Music runs through America’s soul and makes us who we are — as individuals, as communities, as a nation.
It fuels all the other creative arts, as I have learned working on music-infused films such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and television shows such as “True Detective.”
And it has driven the incredible boom in digital media that seems destined to define our age. Facts don’t lie — musical artists blanket the lists of “top most followed” on Facebook and Twitter, and “always-with-us” access to music is a big part of why smartphones and mobile broadband are the fastest-spreading technologies in human history.
But this brave new digital world has a dark side, too — and it is the responsibility of everyone who loves and cares about music to acknowledge and deal with this uncomfortable truth.
Too much of the emotional, cultural and economic value that music creates is simply lost now, slipping through the digital cracks in some cases, outright hijacked by bad actors and online parasites in others.
Artists, fans and responsible music and technology businesses alike all know this. When my friend Taylor Swift spoke up for the value of our work and the righteous claim of all artists to be paid for what they do, she was celebrated and applauded — not just by her colleagues, but also by teenagers who care about the people who create the music that means something to them and businesses such as Apple that fundamentally want to do what’s right.
How bad is the problem? Consider this: In 2014, sales from vinyl records made more than all of the ad-supported on-demand streams on services such as YouTube. I’m not running down vinyl — it is still the best-sounding, most durable medium we have for listening to music, by far. But why should a technology most people consider outdated generate more revenue than an Internet service with more than 100 million American users? That’s just wrong.
Just two decades ago, a music superstar was born when her record went gold, selling 500,000 units. Today, experts say it takes 100 million streams to match that kind of success. Even the most relentless year-round touring schedule or advertising licensing deals can’t match the income that a hit record once produced.
For small and up-and-coming artists, the income collapse has been even more severe; copies of one-penny royalty checks are rampant on the Internet. These artists are struggling American small businesses, and the deck is stacked against them.
So what’s causing this gap between the value artists create and the price today’s world puts on their work?
Part of it is that the legal mess of U.S. copyright law has anchored royalties for music creators far below fair market value. In some cases, such as satellite radio, the law actually says they can pay below-market rates for music. In others, such as AM/FM radio, it’s even more absurd — when music is played on traditional radio, artists and their labels get paid nothing at all (songwriters receive AM/FM royalties, but no one else does), even though corporate radio chains earn billions selling ads around our work. That’s a legally sanctioned slap in the face to everyone who ever picked up an instrument or sang into a microphone. It is a corrosive economic dust bowl in which giant corporations grow rich on others’ work while music creators try to survive on scraps.
But the problem runs even deeper than that. In the digital marketplace, everyone seems to have found a way to make a living off music except the creators who actually record the songs. Websites put up illegal copies of music — or turn a blind eye while others do — then sell ads micro-targeted at everyone who comes to listen. Eventually, a site may be forced to pull down the unlicensed (and for the artists and labels, completely unpaid) copy, but in the meantime, its owners have cashed in.
For more legitimate sites, creators are pressured to accept a Hobson’s choice between licensing their music at desperately low royalty rates or wading into the legal quicksand and sending thousands or millions of “takedown” notices under a broken and antiquated law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Fortunately, creators have begun to band together and speak out — the roster of those demanding reform is a who’s who of the music business, from Elvis Costello to Annie Lennox, from REM to Chuck D, and hundreds more. Congress is reviewing the copyright laws, and this time, we will be heard, and there will be no more backroom deals or giveaways. Powerful new legislation called the Fair Play Fair Pay Act is being championed by leaders in both parties who care about music and the people who make it. That would be a vital step forward — a milestone of progress in a debate that has been running in Congress since Frank Sinatra lobbied Paul McCartney, Ella Fitzgerald, Bruce Springsteen and others to join him in fighting for a radio performance right nearly 30 years ago.
Music is an important part of who we are, an indelible record of what we care about and how we live.
And if we let that slip away — whether through legal gridlock, cultural apathy or technological drift — we will have lost something irreplaceable and fundamental to our lives.