There was a three-page article in GQ Magazine recently, in which U2’s manager Paul McGuinness makes the case for artists needing to make money from their music in a world where people are downloading it for free.
He called it “How To Save The Music Industry“.
In it, he asks that the sort of clever, innovative people that you might find at Google, Apple and Facebook put their mind to solving the problem. The presupposition, of course, is that we all agree on both the diagnosis of the problem and the need for a solution.
Now, this is the sort of thing that I talk about a lot. It’s my job. I’m Reader in Music Industries Innovation at BCU. And McGuinness does have a very good point, which is that innovation is really important when it comes to the music industries these days. Can’t argue with that, at least.
That same old argument again
There will, of course, be another polarised argument about whether McGuinness is justified in his call for safeguarding the recording industries, or whether it’s outrageous for more successful businesses to be expected to prop up an industry that has essentially failed but refuses to die (and so on, etc.).
There’ll also be arguments about ‘free’, piracy and the ethics of the old record label models. But I think there’s a more interesting (hypothetical, perhaps, but important) conversation to be had, which is this:
Let’s assume McGuinness and his innovative friends in other industries are able to ‘fix’ or ‘save’ the music business to his satisfaction. What would that actually mean?
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Let’s say that McGuinness was able to put the record business back together again. What would that mean for the music industries as a whole (not just the record business)?
What would it mean for young artists? For consumers? For the increasing majority of people who bridge the gap between ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’? For innovation? For culture?
Because I think the tension here is not between the music industry and downloaders, or even between the music industry and the major telcos that are profiting from the public hunger for fast broadband.
The tension seems to be more between the read-only culture of the 20th century, with a very clear revenue stream – and a far more participatory (albeit perhaps less obviously monetisable) read/write culture.
Case in point
It just so happens that I have a handy example I can draw on:
People like my son Jake, for instance, can now make and distribute music in ways that would have been utterly inaccessible to them 20 years ago.
But let’s suppose Jake has no desire to become a rockstar, and that nor does he see making music as a career any more than I see photography as a potential career for me (even though I love taking and sharing pictures).
Making music is something he enjoys and is passionate about, and connecting with other people over that music as a creative outlet is something that obviously means a lot.
You can pay for his music should you wish (though you’re welcome to it without paying) – but the idea of ‘protecting his income’ is essentially meaningless. He doesn’t feel he has the right to make money from his music – though he does feel he has the opportunity.
But that opportunity comes with baggage. In fact, it’s utterly disruptive to a world in which bands struggle to be discovered by record labels, have world-wide tours and make careers in the public spotlight.
And yes, of course, I know that world is largely mythical. I know that most famous bands have not made money anywhere near commensurate to the value they have created. I’m not having that discussion here.
I guess what I’d like to discuss is whether it’s a good trade off.
Hypothetically speaking – what’s better? A world in which only professionals can create, distribute and make a good living selling music to consumers who pay them every time; or a world in which anyone can be a creator if they want to be, and find an audience if they care to?
Would we prefer a world with a hundred U2s in it, or a world with a million Jakes? Or is there something in between those two that we could start to work towards here?