Piracy & Royalties: The Medium Is The Message #4

I hope this post doesn’t piss off any of my songwriter friends.

I thought of them immediately when I started reading this story in the Sunday Tennessean (I still get Nashville’s sorry excuse for a daily paper, but only on weekends):

Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost in developed countries the world over.

And the situation is even worse than it appears.

[The jobs are] being obliterated by technology.

The Tennessean story is behind their paywall, like that makes any difference. It’s an AP story, find it here if you have to. And the story is accompanied by the following chart:


…which offers the clearest illustration I have seen yet of the impact of the Internet era on the global economy, and familiar forms of employment in particular.

Just look at the first item – travel agents – and you see an industry that has been reduced by more than half. The pervasive availability of information about airfares and destinations via the Internet has drastically reduced the business for travel agents. The need for informed experts with good connections certainly persists to some extent — as Ann discovered while planning our trip to Scotland last year. Nevertheless, employment in the field now is a fraction of its former stature.

But I haven’t heard any news about the travel industry demanding legislated protection from vagrants with computers and WiFi connections (maybe that story ran in the Tennessean on a Tuesday?).

I might have had songwriters and digital royalties in the Internet era on my brain while reading that story after hearing my friend Jerry Vandiver describe the check he’d recently received from the Harry Fox Agency – the company that distributes the songwriter’s share of recording royalties – for a whole two cents:2cent checkI think the point that Jerry was trying to make was that the royalties he’s earning now are a thin fraction of what he might have expected before the Internet decimated his livelihood. He didn’t mention “piracy” specifically, but I suspect that’s always lurking in the wings of any such conversation.

And the point that I am trying to make – which this AP story about all manner of shrinking industries bears out – is that Internet piracy is not the root cause for the plight of the modern professional songwriter.

Like McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” Translation: “it’s the technology, stupid.”

The AP story describes is a 21st century where almost every facet of the economy has been effected by new technologies. It ain’t just songwriters, and we’re really not in Kansas, anymore, Toto.

A lot of my songwriter friends remain convinced that “piracy” – the prevalence of file sharing and unauthorized downloading – has shrunk their industry and livelihoods. There was a lot of verbal wrangling on the subject last year around the legislation (SOPA, PIPA) that the intellectual property-based industries (film, television, music, etc.) wanted, that got shot down in Congress. It surprised me, the virulence of some of the rhetoric – the intimations that anybody who opposed the legislation was not sympathetic to the plight of songwriters, etc. But, then again, where livelihoods are threatened, virulence is no surprise.

My position has always been that piracy alone is not the source of the shrinkage – it is not even the dominant factor. Unauthorized file sharing is not the affliction, it’s a symptom of a much larger systemic condition. This AP series about the permanently shrunken job market throughout the 21st economy seems to prove the point.

The music industry was indeed the canary, and we are getting much deeper into the mineshaft now. Beware the “Lights In The Tunnel.

Just as the arrival of the printing press presaged the demise of the scribe monks who, prior to the 15th century, were the only ones who could make copies of the Bible, we now see the Internet and digital technologies transforming almost every aspect of our culture and economy.

Admittedly, the issues facing the creative arts are different than those facing an industry like travel. With easily digitized media like music, the impact derives from the sheer volume of what is now available. Recorded music used to be a scarce resource, distributed on plastic or vinyl wafers that were shipped from factory to retail on trucks. Now its all reduced to electrons and digits that are transmitted through the air.

“Air” is actually a good analogy. Or “water.”

The big difference between now and the time before Napster is that the quantity of “content”l that is now available through modern channels is no longer scarce. It is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. The entire history of recorded music is now available at the tap of a touch screen. When you have instantaneous access to way more content then you will be able to listen to over the course of an entire lifetime, the supply is essentially infinite.

And I think there is a lesson somewhere in Economics 101, in the chapter on Supply on Demand, where it says that “if the supply is infinite, the price will approach zero.”

In which case, even a 2cent royalty check begins to look like a king’s ransom…