New York-based venture capitalist Fred Wilson recently wrote a blog-post called Post-PIPA Post that seems to give some indication that SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) bills are close to being dead at this point in time. Thanks to the efforts of protests and lobbying of the internet community and the tech sector, the bills were made politically “radioactive” enough that a large number of politicians have since then rescinded or reevaluated their support for the two measures in the last few weeks. The battle seems to be largely over, at least for now, and people are once again looking for possible solutions to these problems.

SOPA Wikipedia Blackout

I’ve been participating and contributing to the SOPA “blackout” events of the last few weeks, but as a content producer (musician) I can sympathize with some of the concerns that Hollywood and the entertainment industry has on its plate. In the way the law was written, however, it would have given *anyone* the power to shut down a website — without due process — by simply filing a complaint in a guilty-until-proven-innocent style judicial process. Personal interests aside, this should give some indication as to why SOPA and PIPA was widely and passionately opposed by people from a wide array of cultures and backgrounds. It runs counter to the ideals that this country was founded upon, while encouraging a business environment that seemingly ensures mutual destruction for all parties involved. Simply put, the bill had nothing good to offer to anyone if they were to consider their long term interests.

But piracy still continues to be an unresolved issue, and this extreme reaction by the industry may reflect the level of anxiety and uncertainty that they perceive themselves to be in right now. Measures like these are likely to resurface if the tech sector and content producers aren’t able to come to some kind of compromise or agreement in the near future, and it’s the artists and consumers that stand to lose the most when these political battles are waged on a regular basis. There is a need now, more than ever before, for people to come up with innovations and solutions that can effectively balance the interests of the two parties involved.

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Since the internet became a widespread phenomenon, I’ve been wary of making CDs, DVDs, or any “album” in general, since the idea of making money through record sales seemed pretty dubious given how easily they can be copied and distributed over the web. So I never bothered going through the trouble of creating one, even after spending 10+ years of studying, composing, performing, improvising and producing music. I’ve always preferred the live performance experience, so I chose to focus on that instead of laying down tracks.

According to basic laws of supply and demand, the more abundant something is, the less it’s worth: digital duplication, then, effectively kills any viability of someone making a living purely through their recorded products. Irony is inherently built into the process of internet notoriety, because it essentially means that the more popular something becomes, the quicker it loses its value due to saturation. (aka. esteem dilution) Most consumers can see how quickly “hits” lose their value soon after their release, so it’s not a pattern that anyone isn’t familiar with already — in the entertainment world, things go up and down very quickly for this very reason.

An honest look at the situation will undeniably show that there are very few musicians, if any, who are able to make a living just selling CDs or MP3s. This is a truth that the music industry is all too familiar with, but the tech industry also has a responsibility in acknowledging that this is the reality for many artists today. Louis C.K. recently had a big success on the internet by selling his concerts directly online, but his “already-famous” situation cannot really be applicable to artists who are lesser-known or are in their aspiring stages.

Google SOPA Infographic
Google SOPA Infographic

Given how obvious and common-sensical the above arguments are, it may seem like the situation is without hope for those looking to make a living off of their recorded content. This mindset, however, comes as a result of treating music as if it were a product in-it-of-itself, rather than being thought of as a service that musicians provide for its audience members. The act of putting on live concerts is something that cannot be pirated, because it’s an experience that is unique to that place and time. (This has historically been the bread-and-butter of working musicians anyway, even among major-label artists.) Musicians will sometimes focus on reproducible goods (recordings, merchandise, album art, videos, etc.) rather than on activities with unique value, which can sometimes come to work against them. Reproducible goods go hand in hand with distribution channels and performing rights organizations (PROs), which has its own set of rules that most musicians are ill-equipped to handle — if they’re even aware of their existence to begin with.

In many cases, PROs are just something that musicians sign up for because someone told them to do so, while most of them end up forgetting about them in the long run after they find out how confusing and time-consuming just maintaining their membership can be. The system is so chaotic and unorganized that there’s often no way to know where your works end up going. The average musician, if they’re lucky, might occasionally get a random check that pays for their royalties for a broadcast that may or may not have actually belonged to them. I’ve gotten checks for things that I wrote and publicized, but sometimes the check just doesn’t end up coming at all — in other cases, I would get royalties for works that I had nothing to do with, broadcasted in places that I never even heard of. After a while you just stop taking the system seriously because it doesn’t give you any reliable indication that they’re even remotely keeping track of what they’re supposed to be doing. There’s gotta be a better way to do this, right?

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In the tech sector, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud, and other content distribution channels can be said to be service based companies, and they largely see themselves as being so — one solution would be for musicians and content producers to align their methodologies closer to what these companies in order to make themselves more compatible with their business models. (e.g. streaming media, interactivity, digital/electronic content, etc.) In return, these companies should make themselves compliant and cooperative with digitally-based PROs (SoundExchange, more traditional PROs if they happen to catch up) by providing accurate and reliable information about what’s being played on their sites. If done with enough transparency and ease of access, this should provide a two-way street between content and distribution, encouraging people to create more things in exchange for compensation. The company can then use this content to attract advertisers and promote their own brand name. In a sense, content producers working under these models end up owning part of the company, since their returns (based on hits and plays) will correlate directly with the company’s overall health.

In order for this to happen there may be a need for people to change how they interact with music overall — from the idea of “buying/selling a product” to “employing/contracting a service”. Rather than counting record sales, musicians should be counting exposure, reactions/feedback, usage (in other mediums) and prospects of gaining future work. In the ever-fluid, unpredictable environment of the digital age, the idea of the historical, immutable record may no longer be a viable option. This may seem counter-intuitive to traditional lines of thinking, but in the Web 2.0 World, this is more likely to make more sense.

My hunch is that Google/YouTube is beginning to move toward this model, so I’ve been adapting my next project to try to take advantage of this shift. (It’ll function somewhat like an album, but it’s more or less just a YouTube playlist when it comes down to it.) The completed product will be out in a month or 2, so we’ll see how it goes.