Emily and David

By JoCo June 20, 2012

Here’s what happened:

I retweeted Aimee Mann’s link to a post by David Lowery on his Trichordist blog, a post that he wrote in response to something Emily White posted on the All Songs Considered blog. You should read both posts to get up to speed. Let me know when you’re ready.

OK? So Emily is 21, and she writes about how she is young enough to have never had to go through the transition from physical music to digital. She’s never paid for much music in her life, but she has a large library of mp3s, and she has some misgivings about that. But she’s pretty sure that her generation is never going to pay for music. David’s response is a good read, and very instructive about the state of the music business and the internet, and I won’t try to sum it up here for fear of misrepresenting his position – you should definitely read it.

Some people are asking why I retweeted that link to an argument that is very different from the one that I made in response to the MegaUpload shutdown. The answer is because it made me think. I hesitate to even write this post, because every time I start talking about this stuff it feels like I’m poking a bear – a bear who is a lot smarter and more well-informed than me, a bear who is distributed all over the internet and has various law degrees, and has read and understood all the economic studies about file sharing and the decline in music business revenue. I imagine the bear will write a bunch of posts that make me think even more, and also make me feel kind of dumb about what I said or failed to say. I admit: I don’t know what I’m talking about, and a lot of what I believe comes from gut feelings, personal experience, and wishful thinking. Answers I have none, but here are some things David’s post makes me think about.

I have a different perspective on the music business than a lot of artists because of the way my career happened. Before I left my software job and started Thing a Week, the music business seemed like a private club to which I would never belong. Some of that was self-doubt and laziness I’m sure, but not all of it. I honestly don’t believe I could have made this thing happen under the old system. So to me, the internet is everything – it changed my life, it saved me, it continues to sustain me today. But over the past few years I’ve gotten to know a bunch of artists and industry people who came up in that old system, and who have been watching it fall apart around them. It’s a terrible thing, and as a human being, it’s hard to look those people in the eye while I’m waving the Free Culture flag. So when I read a post like David’s it really knocks me off my feet. What if I’ve been wrong all this time? What if I’ve been suckered in by the Free Culture movement, and all this rah-rah filesharing talk is contributing to the decline of civilization? What if it’s ME who’s on the wrong side of history?

I think David and I agree on at least one point, which is that Emily’s suggestion that buying music isn’t convenient doesn’t really make sense. It’s gotten pretty easy over the last few years to pay for the music that you like. And like David, I think the right choice is to support the artists that you love by giving them money. I also think it’s kind of shitty that there’s a lot of money generated from filesharing activites that makes some people rich and never gets to the artists (see also “Meet the New Boss, Worse Than the Old Boss”). I agree it would be nice if there were an easy way to fix that.

I’m trying hard to find the place where David and I begin to disagree, and I’m not even sure we do. I think it’s more a matter of our perspectives, and the context in which we see all this stuff happening. I’ll start with this: David points out that Emily’s free music isn’t really free, and that she needed to buy a bunch of stuff in order to get this free music: a smartphone with a data plan, an iPod, a Macbook. He wonders why Emily was OK paying for this very expensive stuff, but not OK paying for music. The answer is obvious: those are physical objects that Emily would have had to steal from a store, out there in meat space, using her actual body and hands, risking physical incarceration and getting in serious trouble. I am quite certain that if Emily could go to a website and download a free illegal copy of a Macbook in the safety of her own home, she would do it. Hell, I might even do it. I don’t know that I can articulate here to everyone’s satisfaction why getting digital music for free is different from getting physical objects for free, but it is hard to argue that it is not, in some fundamental way, very different. Clearly, we all think it’s different, otherwise we would be stealing as many laptops as we are mp3s. Mp3s are lying all over the ground waiting for us to pick them up, and no matter how many we pick up, there are always more. Whether you think picking them up is wrong or not, it would be hard to argue that this is not the current reality.

This difference between physical and digital is the meat in this sandwich. After all, the music business didn’t exist until it became possible to record music onto a medium that could be mass-produced. To be clear, I’m not saying that nobody made money making music before there were records, just that the music industry as we know it is almost exclusively based on the idea that there’s a physical object you can sell, and that access to that physical object is the only way you can play the music whenever you want. That’s obviously over. And it doesn’t just put a bunch of corporate suits at risk, it puts artists at risk. We know that the record industry is falling apart because look at these charts and graphs. The scary thing is, there’s also a very real possibility that in the long term, being a musician will no longer be a thing that you can do to make money.

It’s already happening. The job of being an artist and the business of selling music have both changed and are still changing. The money flows to different places now – it goes to Spotify, Grooveshark, Google, MegaUpload, Apple, Amazon. Some of them give artists a decent cut, some of them give artists nothing at all. Some of them are real douchebags, some of them maybe have the sheen of non-douchebagism, but the truth is that none of those guys care about artists because they are businesses (in contrast with many wonderful label people I have met, who are often fans first and business people second). This is how things are, and it’s good for some people and bad for other people. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

John Roderick tweeted a quote from Michael Penn. I don’t know the source of it, but here it is: “Recorded music exists now in a nether world between commerce and charity, dependent entirely on the ethics of strangers.” He’s not wrong. And that reality has a great deal to do with the fact that music is now a digital thing – it costs almost nothing to reproduce and distribute in unlimited quantities. There is no scarcity anymore, no discrete physical object to build a business around, no reason to pay for it other than wanting to support the artist so they can make more music, a long term proposition that isn’t always the first thing you think of when your finger is hovering over the download link. Some people support artists even though they don’t have to, which is a lot like how it used to be before there were recordings. You might call that nether world between commerce and charity “patronage.”

I believe this is the long-term future of all things, not just music. Here is where I will lose a large percentage of my audience, because I’m now going to get a little science fictiony and start talking about the future of nanotechnology and 3D scanners and printers, and the eden of abundance that awaits us in a glorious future of machine saviors. Stay with me though, because I’m going to bring this back to the David Lowery post in a bit.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s just say that within a few years there will exist a pretty reliable, pretty cheap, consumer 3D printer that you can buy at Staples and have in your house (this is not a crazy thing to say). You can give it the specs of an object and it will print it out in plain white plastic. Your costs are the machine, the raw plastic, the time it takes to print it, and whatever you pay for the digital file that has the object specs (hint: some people are going to charge you, but the internet is going to drive the price of these kinds of files towards $0). Let’s say there’s also some pretty accurate, pretty cheap 3D scanner technology out there too.

Your kid loves Legos. He’s got an X-wing fighter kit that he’s super excited about, and as he’s putting it together, one of the little pointy laser turret pieces on the tips of the wings slips out of his hands and falls down the central air conditioning vent. No problem. You fire up the old internet, and you find www.legowarez.to, the small crazy place where all of the Lego nuts go to obsessively upload and catalog 3D scans of every lego piece that has ever existed. This site is ad supported, and some douchebag in Nigeria is getting rich off it. But you find the file for the piece you need, you download it, and a few minutes later you’ve printed out a replacement piece.

How do you feel about that? Do we need to step in and protect Lego’s interests? I’m assuming that this act is some kind of theft of intellectual property – you are, after all, getting a copy of a thing for free that Lego presumably owns. But their business is not just based on intellectual property, it’s also based on the manufacture of these objects. So I don’t know, you’re not stealing a Lego piece precisely, but you are stealing the idea of a Lego piece, and not just a brick, but a specific custom piece that they spent money and time to design, create, and license from George Lucas. Ethically, it’s a little complicated, right?

