More thoughts on the ‘Music as Free’ Debate

My original post on ‘Why Music Can’t ‘Just be Free’ has stirred up something of a hornet’s nest of debate and half a dozen blog posts in response.  Reading through those and the comments attached to them a number a number of recurring themes have surfaced which I’ll address here.


Please do comment here and elsewhere.  Where the debate happens doesn’t really matter but the debate is valuable, because even if people don’t change their opinions, they at least get exposed to the detail of the thinking on both sides of the debate.


Many argue that copyright shouldn’t exist.  I believe it should.  Does it need revising for the 21st century?  Absolutely.  Movements like the Creative Commons serve a vital role in moving the debate forward.  But us, as consumers do not have the right to chose whether a rights owner has the right to enforce copyright.  When an artist signs a contract they tell the label to collect money for the fruits of their creative labour.  So the people who have the right to chose whether copyright can be enforced are the artists, labels, publishers and collection societies.  That doesn’t mean we, as consumers, can’t complain, vote with our feet and try to get those parties to change their stance.  But it’s their right to chose not ours.  It’s no more our right to chose than somebody finding a wallet on the street deciding it is now theirs.  Sure you can probably get away with doing so, but it’s not your moral right.  (And before you ask, no I do not believe copyright infringement is theft, even legally speaking it’s not.)


There isn’t a black and white distinction between free and paid.  Hopefully my last three Music Mistakes, Myths and Misconceptions posts help clarify this point.  The argument that ‘music is already free therefore it is free’ ipso facto, misses this point.  It has also been used as the basis for the case that music should be free and that artists will make their money elsewhere.  Thus, goes the argument, record labels and, to some degree publishers, are wastage and excess that should and will disappear.  The problem with this is that somebody needs to play that function and currently record labels and publishers do it best.  Are labels perfect?   Of course not.  Should many of them be massively overhauled?  Yes.  But most artists need support if they are too fulfill their potential and thrive. 


And most artists do want to get signed to record labels, however successful their social strategies might be.  And this isn’t just my opinion, I recently surveyed hundreds of unsigned artists and asked them about their aspirations.  The vast majority wanted to get a record deal.  The vast majority wanted to make money out of selling their music.  So whilst many have argued that artists just want to be musicians and not make money, this simply isn’t the case.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that musicians’ are some money grabbing bunch, simply that they’d like to be able to get paid for doing what they love and ideally be able too give up their day jobs.  Not get a yacht or private jet, just be able to make a decent living.


People have cited Radiohead as an example of an artist that went free.  They didn’t.  No one could download the album for free – you had to pay a minimum ‘administration’ fee.  And then Radiohead used the success of the initiative to secure a lucrative distribution deal with XL Recordings for that outdated concept, the CD.  Radiohead made more money out of In Rainbows than many other of their albums.  They played the system to get better contract terms and to drum up interest.


And finally, some music history for you


Many people have referred to how musician’s thrived in the days before copyright.  I’m sorry but this simply isn’t the case.  In the middle ages musicians could largely be grouped into three groups


  1. Troubadors: the elite of musicians, but also the elite of society, typically nobility and royalty (including Richard Lionheart of England).  They didn’t make or even ask for money, it was an elitist past time
  2. Minstrels: artisans who traveled around, depending on the patronage of the wealthy and aristocracy, such as Eleanor Aquitaine.  A small number become fixtures at a court, most were forced to travel around most of their lives in search of the next fee
  3. Jongleurs: these were the majority of musicians.  Typically itinerant, and paid infrequently and poorly.  A poor existence that was only marginally more lucrative than being a field tilling serf


After the middle ages royal and noble courts developed the practice of supporting retained musicians who would be commissioned to create compositions.  These musicians were vulnerable to the whims of their paymasters and many musicians considered great now, struggled financially in their life times.  Mozart died in poverty, buried in quicklime in a paupers’ grave. 

Musicians like most artists in history before effective monetization of copyright struggled for money.  Some would argue that this is the price artists should pay, it’s part of paying the creative dues.  I don’t.