I ran into a friend of mine at a local used record store last week. I was going on and on about a Rickie Lee Jones EP but his mind was clearly somewhere else. He had just seen the picture of David Lowery's performing rights royalty statement on the Internet; the one where Lowery demonstrated he had received $16.89 for one million plus plays of his song "Low" on Pandora.
My friend is a music aficionado with refined tastes and leftist leanings and he was clearly pissed. "If the artists are making so little money why don't we just steal their music?” he asked.
My response to this question usually depends on how cranky I am. I basically have three answers.
First: right, why don't we just steal the music? That cat escaped the bag a long time ago. Everything is available on the Internet and if you don't know how to find it, your teenager does. Despite the fact that stealing music in 2013 is morally no different than when I walked out of a drugstore in 1967 with the latest 45s tucked under my shirt, it's certainly a lot easier.
Second: send the RIAA and their army of lawyers out to sue everybody. Hell, given the kind of month I've had financially I might even sign up. Despite the ludicrousness of suing college students and single mothers and despite the fact that even the RIAA seems to have stopped pursuing this strategy, until technology develops an effective way to stop illegal file sharing, mass lawsuits or the government taking down Internet empires like that which belonged to Kim Dotcom (Megaupload) may be the only truly effective way to stop spreading illegal music.
Third, the real answer is that the music business is now on the honor system and whether we like it or not streaming and similar services are not just the future, they are the present. I don't particularly like this model. I'm a dinosaur and like to own physical records but I can't ignore reality. I wrote about this same subject a while back (http://tripaldredgelaw.blogspot.com/2012/07/in-defense-of-emily-white.html.)
It’s a turf war and a number of battles are being fought right now over the issues between performing rights organizations, publishers, record companies and artists. The field is a mess but the royalty situation may improve over time as these different battles shake out. Everybody's fighting for a bigger piece of an ever-shrinking pie, but I can tell you from some of the recent talks I have heard on the subject, the fights are very serious and they are very real.
Artists like Lowery, who presumably were at one time signed to major record deals and major publishing deals really don't have much say in the matter, if they signed away their rights to their master recordings and musical compositions. I could point out that Lowery just displayed his BMI statement which is just one piece of the pie. He should also be credited with royalties from his record label and his publisher but the fact remains, its still not a lot of money. Truly independent artists, those who still own the rights to administer their masters and their publishing interests can choose to avoid being on these sites (if they are careful in selecting their distribution methods). The downside to this is that they risk losing exposure to a rapidly expanding audience.
It is all daunting but it really does feel like the beginning of a major technological shift. Should artists and songwriters be patient? No, of course not; they need to keep up the fight on all fronts…but we’re not helping them or ourselves by stealing.