Let’s take it further and say that you have a cheap and reliable consumer 3D scanner at home, and every time you get a new set of Legos for your kid, you scan and catalog the whole thing just to make sure you have a backup copy of all the pieces, so you don’t need to poke around the annoying, popup-laden, douchebaggy legowarez site the next time you lose a piece. How’s that? Still OK? Or is that not cool? You are presumably stepping a little bit on their business interests, because that might represent a bunch of replacement pieces you will not be buying from them. And theoretically you could print out a second copy of a Lego set that you only paid for once. But if it’s all just for personal use, maybe you’re OK with that.

What if a new Death Star kit came out and you didn’t buy it, but instead went to the legowarez.to site and just got the whole thing for free and printed it out? This is pretty clearly uncool I think. It’s money that Lego would have gotten but did not – well, probably, assuming you would have bought it in the absence of an available pirated version. In fact, this transaction created some small amount of profit for the douchebag in Nigeria who puts ads on legowarez.to, the 3D printer company, and your internet provider. That’s money that your sense of justice might tell you belongs in Lego’s pockets instead. So, what are our ethical obligations here? Do you think we should figure out a way to shut down legowarez.to? Do you think we need to get the 3D printer company to take some responsibility and give some of that profit back to Lego?

What if the Lego nuts created and uploaded specs for a bunch of Lego pieces that didn’t exist? What if they made, and published for free, the specs for a kit that connected Legos with K’Nex, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and almost every other extruded plastic construction kit you can think of? (Whoops, someone already did that actually.) That’s kind of cool because it’s an innovation that is otherwise extremely impractical – it makes an end run around about 4,000 lawyers, and crosses all sorts of intellectual property lines, and makes something that enables your kid to create a super awesome log cabin death star ferris wheel. It just would not happen without this technology enabling Lego nuts to be Lego nuts. Now what? Do you feel the need to protect Lego and K’Nex and Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys and the entire molded plastic kit industry from this threat to their business? Because once anyone in the world can just make a new Lego kit and publish it online for free, this corner of industry is going to slowly disappear – revenues will drop, layoffs will happen, and career molded plastic kit people will eventually no longer be able to make a living.

Now take all those things that just happened with Legos and imagine them happening with auto parts, shoes, forks, watches, clothing, eyeglasses, medicine, food, beer, smartphones, iPods, Macbooks (and here’s the mind fuck: with 3D printers themselves). Where along this chain do you choose to put on the brakes? (<--Strawman alert: I concede that David Lowery is not advocating the obstruction of the 3D printer industry. Hang on a second.) Now I sound like a crazy utopian futurist person. UNFOLLOW. But I think this is where my thoughts and priorities diverge from what's in David Lowery's post. I believe it's a noble and just pursuit to try to get some of the money that's flowing to MegaUpload and Google to flow to artists. It is definitely on the side of good. And I agree that the ethical choice is to pay for music (because I am an old person). I think it would be nice of Emily and her generation to realize that artists she loves deserve her financial support, and I'm pleased to see that on sites like Kickstarter, patronage is alive and well, at least for now. But I don't know if I'm going to spend a lot of effort trying to convince Emily that what she's doing is wrong, or trying to convince Google to give some of their ad revenue to me. These feel like a short-term goals, a little like skating to where the puck was a few minutes ago. I submit that it is maybe not the right place to focus our efforts. Frankly, I'd prefer it if we could make some progress on this 3D printer technology, because I am missing a lot of Lego pieces. Even though they may spell doom for my profession, Emily's attitudes toward music feel a little bit like a piece of the future to me, a little bit like the way we're all going to feel about Legos and auto parts and eyeglasses in a few decades. Emily's kids are going to be born into a world that makes them think even LESS like us old people about the ethics of intellectual property in the digital realm (a realm that will increasingly include actual physical things). They're going to seem to us like depraved, heartless monsters who think it's OK to steal Legos. Even Emily is going to be shocked and surprised. This is my bias: the decline of scarcity seems inevitable to me. I have no doubt that this fight over mp3s is just the first of many fights we're going to have about this stuff. Our laws and ethics already fail to match up with our behaviors, and for my money, those are the things we should be trying to fix. The change is already happening to us, and it's a change that WE ARE CHOOSING. It's too late to stop it, because we actually kind of like a lot of the things that we're getting out of it. I don't know how to get all that artist money back, and I don't know if we ever will. I don't much like that Spotify pays out so little to me when their service is siphoning directly out of the gas tank of my mp3 sales. But I sure do love having Spotify here on this computer I keep in my pocket. The flood comes and it doesn't matter if the water is right or wrong - you get in the boat, you stack sandbags, you climb on the roof and wait for a helicopter, and sometime later the water is calm and the world looks different. By the way, I also play music: San Francisco tonight, Portland Thursday, Seattle Friday, Vancouver Saturday. Come on out and tell me why I’m wrong.


Beth berkland says

Very eloquent, I actually read and understood all of it! Well said, sir...and personally, I look forward to an opportunity to use "the sheen of non-douchebagism". Mad Libs, anyone? :-)

Hope to see you sometime soon, please come back to Charlotte - or Asheville, maybe?? (and give some thought to the CAT thing...a box of shit in the house isn't such a bad thing...)


Elly Conley says

Is there a way to get the money to go more directly to you? I try to download directly from your site to avoid amazon.com's cut, but I'd MUCH rather just write you a check for $10 (or whatever) and mail it to you.

Rob L. says

At least we can ALL agree that it's the coolest thing ever that this post contains the phrase "super awesome log cabin death star ferris wheel."


Ken Thomas says

There was a time, and it wasn't that long ago, when artists made recordings and distributed them largely for free, as a means of promotion. They made pretty much their entire income from live performances and merchandise. What exactly would be wrong with that model again? Why does nobody want to talk about it?

Yes, there would be fewer billionaire artists, but is that really a bad thing? Maybe instead of a few people making large dollars (most of whom are managing or promoting) we'd have a lot more people making a decent living making music.

If the problem is that your product has become infinitely duplicateable, then sell the thing people can't duplicate - a live show.

So there's a proposed solution. In all honesty, I'm sick of people whining about it. It's really nothing more substantial than the candlemakers who sued Thomas Edison for ruining their business.

Sean says

Great post. I am looking foreward to having a 3D printer to replace missing buttons. But maybe that's too banal an application for such destabilizing technology. For anyone waiting for the printers for replacing Lego parts, in my experience Lego will happily do that now for free!

Ariock says

I'm sorry I'm going to be missing your show in SF tonight.

I want to talk about the lego issue. As you're aware, there is a parallel thing to copyright, which is the patent. Humorously enough, patents are for 20 years and copyrights now are essentially forever.

I also want to bring up the idea of culture and moving forward. The idea never was that people get to make a thing and live off that forever and ever. The idea has always been that people will create a thing, show it to the rest of the world, and our culture can then incorporate that thing into itself. Unfortunately, that's no longer the place we see ourselves in. Now we have walled off areas where no one can go without a license for their entire lifetimes +70 years.

David wants to talk about ethics. In 1790, Copyright was 28 years. Around 1830, that was extended. But not just for new works, it also retroactively extended existing copyrights for people who'd made works under the assumption that their work would be entering public domain after just 28 years. Was that ethical? To have essentially an agreement with the public that you rescind?

