The Music Industry's New Extortion Scheme

Update: More details of the scheme are here.

Musicians themselves may just be crazy, but the music labels are dangerously stupid, and need to be stopped before they can do any further damage to the music industry. Case in point: Warner Music, fully aware that the days of charging for recorded music are coming to an end, is now pushing for a music tax.

This isn’t the first time someone has called for a music tax. Peter Jenner argued for it in Europe in 2006. Trent Reznor said the same thing last year (as did the Songwriters Association of Canada). Mathew Ingram has other examples.

But Warner Music is doing more than just talking about a music tax. They’ve hired industry veteran Jim Griffin to create a new entity that would create a pool of money from user fees to be distributed to artists and copyright holders. Lawsuits against their customers aren’t working (The RIAA sent out 5,400 letters in the last year, says Portfolio, settling with 2,300 of those individuals and suing 2,465 who didn’t respond).

The goal? $5 per month from everyone, or fees of $20 billion per year. That’s double the current size of the recorded music industry ($10 billion).

Akamai’s David Barrett has an interesting angle on the issue (he says he wants to make it clear that he is speaking as an individual, not for Akamai). He calls the plan “tantamount to extortion, because it forces everyone to join,” and “It’s too late to charge people for what they’re already getting for free.” I agree – the music tax is little more than a classic protection racket.

As I wrote two months ago, a music tax will be the last stand of the music industry, and their last attempt to preserve the hierarchy that exists today. Here’s what I said then:

Music Taxes Will Kill Music Innovation

Forcing people to buy music whether they want to or not is not a solution to this problem. The incentives created by such a system are perverse – guaranteed revenue and guaranteed profits will remove any incentive to innovate and serve niche markets. It will be the death of music.

Music industry revenues will be a set size, regardless of the quality or type of music they release. Incentives to innovate will evaporate. There will only be competition for market share, with no attempt to build the size of market or serve less-popular niches. Forget labels building new brands and encouraging early artists to succeed – they’ll bleed existing big names for all they are worth and work hard to keep anything new – labels, artists, and songwriters – out of the market. New entrants just means more competition for a static amount of money. Collusion by existing players will run rampant.

Soon labels will complain that revenues aren’t high enough to sustain their businesses, and demand a higher tax. It will go up, but it will never go down.

As I said before, Asking the government to prop up a dying industry is always (always) a bad idea. In this case, it is a monumentally stupid, dangerous, and bad idea.

If this happens, it will put an end to the endless creative/destructive energy that is reshaping the music industry today. Good musicians will always find a way to make money. Others may have to follow their passion as a hobby and (shudder) get a day job to pay the bills. But if a music tax is put in place, that innovation will die, and with guaranteed revenues and profits, the need to innovate, market and compete will also die. A music tax is a sure fire way to destroy an industry that is just beginning to really blossom.

Yes, blossom. As terrifying as these days must be for music industry players, it’s clear that a golden age of creativity and innovation is ahead of us, all led by the Internet as a nearly perfect distribution mechanism for their product. Music labels must die. Hopefully, before they do any more damage.