Who pays for music? Who pays for work? Who pays for anything?

I just wrote Andrew Sullivan about this post about recent exchange between Emily White and David Lowery regarding the music industry and illegal downloading. I doubt I’ll get any response from Sullivan, so I’ll post my email here anyway:

Dear Andrew,

Can I say some more about David Lowery’s response to Emily White?  What is happening to the music industry is significant, of course, because it presages what is about to happen in all other industries connected to the internet.  The money is no longer there for musicians, such that the majority of musicians are being relegated to the lower middle class with no benefits, health care, retirement.  In order to survive without revenue from album sales, these musicians have two options:  tour far more frequently, which paradoxically requires musician to release more recordings (that make no money) so as to promote the live shows the musician must constantly perform in order to earn a living; or they find a steady job, typically in A&R or the like (or at the University of Georgia), which allows the musician to record on occasion and pays for health care and retirement.  The musician is forced, in other words, to produce more and earn less — either to produce more recordings and shows, or produce for another company/institution in addition to producing records and shows.  This sounds pretty much exactly like what is happening to all workers across the globe at the moment, doesn’t it.  Production is up, but overall salaries are down.  Hmmm.

As this trend continues, however, it will inevitably occur to members of the upper middle class — those who aren’t in the 1%, but still in the 15% or the 10%, say.  Journalists are a prime example.  As a blogger in 2012 you must produce way more content on a daily basis that the average print journalist in 1962, but I doubt your income has risen in the direct proportion to the the increase of journalistic content produced.  And who is going to pay for the average blogger’s health care and retirement?  This will surely begin to hit doctors and lawyers and middle corporate management as well.  (What kind of Tea Party madness can we expect once lawyers and doctors are forced into the lower middle class?)  Even more, great advances are now being made in 3-D printing, i.e. printers that will actually fabricate objects on the spot.  Why would you go to Ikea, when you could get all of Ikea’s designs on Pirate Bay for free and print out your plates and coffee tables and futons at home?  Macy’s, Walmart, Target, Gap… these companies will be on life-support sooner rather than later.

When Lowery mentions the cost of all the technology that Emily White has to buy (consume) in order to play music, he fails to take into consideration the cost of production.  The same technology that plays has also vastly lowered the cost barriers to recording high-quality music and distributing it.  The lowered cost of production should mean that the product is cheaper, it’s worth less than it used to be.  Cheapness is mutually reinforced by changes in consumption — consumers of music simply will not pay the price asked for by music companies and musicians.  A strange discrepancy has emerged, then, with regard to pricing and purchasing.  Itunes still sells tracks for $0.99 a pop, and $9.99 per album.  But everyone paying that price knows that the tracks are not worth that much.  Because they’re available for free (illegally), the actual file one downloads can’t possibly be worth the price it is sold for legally, and hence everyone knows that $0.99/$9.99 is a totally inflated price.  iTunes could lower the cost to $0.125 per track in order to reflect true market value, and a lot more people would *choose* to buy rather than steal.  But they would still not buy because the price adequately reflects the value of the digital file.  Rather, the consumer would do so because of a moral obligation to pay producers!

In other words, we are now in a world in which consumers pay out of a sense of obligation, perhaps even guilt, rather than the belief/expectation that they are paying a fair price for the product they buy.  Emily White writes her post because she’s beginning to feel guilty about what she doesn’t buy.  David Lowery responds by appealing to our guilt about Vic Chesnutt or Alex Chilton.  Numerous bloggers state that, although they know they can download free files, they pay because they feel it’s the right thing to do.  Illegal downloads have lowered the real price of music files to near $0.00, but many consumers still pay $0.99 because they feel they are so obliged.  Can you imagine if you knew the real price of a gallon of milk was $2.50, but you decided to pay $3.99 for it anyway?  In fact, YOU PROBABLY DO ALREADY!  It’s called “organic milk.”  Which many people buy because they do not want to feel guilty, complicit in corporate agriculture, the pesticide/hormone industry, global warming, etc.

I would like to see musicians paid fairly, no more and no less but fairly, for the actual amount of labor they put into recording and performing.  I suspect that this compensation for labor is not adequately reflected in the price of music, whether $0.99/track or certainly $0.00/track.  But we should keep in mind that laborers in music, like laborers in every other industry these days, are not part of a truly fair labor market.  Companies are perfectly free to hire, not hire, or fire workers; but workers are not really free to move from company to company, and in the US this is in large part because of benefits rather than salary.  A worker will not risk losing health care in order to obtain a salary that more truly reflects the real cost of their labor, and this throws the whole supply-and-demand relation in the labor market out of whack.  Similarly, I wonder how musicians like Lowery would feel about their diminished income if they had real access to health care and a guarantee of a pension.  And I write this just as the Supreme Court is likely to announce its invalidation of the ACA!

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