsider the challenges the internet poses for companies with a business model based on the exclusive licensing and diustribution of intellectual property rights. And so I, too, want to repeat my opinion in this matter.

Granted, the fundamental dilemma posed by changed economics of reproduction and distribution has not yet been solved: How to make people pay for formerly excluable intellectual property rights if they can obtain them for free without restrictions on the Internet. But then, consider the financial and especially societal costs of digitally fingerprinting people’s hardrives and controlling their use of the net. Assuming technical feasibility, Orwell’s nightmare would have become reality. OK, differences in degrees are certainly possible. But the trade-off remains: Which price will information societies be willing to pay to reinstore excludability of information goods at least to a certain extent?

One of the biggest problems in this extremely important debate has so far been flatly ignored. It is the social institutionalisation of the current notion of property. Based on this notion, it is relatively easy for the music industry to claim the moral high ground and persuade politicians to restrict the private flow of information. Coupled with the increased perceived need for security after 9/11 this is a powerful political position.

But everyone trying to climb the moral high ground should stop for a moment and reconsider what’s actually going on there. To know the history of copyright laws since Gutenberg would be a good starting point. After familiarising themselves with this fascinating topic people would have to accept that the current industry and cash flow structures are a consequence of a specific technology and its economics. New technology means new economics and in turm, new industry structures.

Right now, those who became powerful in a world of restricted bandwidth are trying to preserve that position and the related cash flows in a world with different economics. Assuming that the industry structure evolved to suit the economics of its business, it becomes self evident that this structure is not going to fit into the new environment.

In this respect, I recommend the excellent analysis of Harvard’s William Fisher, Digital Music: Problems and Possibilities, as a starting point.

The cultural landscape of the future will reflect the changes in economics. The days of financing the likes of Britney Spears through sales of records as well as the need to have music companies of a significant size to keep a risk-diversified portfolio of acts are likely to end as the last bandwidth restrictions fade. That does not mean there won’t be stars in the future, just that they won’t be able to make the amount of money through record sales they could before. But the same development opens a market to so many musicians who have not been able to live from making music before. I think that is a good thing.

But, of course, you have to decide for yourself.