You may have encountered talk online about Billy Bragg complaining that musicians aren’t getting money from the $850m Bebo payday. If so, the talk you’ve most likely encountered is that of TechCrunch‘s Michael Arrington, who pretty much denounces Bragg and barely stops short of calling him a greedy and deluded fool for wanting artists to earn money for the inclusion of their work on social networks.
It’s quite easy, from the perspective of a musician or the music industries to dismiss Arrington as an idiot on this basis. Not only is he morally and ethically in the wrong for supporting the idea of Bebo making millions without compensating the artists whose work drove so much traffic to the site in the first place, he’s actually opposed to artists making money from their recordings at all.
On the other hand, Bragg is going around saying things like ‘social networks are stealing from artists in the same way that music fans are‘. Which, if you’ve ever encountered this blog before (or, actually, if you’ve ever encountered common sense about music online before), you’ll know I consider to be an outrageously ignorant thing to assert.
Arrington’s post on the subject is entitled ‘These Crazy Musicians Still Think They Should Get Paid For Recorded Music‘ – which is obviously both (succesful) linkbait and fairly tongue-in-cheek, but the provocation it contains raises a really interesting question.
The worldview problem
Billy Bragg is working from the presupposition that musicians should get paid for the use of their recorded music on social networks. He asserts this as a moral and natural right and a self-evident truth. But of course, this is a socially negotiated construct that has its roots in a completely different media environment.
Arrington, on the other hand, inhabits a world of information technology. Seemingly moral and natural rights have more to do with the idea that information wants to be free, open source software is a more ethical framework than corporate development and supply always outstrips demand.
From their particular perspectives, their logic is unassailable. And this is, I think, always true. Whenever these positions are put, the problem is never one of logic. Neither side is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – they are both internally consistent.
Both appeal to the logic of markets
Bragg, because there is an investment in a capital good. Arrington, because there are no marginal costs and a complete lack of scarcity. Again, both are consistent.
But if we’re going to construct a framework that we can move forward and make a living from music in the online environment, we need to sidestep this sort of positionality altogether – and try and find the ground within which musicians and technologists can work together toward a common and mutually beneficial goal.
Because after all, this is a technological ecology, and these industries are organisms within that ecology. The music industries certainly have far more adaptation to go through, but equally, technological institutions need to be aware of and accommodate other organisms within that ecology in order to adapt and thrive. Otherwise each will forever view the other as a parasite, and we’ll never get anywhere.
Michael Arrington is NOT an idiot - and nor is Billy Bragg. They are both absolutely right about their position, except for the fact that neither is looking beyond that position. They both believe the way they see the world to be the way the world is, which is, of course, nonsense.
And this is why I started this year looking at first principles. We should assume nothing. Not that musicians should earn from their work. Not that recordings should be products. Not even that capitalism is the model on which value should be measured and rewarded. We may arrive at these conclusions, but with provocations like Arrington’s, at least hopefully we’ll get the opportunity to be smart enough to ask the questions.
Should artists make money from their recordings?
Before you answer ‘Of course! What a stupid question!’ – at least ask yourself ‘Why do I think that?’
And then we might be able to have a conversation between the two worldviews.