Here on New Music Strategies, I’ve been posting the sort of questions I often get asked at seminars, conferences, lectures, and public events, and putting forward the answers I usually give. And then you come in with your perspectives on both the questions and the answers.

It’s a good system, and it works. I hate to buck the trend.

But I have a question for you – and it’s one that nobody ever asks me:

Is it more important that music businesses make money, or is it more important that culture expands, innovates and grows?

I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. And that’s an important thing to underline. I happen to believe that even catastrophic change to industry always spawns new and lucrative businesses in their place. Usually far better ones for all concerned. Often involving most of the same people.

And you’ll note that I didn’t ask the question about musicians, but rather about music businesses (though musicians releasing and promoting their own stuff are music businesses, of course).

I ask because so many developments in music and culture stem directly from the kinds of copyright breach that people have been so very upset about here recently.

A smart man reminded me this week that Hip Hop was predicated on a form of creative banditry – if not outright copyright theft. Radio as we know it today was entirely built on piracy (with pirate ships and everything!). Hollywood too. You’d be hard-pressed to discount all graffiti art as vandalism these days, even where it exists in unauthorised spaces.

Is this stuff culturally important?

Yeah, of course it is. Okay – but is it culturally important enough to collectively justify or counterbalance the lost income of the property holders whose rights were breached in those acts of creation? Can it justify the end of a whole way of earning?

The law will always fight to maintain the status quo. Those who already have the power will always support that. Those who would be disadvantaged by change – or who cannot see how it will help them will always understandably resist it.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re right – just as it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong. So I want to know what you think.

How’s this for cultural change?
I only ask the question because it occurs to me that the sheer amount of people in the world who now have vast and unprecedented music libraries at little or no cost to themselves seems to constitute an important cultural phenomenon.

It might not be legal. It might not be ethical. But it is unarguably an important cultural fact.

And it’s a phenomenon that is growing and spreading, despite efforts to stop it.

So – leaving aside the legal magnitude of that fact for a moment – from a purely cultural perspective, that’s an incredible shift.

Think about it. A great many people have access to most music whenever they want it. A great many. And that number is getting greater by the day.

Not only that, but they also have the tools to remix, remake, mash-up, alter, compile, share, create derivative works – or just reference a fairly significant proportion of all of the recorded work that’s ever been created for their own edification and information.

That changes everything.

Please note:

I am NOT asking: “Is it right that people should download music for free without permission?”

I am NOT asking: “Is the record industry doomed?”

I am NOT asking: “Should artists get paid for the work they do?”

And nor am I asking whether all musicians will simply stop making music, which is a preposterous notion, and you are not to take seriously anyone who even suggests it. Those people are, as the popular saying metaphorically puts it, ‘on crack’.

What I am asking
Should property rights (in this case, intellectual property rights) take precedence and priority over cultural and media shift. Should those earlier cultural and media shifts have been stopped for that reason? Or is this case an exception?

And I’m seriously asking the question because I genuinely want to know what you think, and why.

When it really comes down to it – all self-interest aside – between the rights of composers, labels, publishers and recording artists on the one hand, and the evolution of popular culture on the other – what’s more important?