These Crazy Musicians Still Think They Should Get Paid For Recorded Music

Why is it the Brits have all the crazy-stupid ideas about how to screw up the music industry even more than it is already?

British musician Billy Bragg argues in the New York Times today that some portion of Bebo’s $850 million sale price should go to the musicians who uploaded their music to the site.

Note that Bragg neatly sidesteps the fact that music was uploaded to the site by artists (or their labels) themselves, with full knowledge that they would not receive payments of any kind (except free marketing, of course, and access to Bebo’s tens of millions of music loving users).

His argument is based on the notion that Bebo’s success was based on the availability of streaming music on the site: “The musicians who posted their work on are no different from investors in a start-up enterprise…Now that the business has reaped huge benefits, surely they deserve a dividend.”

Bragg also tries to take direct credit for Bebo’s success:

Mr. Birch has cited me as an influence in Bebo’s attitude toward artists. He got in touch two years ago after I took MySpace to task over its proprietary rights clause. I was concerned that the site was harvesting residual rights from original songs posted there by unsigned musicians. As a result of my complaints, MySpace changed its terms and conditions to state clearly that all rights to material appearing on the site remain with the originator.

A few weeks later, Mr. Birch came to see me at my home. He was hoping to expand his business by hosting music and wanted my advice on how to construct an artist-centered environment where musicians could post original songs without fear of losing control over their work. Following our talks, Mr. Birch told the press that he wanted Bebo to be a site that worked for artists and held their interests first and foremost.

Bragg does attempt to argue his case, primarily by (1) saying that social networks are as much to blame for declining music sales as the people who are downloading songs in violation of copyrights, and (2) saying that arguments that social networks are doing musicians a favor by marketing their music are “disingenuous.”

Both arguments have holes in them so large you could drive a BitTorrent stream through them.

Social networks have absolutely nothing to do with the decline in music sales. The fact that recorded music can be reproduced at a zero marginal cost is why music sales are declining. You can hate that or love that, but it’s simple economics that drives it.

And in fact the argument that social networks actually provide free marketing to artists is not disingenuous. In fact, it’s quite correct. Bragg notes that radio stations pay royalties for playing songs, even though they also obviously provide free marketing for artists.

His argument isn’t quite factually correct – In the U.S. royalties are paid by radio stations to song writers but not artists (it comes to about $450 million per year). In most of the rest of the world, though, artists are paid royalties. But a much more interesting analysis of the radio industry is the very strong desire for labels and musicians to pay them to play songs. Payola is now illegal, but the practice almost certainly continues. As recently as 2005, former New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer prosecuted payola-related crimes in his jurisdiction.

Recorded music is nothing but marketing material to drive awareness of an artist. Websites that bring that music to listeners are doing artists a favor. In fact, they’re doing them a favor that they should (and will) be paid for. Young artists and songwriters in particular benefit from these services – Until a few years ago they had almost no way to break into the mainstream without getting a label to promote them. Now those walls are being torn down, and Bragg has the audacity to complain about it.

I think the main reason Bragg wrote this article is jealousy over the massive success of someone he once met – Bebo cofounder Michael Birch. The paragraphs quoted above where he takes credit for their business model reveal his angst in that regard. Bragg had absolutely nothing to do with Bebo’s $850 million payday. And everything else he wrote in that article is dead wrong, too.