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Let’s not wade too much into the profanity or the slander here, but I think Tom Whore, Jeff, Morton et al have the nuggets of some real common sense (so do the others).

Making music has been a profitable (or at least an artist-sustaining) enterprise almost since it began. Long before the written word, stories were told by travelling bards who retold old legends set to music — this was the oral tradition and this was their chosen vocation. Stories like Beowulf, and perhaps even the Holy Bible were originally conveyed in this manner until someone had the sense (and the script) to write them down.

Later, composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were supported by Kings and courtiers. These patrons paid them to compose pieces for specific events. The musicians themselves were hired for public performances. Further, the time-honoured tradition of “busking” on street corners continues even today and is perhaps the oldest form of “music business” there is.

I’m very much on the clue train, so I’m aware of emusic and mp3 (in the case of the latter I invested in their IPO – blech!). To suggest that emusic.com or mp3.com, with their $8.99 per album price (for $8.99 USD I can get the CD at A&B Sound in Vancouver) and their worthless stocks, is a sustainable or even a realistic model for how the music industry should work in a digital age is ridiculous. Those prices are set by the same industry giants (emusic touts their partnerships with ASCAP and BMI) and middle men that have created the pricing model for CDs — it is not a sea change heralding a new era for distribution.

Add to that the issue that, once purchased, the MP3s can be duplicated ad infinitum with no degradation in quality or even any traceability, and the same problem still plagues artists. As quoth Jeff Bone, the Internet routes around damage, and emusic.com’s proposition (that every individual pays $8.99 for 12 MP3 files) is still damage that’s worth routing around.

The problem is that as you seek to erode the hegemony of big-ass labels and their affiliated girth, you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater because you’re punishing the artists, too. So you’re faced with a damned if you do, damned if you don’t sort of choice that requires you to dance with the Devil (emusic.com) or screw the artists (Napster). And that’s enough metaphor for one paragraph.

I guess the other problem is that once Napster starts charging monthly subscriptions, it’s only a matter of time before another startup emerges that finds some way to subsidize the monthly per-user fee and offers the service for free again, taking us back to square one. Here’s that routing around censorship/damage issue again.

Next, to say that artists should use recorded music as essentially advertisement for live performances, say, sounds rather appealing. But the problem is that you begin to systemically define what types of music are sustainable. Electronic music, for example, is much more conducive to recorded listening than live performances (when was the last time you lined up overnight for Paul Oakenfold tickets?) — even Gersham can corroborate this.

Finally, there’s the cultural argument: Our culture needs heroes. Like it or lump it, we (society) need the Back Street Boys — we thrive on them. Perhaps for the late 20’s set it Curt Cobain or Tori Amos, but we all need heroes, and it costs money to be a hero.

The infrastructure that lies underneath a band like Metallica is enormous, and the same system that supports Peter Mulvey or Peter Frampton or Peter Paul & Mary with a healthy middle-class income cannot support Metallica with their 17 tour trucks and 120,000 watts of stadium-pounding sound. Most stadium bands actually lose money while on tour — it’s an investment that creates spikes in album sales as they move around to different regions.

Anyway, to bring this jumble of arguments to some kind of a conclusion, I have been simply saying that neither side has a model right now that is sustainable or that can possibly accommodate the varying realms of artistry within the music world.

Perhaps an uncomfortable coexistence, much as has emerged within the computer software industry (where paying users subsidize pirates), is the best that we can hope for.

-Ian.

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