Every single copyright extension since has done the same thing, with the Sonny Bono act in 1998 being the most egregious. This was before Napster.

So what's been stolen from the public? http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2012/pre-1976 I'd argue that this is a more concrete theft of IP than downloading songs.

Maybe this is karma. Maybe this is what happens when an industry throws ethics away. Maybe now that's what pervades the culture, instead of the art itself, hidden behind walls.

Liz C says

"This is my bias: the decline of scarcity seems inevitable to me."

I agree that ideas, songs, stories, etc are, and will become, less scarce.

I'm not so sure about actual physical stuff. I think that the chunks of plastic from which we make LEGO will become more scarce. Someone will figure out a way to make all of those old cassettes and records into plastic bricks, but I also think it will be awhile before I want all of those byproducts of that process in my living room.

As opposed to two, comparable tracks of access and scarcity, I think that it's possible physical stuff and "idea" stuff, are going in opposite directions.

Stepto says

I think you're wrong, but not for the reasons you think. And I'll tell you this tomorrow night.

But the long and short of it is, as I read the linked NPR post here:


She never once argues for "free music" or a "free music" culture. You guys are latching onto the word "owned" and protesting too much I think.

Consider: She's young. I don't mean to dismiss her viewpoint with that, it's context. When I was young I pirated as much software as I could because the model of BBS's as distribution was already disrupting software store sales as a model, I didn't understand why everyone didn't just move to the better model from a selling perspective. I would have paid, if I could. But why should I go to Software etc for software when the same software was on a BBS downloaded to my hard drive and if I needed to I could copy it to floppy at the price of blank floppies? It wasn't the free part that got me in my early 20's, again I could have paid. It was the crime of inefficiency.

Emily never had to make that call, but the industry apparently keeps focusing her back to it. Let us consider what I think is most important point she makes: "But I honestly don't think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience."

Her position is slightly more responsible than mine was at the same point: She's obviously bought things on iTunes and acquired a ton of her music legally due to it being an option. And her last paragraph simply states an analogous thing I felt being her age in 1990. "I have a modem, why the hell do I have to buy floppy disks?" Even better: an album, even one that is meant to be consumed like The Wall or Lou Reed's New York, is still simply a collection of short stories that have a concrete beginning middle and end, and can be enjoyed just as equally outside the whole of the artist's intent.

Now, none of this is to say that either your position or the Trichordist are wrong on the face of the argument you are having. I actually agree with pretty much all of the points! You're just not actually arguing with her original post nearly as much as you think you are. (In fairness I think you hint at that in the above as you explore various disruptive technologies.)

Technological progress falsely drove the "worth" of a song upwards from LP's to CD's, because it was wasteful to cut a CD (even those weird tiny 3 inch ones) for less than an album's worth of songs, data wise. Then the Internet righted the equation by eliminating entirely the point of that model.

My favorite passage from the above is this: "Even though they may spell doom for my profession, Emily's attitudes toward music feel a little bit like a piece of the future to me, a little bit like the way we're all going to feel about Legos and auto parts and eyeglasses in a few decades."

It doesn't spell doom for your profession at all! A fact I think you admit when you include the lego and eyeglass model because those are functional blocks, not (without a couple of exceptions) creative blocks. An album is much more commonly an artificial unit of organization than is a novel or eyeglasses (with some minor exceptions) I would say the concept of an "album" is almost always a collection of short stories. Sure, in the aggregate those short stories might make a larger story. But the point is it can be enjoyed without the larger experience.

Or, the solution could be you're Mike Oldfield and want to make 20 minute long songs, and negotiate with the spotify's of the world the compensation model of the new order.

But it's hardly the death of musical creation as a profession. To intimate such seems...unseemly?

I'm speaking here as a consumer and creator. My first book was a collection of individual stories already available for free on my blog. The book was an expanded, professionally edited version of that "free culture content". And it sold ok, in the "hey here you go, no DRM" model. But when I made it available in convenience form (ie when I released it on Kindle) I sold so many more copies than all the hard copies and non DRM e-copies combined.

I think Emily nailed it with the line on convenience. It's probably up to the rest of us to figure out how to make that a sustaining model in this economic disruptive technology culture.

Josh says

@Elly: sure, there's a way to get the music directly to him. steal it, then mail him a check for $10.

Claudia Putnam says

@Ken Thomas, the reason artists can't make livings entirely from performances and merchandise is that it's too grueling a lifestyle. Imagine living on the road into your 40s and 60s with a family. Imagine how the family feels about that. I can't tell you how many young people I know who are gifted musicians who reject it, at great personal pain, because they don't want the lifestyle.

David Talley says

You write: "There is no scarcity anymore" but that's wrong. Talent is damn scarce, as the quality level of that crazy pile of mp3s on the floor amply demonstrates. Or try to read some of the prose coming through Amazon's Kindle vanity press, directly from the artist to you. Ouch.

The music industry of the past performed a useful filtering function of selecting and developing artists, as did editors at publishing houses. They got paid for that function, *to some extent* because they added value, not just because they were the original pirates clever enough to monopolize the thing-production process. So now they're gone -- POOF! What do we have? A giant google list of results prioritized by who knows what black box, with filter bubbles including familiar results and nudging unfamiliar ones out of sight. What would Emily pay for a better way to find *the right* music? Instead she's stuck with stuff her friends have heard and liked, which is the same stuff her other friends have heard and liked -- a narrow slice.

I'm not defending unhealthy suppression of potentially great music that can't break in for whatever reason, which the industry has certainly perpetuated at least as much as it has funded new acts as they come along. And I'm certainly not defending parasites sucking off the value produced by that scarce talent; that's at least as big a problem now with the access systems like Spotify and Amazon, as Elly Conley notes above.

But it's worth some money to me to avoid crawling around sifting through all those mp3s on the floor, in addition to my desire to keep the talent well-fed and happily recording new songs.

Joe Rybicki says

Thought experiment for the Free-Culture and anti-copyright folks out here: Let's say you make something. You distribute it digitally. And because you believe in Free Culture, you insist that it be distributed for free.

Then someone starts charging for it.

How does that make you feel? Do you feel that you, as the creator, have the right to determine how your creation is distributed?

I think even more than a practical issue -- which, let me be clear, is certainly a big issue -- this is an issue of principle. How would you feel if the foo was on the other shoot? Not great, I suspect.


But there's also a practical element that doesn't seem to be talked much about. There are a lot of Free-As-In-Beer flag-wavers outraged that the gub'mint might step in and knock out file-sharing centers. "What right," they demand, "does the government have to determine how culture should be shared?"

But here's what confuses me: What right do the flag-wavers have to determine how an artist's work should be shared? Do you presume to know better than the creators of the works how their work benefits them, or benefits society?

We talk about "the music industry" as though it's this faceless monolith. But the facts are (as usual) a lot messier. Yes, some artists can make a living on the road, and giving away their music (or allowing it to be given away) benefits them. But there are musicians for whom this is exactly reversed: Live performance earns nothing; music sales and licensing are everything. Most are probably in the middle. But are we going to insist that all musicians take it on the road, or give it up? Seems kind of counter-productive to the goal of diversifying art and encouraging experimentation. Do we really want a world where only the one percent (if you'll pardon the allusion) of musicians can make a decent living?

