John Cougar Mellencamp, country music crooner and defender of old media, has had it with all that music floating around for free on the internet these days. Last week, he took to the Huffington Post to air his disapproval, in a column that so perfectly encapsulates the enduring mentality of analog incumbent industries that we thought it worth closer read.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m confounded by the apathy of those who have participated in music-related successes and are now witnessing the demise of the entertainment business as it has existed since the beginning of recorded sound and moving pictures.”
This would imply that the entertainment business has never before adapted to new platforms for distributing music and movies. And yet, FM radio, tape recorders, and the Walkman all forced the music industry to change.
“Tell me where, under today’s conditions of de facto indentured servitude, will the new artists come from?”
Let’s talk instead about the indentured servitude of artists to major labels who produce records to be as commercially palatable as possible in order to support massive operating costs.
“If I were a young songwriter today, I would be looking for another way to earn a living. The same would go for the young screenwriter or novelist. And what about the guy who only had one or two hit records 10 or 50 years ago? What happens to this guy who depends on that income to support his family if people are stealing those songs now? Tough luck, right?”
Sure, there was a time in the past when it was easier for musicians to make money. But that period was not so long and not so great for everybody as you suggest—only about 25 years, if Mick Jagger is to be believed.
“We need to restore intellectual property to its rightful owners and reconstruct the business that has lost thousands and thousands of jobs plus billions of dollars in revenue.”
According to the recording industry’s own numbers, the sector grew from $132 billion in revenues in 2005 to $168 billion in 2010. The record labels' revenues from digital music grew 5 percent in 2010 and another 8 percent in 2011. Somebody’s making money here.
“Why is thievery allowed to continue on the Internet? And why do people think it's so impossible to correct?”
Nielsen reports that only 28 percent of internet users globally use illegal music services on a monthly basis. That's not insignificant, but it leaves quite a bit of market share for paying business.
“Right after radio was invented, they played music and sold advertising. Then it dawned on some: ‘Hey, they’re playing our music, and they’re selling advertising on our backs; we should get paid.’ So performing rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI were established with the express intention of protecting the intellectual property of artists who create it... They turned new delivery systems into multi-billion dollar businesses. That was progress.”
Here’s what they also did: Having tried and failed to keep their artists from playing on the radio in the 1920s, record companies came up with high-fidelity technology that just sounded better, and allowed them to keep selling records. Real progress comes from innovation, not squashing anything that threatens your cash cow.
“But where are ASCAP and BMI today on the new delivery system—the Internet? Where are the record companies? Where are the book publishers? Where are the unions to which we pay dues that are supposed to protect actors, writers, songwriters, and producers? And, most importantly, where's the government? Apparently everybody’s too busy making excuses and shrugging their shoulders to realize their gravy train has gone up the waterspout.”
Where are they? In court and on Capitol Hill, constantly, for the past decade. Killing Napster, Limewire, and Kazaa. Suing thousands of individual downloaders. Trying like hell to pass anti-piracy legislation, and failing after internet users rose up in opposition (even movie industry chief Chris Dodd admits SOPA and PIPA aren’t coming back). They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble (and money) by instead working on new models for distributing their content.
“There is a law that exists to deal with copyright and the Internet that dates back to the good ol’ days of 1990s: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It was supposed to bring U.S. copyright law into the digital age but it included something called ‘Safe Harbor Provisions’ that basically says that each artist is responsible for retrieving his own merchandise and shutting down anyone stealing their property, which is kind of a joke.... [U]nder the Safe Harbor Provisions, search engines behave like unpoliced department stores where anyone can steal whatever they want with no real threat of significant repercussions.”
Wrong analogy: The search engine doesn’t profit when songs are downloaded, legally or illegally. Rather, it’s more like UPS, which sends and delivers what people want. Would you sue the big brown for carrying stolen goods?
“On top of everything, they’re collecting advertising money from Madison Avenue. So what's happening is your search engine leads you to an illegal downloading site where you can download— you name the artist—their entire catalog and, at the same time, see products and services offered for sale ranging from soft drinks to pornography and, adding insult to injury, that merchandise appears to be endorsed by the artist to whom it's attached. The artist, who is already being stolen from, now appears to be shilling for these products.”
Just like you’re endorsing the breast enlargement ads on the side of my screen right now?
“Recent history has shown that things can, in fact, change. When online gambling, once a huge and thriving underground business, was determined to be illegal sites went out of business almost overnight. Why? Because legal gaming enterprises and government regulation brought the hammer down where it hurt the most—credit card companies were told they could not be part of this dubious trade and they complied immediately.”
Except that now, some states are legalizing online gambling because it’ll generate more revenue when regulated and taxed—not to mention create thousands of jobs. It’s not the state’s job to privilege one revenue model over another.
“In the same way, if anti-piracy legislation were the order of the day servers, wherever they may be including the mythical ‘cloud,’ could and would be shut down thanks to technologies that have been developed and successfully employed during the fight against terrorism. The means to get this done actually exists; what we’re lacking, at the moment, is the will to do it.”
Shorter Mellencamp: The U.S. government should put the same resources into going after people swapping music on the internet as it does pursuing terrorists.
Actually, it’s not that easy to automatically identify music that’s being distributed without the creator’s permission, which is why search engines rely on content owners to submit claims. Google is already using those claims to demote websites that repeatedly violate copyright protections. Going around shutting down data centers for every stolen song that slips through would just take out large chunks of the rest of the internet, to little effect.
Ultimately, clinging to an old business model means that artists lose out, too. Courtney Love said it best, way back in 2000: "I’m looking for people to help connect me to more fans, because I believe fans will leave a tip based on the enjoyment and service I provide. I’m not scared of them getting a preview.”