Why Metallica are Pricks: The Crumbling Music Monopoly

The use of intellectual property is the attempt at monopolising the knowledge commons. By having control of ideas and concepts, particular economic agents can control flows of information and direct them under their own economic planning. Intellectual property “is a millstone around the neck of innovation and technological progress, a political mechanism for stifling both in favor of bare monopoly”[1]. From the monopolies that IP creates come proprietary rents, where consumers and small producers have to pay to access particular materials and ideas that have been developed under the auspices of a particular group that arbitrarily holds IP or patent rights. Coming down to it, this is the attempt to introduce a mutated version of private property rights on intangible goods in the form of thoughts or ideas.

Such an attempt constitutes the highest form of stupidity, and does not in fact improve or help any form of technological innovation. “Any attempt to neatly partition the contributions made by one mind or another, through all the ages of invention and scientific discovery, is vain and fruitless to the point of inanity. Inventions constantly both absorb and propagate one another, plagiarizing, consuming and collaborating to create still newer inventions. To source any idea whatsoever to a particular individual or group is to assume that we know far more than we ever could about the full picture of the idea’s germination and evolution. Given that every idea has had thousands of contributors through the years, to choose a single beneficiary (whether individual or corporate) of intellectual property’s limited monopolies is foolish and uneconomical even taken on its own terms. This free flow of ideas is extremely beneficial and is fostered by genuine free market competition”[2]. Nowhere has this attempt at monopolising ideas been more pervasive, yet fruitless, as in the music industry.

Much of the modern music industry continues to rely on a model of proprietary rents from independent producers and the consuming public. By holding the authorship rights to a huge variety of songs, rhythms, lyrics, beats and chord progressions, the music industry has been able to monopolise into massive record companies that have been dominating the music industry for decades. With this monopoly power comes to ability to influence the effects of intellectual property, which they’ve done to no end. They’ve helped pass the DMCA, which limits online flows of music, as well as pushing for (but fortunately not succeeding in legislating) bills such as SOPA and PIPA. The increasing stringency of content ownership and IP law has been at the forefront of the music monopoly’s strategic attempts at maintaining their economic power and status. The record companies and their rich artists are relying on a crumbling business model. They base much of their profit on the rent extraction of an artist who is coddled into certain genres and ideas of popularity, thus limiting musical ability and artistry. Further, the record companies become monopolists of knowledge (in this case music) by limiting its availability and attempting to place an artificial scarcity on it.

In this way, it would seem petty to blame Metallica for what is a systemic problem. However, they seem to tout themselves as the best representatives for this music monopoly, as record executives remain faceless. Metallica embody the old attitude of buying music and listening to it, instead of sharing and actually experiencing it. They happily revel in the fact that paid downloads naturally favour established artists, and without irony moan about how they aren’t being paid for their art.

Unfortunately, this monopolistic attitude runs counter to any sort of free economy. On a free market, payment cannot be demanded or coerced, but must be earned through entrepreneurial innovation and creative endeavours. If people do not value your art enough to pay for it, or prefer different models through which they listen to music, that is their freely subjective choice. However, Metallica and other artists disagreed. When Napster came online, it was a game changer in the music industry, ripping profits out of the hands of established record companies and artists and breaking the hierarchical structure of buyer and seller, meaning the proliferation of music onto multiple platforms. As a result, Metallica, along with other artists, took them to court over copyright claims, which forced Napster to shutdown and become a paid-for service. As D’Amato says, “the real purpose of intellectual property has not been to protect inventors and authors, but rather to concentrate useful, valuable information in the hands of a privileged class, tied to the cynosures of political power”[3].

The new models that have been developed out of Napster are fortunately reversing this monopolistic trend, creating genuinely free markets within the wider music industry. As a result of filesharing, new business models have opened up that completely destroy many record companies’ power. Things like torrenting, SoundCloud, pay-what-you-want sites and YouTube mean that artists develop direct control over their music. It also changes the flows of profit away from record companies and toward informal gigs and touring. As a result, smaller artists are able gain a meaningful platform within the plethora of different genres and music types that exist, reinvigorating and creating new forms of music. Simply going to SoundCloud, you’ll find a huge range of different artists and music to fit each individual taste, all being available to stream and some available for free download. All content management is left in the hands of the artist.

Originally, record companies claimed to be necessary as they were the only means to access equipment and management. Now with cheap apps and computer programs, as well as a huge range of cheap instrumentation and musical equipment, it means that equipment availability is massively decentralised. Combined with the new platforms that allow for individualised and varied content management, music has taken on a whole new character where the relationship between artist and listener being radically transformed. Artists are now directly in contact with their fans, tailoring gig-times and content to what they and their fans subjectively desire.

A good example of a famous band that has developed out of this new music model is Death Grips. All their albums have been released for free, with much of their income coming through consistent touring. Many other artists not on the same level of popularity are also transitioning successfully into this new model of music creation and distribution. Even established artists like Radiohead have followed this model. They released their album King of Limbs on their own site and offered listeners to pay whatever they wanted. On average, people paid £2-3 for the album, despite it being free and in spite of the knowledge Radiohead are a very wealthy band. Again, less popular artists have followed this example, using Bandcamp websites with variable pay scales.

The music monopoly is just a part of the wider corporate monopoly on the production of knowledge and ideas. It attempts to limit sharing and corporatise artistry (thus resulting in modern pop music) through state-enforced copyright law. However, what’s great is that self-release platforms and filesharing are beginning to completely destroy the power of record companies, and return music to the idea of a shared platform between creators and consumers. Like mass media, which is being revolutionised with popular blogging and new forms of news distribution, the music industry is being transformed into a free market of competitive artists, where consumers and producers are empowered and record companies are forgotten as an irrelevance of history.

[1] https://mises.org/library/intellectual-property-not-true-property

[2] https://mises.org/library/intellectual-property-not-true-property

[3] https://mises.org/library/intellectual-property-not-true-property

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