People, think this through to its logical conclusion. We live in a world where money is necessary. The less money that can be made by making music, the fewer musicians we'll have. Yes, there will be the super-successful, there will be the ones who do it for love alone, and there will be those -- like our esteemed host -- who find their own niche and make it work. But I don't see how it can be denied that fewer rewards for making music will ultimately result in fewer musicians. Is that really what we want? Is that the price we're willing to pay for "free" music?

Personally, I'd rather pay Mr. Coulton than get Rebecca Black for free.

Am I alone in thinking this way?

Guy "CouchGuy" McLimore says

I love your LEGO analogy (and I love LEGO), so let's look at that a bit more.
There is no doubt that cheap and easy to use 3D printer technology would affect a company like LEGO pretty early in the ball game. (And, as you pointed out, the existence of a connector set 3D file that links LEGO with every other major brand of building toy is already affecting them to a small degree.) LEGO sets are essentially a lot of standardized plastic doodads in a box, and 3D printers are great at turning out plastic doodads.
So what happens? LEGO eventually has to alter the way it does things. If they are smart (and I've seen very few companies that are run by smarter people), they start doing so early and incrementally, shifting with the inevitability of the tide.
At first, it is probably going to be more economical (and more convenient) to create those little pieces in massive bulk lots than to make all the parts at home with a 3D printer. The trick is that there are a lot of people along the chain of delivery between LEGO, who makes the parts, and you, who builds the Death Star. That chain is why LEGO sets are so expensive. Plastic is cheap in bulk, shipping heavy items and paying all the middlemen is not.
In the short term, it is to LEGO's advantage to let people make small replacement parts and superspecialized doodads at home themselves. That encourages more people to tie themsleves to LEGO's system. LEGO is not going to make any sort of profit from supplying the tiny stuff themselves, and they will piss off their best customers if they try to block that sort of thing with court actions against individuals and DRM that makes it hard to use what you legitimately buy. That is where the music and movie industries have made their mistakes early on. You cost yourself more than you gain by making it hard for the people who pay your bills.
LEGO can keep making and selling sets as long as those sets are inexpensive enough that it isn't worth the trouble to make all the parts yourself. To keep it that way, LEGO has to use mass manufacturing, just-in-time shipping, control over their supply chain,and innovation to make the parts as cheaply as possible. Then they have to start eliminating the middlemen who keep the products expensive. They have already started that process (See? I told you they were smart.) by opening their own LEGO storefronts and selling sets through an easy-to-use web store to cut out the middlemen. It works, too. I bought my last two LEGO sets that way, one at a LEGO store and one through the website. Buying from LEGO means getting LEGO's design expertise for those sets as well.
As the raw materials get cheaper and the manufacturing using 3D printers gets easier for the individual -- it is also doing so for LEGO. They can keep ahead of it for awhile. But probably not forever. The manufacturing costs can be forced down with good tech, and as a big consumer of raw materials, they will always have an advantage over a small consumer like an individual family. But shipping those bulky sets is never going to get cheaper.
So LEGO eventually starts selling the plans and 3D spec files for the pieces. If they are really smart, by this time they are already tying down enough raw materials to become the best place for individuals to buy the bulk plastic, and have started marketing their own cheap 3D printer optimized to produce LEGO blocks in the most efficient manner.
LEGO becomes the number one source selling spec files for parts and building plans for cool designs. They won't be the only ones doing so, but they can maintain a lead as the BEST at it for quite a while unless they are silly enough to try and stay the tide with a small bucket by spending all their capital and efforts trying to keep others from selling their own files and plans.
But, eventually (and probably faster than anyone predicts), the price for cool plans and 3-D part specs gets pushed closer and closer to zero. What then?
Then LEGO needs a new business model entirely. They need to be the most convenient place to GET those cool files and specs -- no matter WHO creates them. And they need to sell advertising on the site to make their money.
If they won't or can't... someone else WILL find a new business model and exploit it. Efficient processing of lots of micropayments (from direct sales or from advertising -- either or both) will open up new areas.
Who gets hurt? The middlemen, certainly. If you are counting on making your money by moving retail products around or taking your cut for being a distributor or retailer - your days are numbered. Start planning your new business model now. The old one is eventually doomed.
The creative end will have to be just as creative with a business model to make money. When anyone can model parts and create builds, that doesn't mean just anyone can do GOOD ones. LEGO's designers will have to compete with all the other designers out there, and inevitably some of them will be as good, and a few will be willing to do it on a hobby basis for fun. But quality will always be worth paying for for some, and they will support the good creatives one way or another, either through direct payment, visiting their site where they get paid by the eyeball with ad revenue, or as "patrons" giving money to keep their favorite designers working, Kickstarter-style. Yes, there will be a lot of crap out there. There always is, and the collapse of the middleman structure makes it easier to market crap and harder to find the good stuff. That in itself, however, is a business model. Curating the good stuff and making it easier to find and obtain is something we will all eventually pay for in one way or another.
I hate it that people who have received a comfortable living with a current business model may get hurt when that model collapses, but such changes are absolutely inevitable. People -- all of us -- will spend a lot of our time keeping up with the changes and trying to anticipate them -- or paying others to do that for us.
In the end, tomorrow won;t look a whole lot like today. It never does.

Gustavo says

Reagrding your first example, about the guy who has paid for the Lego kit and chose to print out a lost piece, I think it's fair to say that he has already paid for the R&D involved, and now he only wishes to pay for the manufacture process of a new piece. Will Lego sell only that piece and discount the R&D costs, as not to charge him twice for what he already owns? Even if yes, then he's only paying for the service of manufacture that he could as well do in his home, so why wouldn't he perform himself a service, if he can, instead of paying a company to? It's pretty hard to paint that sort of action as unacceptable, I think. Sort of like Steam - you buy a game once, and you're free to download it how many times you want, because you have already paid for the license to use that code. They could charge you some cents per Gb they have to upload and that would be fair, since it has its costs, but they're nice.

Mhairi Simpson says

This discussion is relevant to the publishing industry too, with the increasing sales in ebooks. I agree with Claudia (above) that musicians can't be permanently on the road for the rest of their lives. That said, they can at least earn something from physical performances. Any bright ideas as to how authors can earn a living, or indeed anything at all, if people merely download their tales for free?

The Bagman says

Joe, what's the solution, though? I think (and I suspect Jonathan thinks) that David wins the moral/ethical argument. But thinking that doesn't change the reality that a lot of people don't feel that obtaining digital music without paying for it is wrong. The best thing we can do is find a way to compensate artists anyway, since some sort of massive shame campaign isn't going to change all that many minds.

At some point, you need to move on from "this is wrong" to "what's the solution?" And I think that Jonathan is basically right about where we're headed.

In terms of free culture, I'd be annoyed if I gave some sort of creative work away for free and then someone else made money charging for it. But I doubt that would inspire me to refuse to create in the future. Maybe for some people it will, but maybe for some other people, the ability to remix existing creative works allows them to create different and better stuff that wouldn't be there anyway.

The Yellow Menace says

Ken's on to something. It's only been since the '80s that promotional budgets have skyrocketed and artist shares have diminished, and only since the '90s that it became the norm. New artists are lucky if they can sign a contract grossing them even 10 percent of sales, from which the production and management companies, and the record labels, deduct expenses so, for the last 20 years, very little of the profit has made its way back to the artists—even during the heyday of the physical artifact.

Contrast that with earlier forms of the business, when radio stations were not paid to promote particular records and music videos did not exist, and an artist could tour and sell far fewer than 100,000 copies (the old standard to be certified "gold" by the RIAA) and still pay their bills by touring. Now it takes more than 1 million sales of a particular record just to break even.

Guy "CouchGuy" McLimore says

Here's one way authors can make money. Create and distribute good stuff for free, to establish that you have something worthwhile to offer. Then tell your fans "I am ready to start on a new novel about thus-and-such, and I'll do so just as soon as enough of you pledge money to pay me for it through a Kickstarter-analogous entity that will collect the money pledged and pay me once my goal is reached. Then you pay off the Kickstarter-analogue and create the novel that is already paid for. If you fail to deliver something that the buyers feel is worth what they paid, they won't pay for it next time. If you please them, you'll have the lion's share of the take and a ready market for more.

Matt Yetter says

Incredibly well said. Thanks, JoCo. I knew there was a reason that I liked you so much.

The Bagman says

Oh, and Elly, the best way to support artists (that I know of--correct me if I'm wrong) is to buy merch at shows. My understanding is that the artists will buy the records from the label at wholesale and get to keep all of the markup. It's basically the only way I'll buy albums now, save for the occasional digital download of something I really want to hear right away.

Rich Guy Miller says

Great article; Jonathan, and recommended. I think your reading of the future is correct. Nothing that people produce in this hierarchical scheme is safe from others taking as much of a cut as they can get. As more experiences of life are digitizable and where costs for mineral extraction, refining and manufacturing are going up, digitizing must look awfully profitable to anyone with a brain. It's just the way its going. Musicians, artists and writers are all at risk. We're just the front line. Soon it will be engineers, doctors, professors and other trained workers. (That, of course is happening, now) The music business never did have the musicians' interests at heart. The publishers and movie studios are the same. (I'm an old guy, too, trying to evolve with the revolution as I blog and write books, self publish and create inspiring video content.)

Conan says

At the end of the day, I simply don't see how it's reasonable or justifiable to charge $1-2 a song, regardless of the format, when an artist only sees 15% or so of that.

And I think that's the real basis of this problem. We already own computers, internet connections, etc, and chances are free music is just a bonus in the same way that wikipedia is a bonus for researching random stuff on the internet. We've already sunk our costs in the infrastructure, so we're getting the most out of them. So his argument about "stealing macbooks" is total and complete BS, because people don't buy macbooks to steal music, but to be a part of the wider world of the internet.

Secondly, it astounds me that he can type out that Emily can square up with the artist for a mere $2200 for 11,000 songs. If that's the case, why would that 11,000 song collection, assuming that an album is roughly 11 songs, cost her 15-20 grand in physical media, or 10-15 grand in digital downloads?

When someone looks at the numbers and sees that the majority of that purchase cost goes to someone besides the artist, then of course they're going to pirate, because at the core they see they're spending 20 bucks to give an artist 3. Change that ratio, make the artist the focus of that cash, make digital downloads reasonably priced vs. the amount of effort it takes to distribute them, embrace the tools that the internet gives you to reach new audiences, and you will change the music industry forever. Your record label will probably die in the process, though, and you will need new people doing new, different jobs in different areas, and that is why we see the RIAA, rather than the new online record conglomerate. To the music industry, modernization is death, and that's why they're dying. They fight Spotify, Pandora, and other legitimate music providers rather than embracing, pioneering, and monetizing them.

Tentux says

I have just read your entry. I find it thought provoking, though I did not read the required prerequisite entries (sorry) but I feel I could understand your post nonetheless.

I have enjoyed your music as a friend of mine enjoys your music and plays it from speakers and I can't help but pick up these vibrations in the sound waves. And he tells me it's Jonathan Coulton. And I like you. As a musician. Some day I might even buy some music! Probably via Amazon or another MP3 providing service.

I'll admit I've gone through several thought processes while acquiring my music property recently (call them rationalisations) and only now have I began using services like Amazon. And I'll tell you why...

When MP3s emerged I simply saw them as "nice sound files" but didn't see the revolution that was about to take place, I went around school with a Diamond Rio MP3 player and people laughed at me. Little did they know only a few years later they'd all be paying four times as much for their own MP3 player!

But when, soon after, MP3s were available via napster and such services I didn't take it seriously, it was just another "cool" thing I could do with the Internet from my 56Kbps modem. And my rationalisation at this point was as follows: Why should I pay so much for music? I don't like the music labels and I think they only cater towards "pop" artists and "mainstream" trends. More to the point I felt they were somehow ripping off both me and the artists. My rationalisation was never about a feeling of "I deserve music for free" but more along the lines of "this is cool" and "ha! record companies, what now?!".

As I grew up I was hoping to see record companies answer the "what now?" with a rational response like changing their business model to suit. What I'd expect to see is record companies offering music via a decent download service at reduced prices since their overheads had obviously dropped (no need to put CDs on shelves in highstreet stores). Unfortunately this hasn't happened.

Now, as legal MP3 download services have finally began to provide services comparable to their illegal counterparts, I have began downloading and paying money for music again. But they're still charging prices not so dissimilar to what I was paying before MP3s became popular.

All I want is for companies to evolve, their business models to change, and for their prices to reflect the drop in providing a physical medium and physical presence. I also want to know that most of my money goes to the artist, not some suit who hasn't done a whole lot.

A revolution was due. And it happened. And I've started trying to give money to those that deserve it.

Some people may abuse the technology, but change will happen, what companies should ask themselves is how best to position themselves for those changes, and not try to deny the future.

Marisa says

For what it's worth, I'm 23 and am into paying for art I like. I've been rhapsodizing about your philosophy about not blocking off access to art with excessive payment, and I make it my job to try to get as many people to listen to your stuff as I can. I've got a flashdrive with some of your stuff on it that I give to people, and I always always always say something like, "This is his philosophy on making money from art, if you like it, please throw him some money, here's his website so it's easy to do, he's got a family to feed, ect.". And I've "converted" several people this way who then have gone to your concerts or paid for your work in other ways. I like to think of myself as a "JoCo evangelist".;-)

I've done the same with other artists, too. When I'm allowed, I preview a song, in full,if i can, before I download it, and I always pay for it if I decide I want a copy for myself. Sometimes if it's some little nobody on the Internet trying to make something for themselves, I'll pay extra assuming someone else has downloaded their stuff without paying for it. Heck, I even went to Amazon to buy an MP3 once, and the download messed up so I ended up with a free copy of this song. I e-mailed customer service about it, and they said, "It's nice of you to want to do that, but go ahead and we'll give it to you for free." The whole point of going to Amazon for that particular MP3, though, was that I wanted to give the artists money for their work--I could have easily downloaded it for free somewhere else, but the whole point for me was paying the artists! I ended up re-buying the file and deleting the free copy (it was Smooth Criminal by 2cellos, btw, if anyone's interested).

Here's my thing, though: I'm willing to pay for art if I think it's good. So much of what's out there isn't, though. If Hollywood wants to spend 200 million dollars making a crappy movie, and they're losing money because I make eight dollars an hour and a movie ticket costs ten...that's a cost-benefit choice I have to make EVERY TIME I go to the movies. The end result is that I don't see movies very often at all because it's not worth it for me, and I've sequestered myself in geek culture where I can have a higher likelihood of enjoying art and it's made by people who are actually interested in Making Things rather than Getting Famous or Making Money. Somewhere along the line we as a culture decided that "the bottom line" doesn't mean overall quality or impact on culture, it means how much money was brought in. Then we wonder why Transformers gets sequels; it's all about what we use to judge success. I kind of think the quality of art would increase in our culture if we reduceed the cost to make and distribute it. Why should Universal Studios put out two 200 million dollar movies a year,hoping to get 300 million people to go see each of them to make 400 million each in profit (that's 800 million total brought in for a net gain of 400 million), when it can instead make ten 40 million dollar movies that each get an audience of 30 million people and bring in an 80 million profit each (for a net gain of the same)? I'm convinced niche marketing is the way to go--there's too many people now for 20th-century-style mass media, where EVERYBODY will watch one thing as long as it's palatable enough to the general public--to be viable.

And really, I say we need to get the people who go into entertainment to Get Famous and Make Money out. If you remove the extrinsic motivation of that abstract number, where making 40 million a year is SO much worse than making 45, all you have left is the intrinsic motivation to create. Of what quality would our music be then? I'm not saying that artists shouldn't be able to support themselves on their art, just wonderig if Lady Gaga or whoever really needs a 20 million dollar house--why doesn't a 15 million one suffice?

And I could go on and on about the weird ideas we have now about authorship and artistic authority being related to who gets to make money off of a property versus letting people make an idea their own and getting a stew-pot of ideas going...but I've gone on too long already. Just check out some of what The Organization for Transformative Works is saying about fan cultures, and then think about whether we'd have Holy Grail legends now if the first bard to sing about King Arthur had been working under our copyright framework.;-p

Sorry for the huge block of text, I've been thinking about this a lot lately. For what it's worth, I respect your opinions on copyright like woah, and you're one of my favorite people to hear talk about it. Questioning your beliefs isn't weakness, it's intellectual integrity, and I've aalways thought it's so cool you put your money where your mouth is.

Matt Mayfield says

A lot of my friends who are musicians have started doing Kickstarters for their projects.

I wonder if there might be a shift: before, artists (and the middlemen and labels) were like owners of apartment complexes. The listeners/consumers were like tenants, paying rent - and once the work of building the apartment was done, the owners could just sit back and rake in the cash.

Someone made the point that the cost of distribution and copying approaches $0.00 with digital technology. But there's still value in the *creation* of the art - so the shift I'm thinking is on the way is a shift to where the payments come *before* the creation, where the artist is paid for the act of creating the art... and then NOT for each copy distributed. This is the Kickstarter model.

Jonathan, it's heartening to hear that you always felt like an outsider to "a private club to which I would never belong." That phrase really resonated with me, because that's exactly how I feel.

There's a positive-feedback mechanism (scientific "positive" as in "more of the same," not as in "nice") to popular art that keeps those on the outside out, and gives those on the inside a big boost. You're one of the few musicians whose work I respect and admire enough that I believe you deserve to be on the inside. Even so, as I think you've said yourself, you were also extraordinarily fortunate to be in the right place at the right historical time with the right subject matter.

Alex the Too Old says

If fewer people are required to make things, fewer people will have the money to buy things. I used to make fun of hardcore union supporters and xenophobes for saying that very thing, but it's simply absurd to think that maintaining employment by replacing the physical labor jobs with skilled tech jobs can go on forever. We as a race definitely don't have the collective maturity to just share and provide for everything - I don't think we've all suddenly become incorruptible paragons since the fall of the Iron Curtain - but the "everybody provides tangible value to everybody else every day" model is going to get harder and harder to keep in place.

Ironically, Seth Godin and many others have argued that a GREATER proportion of society should be pursuing vocations as artists and other such creative types. If they've covered who'll be paying this bumper crop of musicians and columnists, I haven't seen it.

Nur says

Hi, I went to JoCo's show in Boston (great gig btw!) and I've paid for the music even when I didn't have to because I want to show my support.

For all the musicians I love, I've paid money for their albums. I think it's the ethical thing to do. I think the people funding music projects on Kickstarter agree too.

There is another side that has not been addressed yet in this argument; maybe it's tangential to the issue but I'm throwing it out: the content industry, especially big media companies (which also own music labels) is encroaching on civil liberties in the name of 'fighting piracy'. Whenever I pay for a big-label music CD it hurts a bit that some of that money is going towards lobbying for laws like the DMCA, or SOPA.

I nevertheless don't use it as an excuse to not pay for music, because I don't want to deprive my favourite musicians of revenue (see, I love you guys). I love the musicians and want them to get my money. However there is that feeling at the back of my mind that somehow there's a bit of my purchase that's going towards some sleazy corporate executive wanting to legislate away our rights and putting our purchased media under DRM-ed lock and key. Whether or not this is real or imagined, I don't know; but the digital generation might be more easily swayed in favour of the moral choice of paying for music if the spectre of the sleazy corporate executive could be put to rest... somehow.

SRDownie says

I pay and pay and pay.

* I paid for TWO tickets to see JoCo (and JoRo) in Chicago and then I *didn't go* because I was feeling crappy. (BTW, the Coke Zero offer still stands.)

* I paid for Level Four participation (after being deemed worthy) in the ArtHeart Endeavor.

* In the three venues where I have encountered the enigmatic Mr. Co, I have purchased t-shirts (but not drinks from the bar).

* I have spent precious billable hours listening to his entire Musical Corpus while working for a major international company. (You would recognize the name.)

Has all of this Coulton exposure made my life better? Has it been worth the resources and energies that have been consumed?

Maybe. Maybe not. It's hard to say.

How does one place a value on the music one enjoys?

More importantly, how does a group of people come to a consensus about the value of music? Can such a consensus be formed? What is the value of Art?

If an impostor/great musical artist named "Junuthun Cultun" produced well-rendered covers of JoCo's works and sold them online, would JuCu's output have the same value as JoCo's?

Is "musician" just another job?

And the paying continues.

Meredith Markham says

This is an interesting interview on the reason that it doesn't feel as wrong to steal abstract things:


Especially the part where people cheat more when they are exchanging tokens for money.

Digiopia says

The printing press didn't destroy the world, and neither will this. Musicians will always make music. So long as money exists, some of them will find a way to make a living at it. The real value has never been in the physical media anyway. It always comes down to musical and/or performance talent.

I'm right there with Emily on never buying another CD, and valuing ease and convenience over making sure every artist gets their due. Besides, after learning how much the old model screws over the people I most want to support, I'm less inclined to ensure that they continue to get screwed. Especially when I run into all the walls that are intentionally placed around legally purchased things that limit my use, enjoyment and actual ownership.

We already have Star Trek replicators when it comes to music. Scarcity is becoming a thing of the past, and just because the dying, bloated giants of the music industry are holding themselves at gunpoint to make us all feel bad for them, doesn't mean there isn't a bright new day right around the corner.

Scott says

@Josh: remember that it's basically impossible to steal JoCo's music. He gives it away for free.

JoCo: you've wandered firmly into Diamond Age territory with this one :-)

Mark says

@Conan: I see your point, but it leaves out the fact that it takes a lot more people than just the artist to make the music you listen to. There are costs for recording studios, recording engineers, producers, distributors, people to fill orders, people to get the music onto the radio, creating and delivering physical products (which is far from dead with the resurgence of vinyl), etc.

If you are outraged that the artist see's only 15% of the money that comes in, I would ask you this: Would you prefer that the artist gets all of the money, but has to pay for all of the expenses as well? It's a noble thought, but if that was the business model, most of the music that we hear today wouldn't exist. How many bands have the tens of thousands of dollars that it takes to put out a professional release and get it promoted in a way so that people will actually hear it?

While I do agree that the current record company business model is broken, and that the artist should be getting a better deal (maybe not in percentage, but they definitely shouldn't have to wait for the record company to recoup so much money before they start to get paid), there are legitimate reasons why an artist doesn't get all of the money that goes towards buying an album.

I know 2 bands who decided to seriously try to make it on their own without going through a label. Both of them scraped up a bunch of money to make a great sounding record. Neither of them were able to sell enough copies to pay it off. Even though 100% of all sales went directly to the bands, they ended up losing money.

Now, I know that this will come across as a defense of record labels, and in a way that is true. I have known people on several smaller record labels who had a great experience, because the label was doing everything they could to help the artist, and the accounting was all kept very simple, so that no one had to sell a million copies of a record before making money. The experience is very different than with a big label.

If you work with a good record label, they will provide resources that most bands can't get themselves, and the most important one is money. Even an independent label will usually provide the means for a band to get into the studio to record their album, and some sort of mass distribution and marketing. This is something that is out of reach for most artists on their own.

Now, there are exceptions, such as Jonathan Coulton. There will be people who have the know how and resources to get around these things. I'm happy to know that when I buy a JoCo record, the money all goes to him, but he also is in charge of everything that it takes to make one of his records (or at least that is what I understand). All of the expenses come from his pocket, so it makes sense that all of the income should go to him.

At this point this has turned into a bit of a ramble, so I will end with this thought: If it took dozens or even hundreds of people working on an album from start to finish to get it to a point where it sounds good, you know about it, and can listen to it, shouldn't those other people who have invested their time, energy, and money into the creation of that album also be paid?

John says

To me, the big flaw in the traditional system is that it has mutated into the idea that people "deserve" to make money for their efforts, and it has become "true" moreso for artists and intellectuals than for laborers. Take a photograph people want to reuse, and you "deserve" to be paid for every use; in some parts of the world, you get a cut of any resale, no less. Build a computer, and it's a one-time sale; If it "falls off a truck," your compensation only exists if you insured it. Imagine the reaction if LEGO cried foul the people with 3D printers were making their own bricks--yes, the patent expired a long time ago, but the dude on the assembly line deserves money for every brick reuse!

(Disclosure: I make a good living making proprietary software, and my current project has an active and popular Open Source counterpart. I don't "deserve" my job. I earn it by doing what I can to keep my software better. I mention this because this is my fight, too, and something I think about more than a little, so that may bias my thoughts in this particular scenario.)

The big problem with the Free Culture regime, as you mentioned, is that it's easier to find parasites (people who make money redistributing free things without paying the creators) than people who happen to be sharing to evangelize. Then the law categorizes both the same way, and the biggest fan becomes a "pirate." But the piracy isn't the problem. It's that they're misleading consumers into believing they've supported the artist, when it's more likely that the LEGOz in the example above are supporting some low-level drug dealer.

Also, this isn't a new problem. Years ago, friends traveling to Asia would come back with any software or album you wanted for three bucks on bootleg CDs from Hong Kong. That money neither merely covered duplication nor went to Microsoft or Quark or whoever. Likewise with bootleg VHS or cassettes available on nearly any city street-corner that allowed vendors. I'm happy to say I've never bought one.

Also also, I've been hearing that ad revenues are dropping fast anyway, so the pirates will soon need to face their own business models. Turns out, most of us actually don't like advertising. Who knew, right? But unless they're distributing out of spite, they may not be an issue.

The problem is not that "it's impossible to compete with free." The money rolling into legitimate sales at iTunes and other services shows that it's possible and somewhat easy.

For what it's worth, I (random Internet user that I am) think "the Coulton model" is the right one. And I say that as someone having happily paid thousands of dollars for music (a few hundred CDs, for one, plus digital), including everything Coulton (CDs and digital bought separately) except "Best Show Ever," that isn't available directly through the site, so I keep forgetting about it.

I don't have the reach to make something like this happen (connections to artists to make it work), otherwise I'd just do it, but what I'd really like to see is a registry of independent (maybe exclusively free) works, where to officially get them, and how to support the artists. A commercial version could be transparent, explaining exactly how much money the artist gets through different sales. Get the word out through every artist interview, advertisement, and so forth, to make it a better (easier) place to find music than Googling "Popular Band Downloadz."

I think Nina Paley is a bit too extreme on many issues (copyright serves a purpose, to encourage publication and discourage sitting on manuscripts--copyrights on unpublished works clearly undermine that, though), but one idea I think has potential is the "Creator Approved" mark, which identifies on the label how much money goes to the artist. The problem is that it's easy to counterfeit, but it might not have to be with some clever coding through the aforementioned database. Perhaps click the icon, and a pop-up window authenticates the site as genuinely approved or not.

Regarding Emily, I'll toss in a data point. When I was a kid, the Commodore 64 was the computer to have. We never bought a single piece of software. On Sundays, fathers would congregate at a floating "computer meeting," where they'd drink, smoke, watch movies, and copy millionth-generation copies of games and software for hours on end. I may still have one of the flea market suitcases we used to use to store the disks in. Copy protection was cracked (or copied), so we were part of a huge piracy ecosystem.

Today, I don't know any people who do that with PC software. They might test software from a "warez" site, but if they're going to use it, they'll buy it. If they won't buy it, there's a reason, like the Open Source version is better.

So, I suspect that Emily is a terrible example. She's college age, when kids siphon up culture like vacuums and don't have any money. Check back with her when she's thirty, maybe (when most of my friends stopped downloading indiscriminately), has her loans paid off, and a stable career. Her story may be very different, no matter how strident she sounds today.

Jim Bliss says

Hi Jonathan, this is an interesting and well-argued piece, though I don't feel it really gets to the heart of the issue. As was alluded to in an earlier comment, let me offer you a different thought experiment...

Let's say I buy the domain "jonathancoulton-mp3.com" and I set up a site on it that sells your music (which I torrented or even bought from you) at 60% of the price you are charging. Or I just make it available for free while selling advertising on the site. I spend a little time making sure my site appeared above yours in the google search results and I sit back and eat up a certain percentage of your income.

The fact that this is all technologically possible is self-evident. The point David Lowery was trying to make is that it is fundamentally unethical. And those people who chose to download your music from me rather than from you are willing participants in that unethical activity.

Now, you may be able to sustain your music creation despite my intervention with jonathancoulton-mp3.com. But what about the musician who is just about paying the rent with the few quid they make from selling CDs and downloads? When I set up "joeybloggs-mp3.com" I end up forcing them to give up making music fulltime and get another job. They no longer have the time to tour, which then further reduces their ability to shift the CDs they've pressed up. Ultimately I've turned a professional musician - and maybe a very good one; unless you think the market places musical quality above slick presentation - into a hobbyist who creates a tiny fraction of their potential.

The losers? Pretty much everyone (perhaps with the exception of the person who makes money from the cheap/free mp3 downloads - but even they are ultimately murdering the goose that lays the golden egg) and our culture is a little bit less vibrant.

Yes, it's more complicated than that. And yes, the horse may have already bolted as far as the technology is concerned - let alone the attitude of the newest generation of music fans. But there is clearly an ethical problem with depriving artists of the ability to earn an income from their creation in the name of enriching corporate interests.

I've blogged about my own personal experience of "sharing music", as prompted by the Lowery-White exchange (which, if nothing else, has gotten people talking about this issue in a more constructive way than it usually is).

See: http://numero57.net/2012/06/20/the-ethics-of-music-downloads/

Dan Sutton says

My thoughts on the economics of intellectual property are here.

Specfically I'm thinking about the sort of intellectual property where the carrier for the intellectual property has either no or very low value. (How much do people value the CD separately from the music on it?)

I think any model for collecting cash for IP that is based on physical control of scare physical goods is doomed.

Longer essay through the link...


eric says

I think you're absolutely right about physical objects soon becoming as copyable as music and movies already are. Soon the only physical objects that will have much -- if any -- monetary value are things like antiques, John Lennon's guitar, stuff like that.

Guy's post about how the Lego company could adjust to this new reality is very insightful. Someone has to provide the raw materials for the printing. Someone has to design things before you can print them out. Someone also has to have the best site for downloading the designs. (However, I would point out that ad revenue is not going to be a sustainable way to make money for much longer. People don't see commercials anymore with Netflix, DVR, and DVDs, and they block web site ads.)

I think for people who make money from art, the only way forward is the patronage model. We're already seeing it with Kickstarter. It is clear that people don't like giving money to faceless corporations, but they seem to feel pretty good about giving money to individuals or small groups who clearly need the money -- if they don't get the money, they can't provide the art.

There will undoubtedly be changes to many career paths in the future, and some jobs just won't exist anymore. But this has been happening forever. New possibilities open up just as fast as old ones fade away. It's only upsetting to the people who work in those industries when the change is happening; their descendants won't notice the difference. Capitalism won't collapse, people will just make their money differently.

wes says

The reality, good or bad, is that this free music + patronage system that JoCo describes is here. People have a plethora of sources for the distribution of data: torrents, Usenet, MegaUpload clones, direct distribution on a simple USB drive, cloud services like DropBox... The list goes on. Buying music is an opt-in industry.

Regardless of ethics, policing this trend is far too difficult/expensive to be feasible, if not downright impossible. Napster was shut down and what happened? People invented new, easier ways to do the exact same thing.

Social morays change and the world keeps spinning.

Thiefree says

TL;RA. Isn't living in the future complicated! I don't know where we're going either. Paying for physical copies of music is, in human terms, a recent invention. Paying for performance is much older, and likely to stick around much longer.

Rich says

I realized when my 50+ year-old minister was showing a pirated from the Internet version of "The Passion of the Christ" that the morality battle had been lost in the public's mind when it comes to digital things. While they would never dream of shoplifiting from a store, nobody at that event seems to care of the less-than-legal source for the film being watched.

Because money is one of the best motivators. there will always be a way to profit off of music. But history shows us that artists are mostly screwed-over no matter who figures out how to make the money. It was that way in the old systems and will be again in whatever new system is created. Some artists will figure out how to make some money while most won't. Luckily for the world most artists are not motivated by the money and make will continue to make art even if they cannot get rich off if it.

Rich says

We are currently in the middle of a huge disruption in the music and entertainment industries. Eventually it will pass and whatever new system is created will be the new standard until that system is disrupted as well. While that is normal progress. It is not comforting news for those who made their money in the old system.

Ask people in the newspaper business what it feels like to be in an industry disruption. But whatever system replaces the newspaper industry will probably end up meeting our needs better than sticking to an old system. This is true even if the current system does not want to change.

Drew says

I think another thing we have to consider is the future ramification of the "free culture". As a society, are we OK with the idea that innovation, invention, and hard work are no longer career options if their results can be copied and distributed freely?

As a creator, I can't pay my bills and feed my kids on "exposure" or "fans" if there's no money coming in. I'm probably not going to invest thousands of dollars of my own money, and thousands of hours of my own time, if there's not at least some chance of *at least* making my money back.

Hell, maybe if we take the money part out of the equation, that just ensures that the most passionate people are the ones creating. But on the other hand, surely there will be people who are scared off, who otherwise could have contributed in a large way.

IMEarlGrey says

I think, at some point, we have to decide whether or not music will be the domain of professionals or amateurs. Amateurs can certainly do a lot right now, but it's still not the same as having resources like professional studios, studio musicians, producers, and the many other people that make up the infrastructure of the music industry. But we have to be willing to pay a decent amount for music in order for the professional equipment to exist. Maybe a handful of amateurs will be able to make enough money to make music full time, but without the resources for there to be a "professional" music infrastructure, these people will always be somewhat hamstrung in their ability to both produce and promote their music.

This isn't as bad as it sounds, though. Plenty of fields do great things without being paid (the open source community, game modders, and most bloggers come immediately to mind). Music will still exist if nobody makes money off of it, but the quality, quantity, and variety may be limited.

As for Emily specifically, I'm pretty sympathetic. In my 5-year college career, I bought maybe one or two albums. I'm now about 9 months out of college and working, and have easily bought at least a dozen in that time alone. Perspectives and attitudes can change, especially when $9.99 stops looking like a significant dent in your college student bank account.

Drew says

@IMEarlGrey And what if we extrapolate this professionals vs. amateurs discussion to the point that Jonathan did above? If Macbooks can be "pirated", Apple will eventually no longer be able to invest the time and money into taking the risks necessary to make them. At that point, do engineers and designers start getting laid off because Apple isn't making any money?

Conan says


At the end of the day, there should be a balance between what is given to the creator, and those that support the creator. I'm simply not qualified to say where that line falls, but I am aware enough to say "it looks like the current system is broken". The music industry has funneled millions into the RIAA to attempt to squash piracy. Imagine what would have been possible if that money had instead established a fund where services like Pandora could sign up and have had royalty fees paid for songs they wanted to play for people. The record company opens up it's coffers for promo stuff rather than legal battles, they get good press out of it, people get exposed to new music, and a relationship starts building with customers and music industry again.

As it is, the relationship between the record industry and the customers is terrible. The RIAA and other legal assaults are Sisyphean attempts to stop the progress of the world. They made an overt decision to fight their customers rather than modernize, and I'd imagine that that mentality is not limited to just the RIAA, but endemic to the entire organization. Most companies attempting to provide content over the internet are fighting the industry, not working with them, because the industry doesn't want to modernize, they want to maintain a monopoly.

And that's why people like myself look at the artist getting 15% and say "That's bullshit". Because we see millions being thrown down a drain at lawyers, lawsuits, and promos to support absurd egos, and then the industry turns around and says "why are you fucking the artist"? They're "fucking the artist" because they'd rather support the artist in other forms (direct sales, a paypal gift, tshirts/etc) than support the industry culture a lot and the artist a little through a normal record sale.

Nick says

This is a very common problem in manufacturing in general. The problem is that people look at how much it costs simply to build item N+1, and completely ignore the costs of creating the very first item off the assembly line.

When music came only CD's... people looked at the cost of physical piece of plastic, and the case, and the book and thought, why are they charging me $20 when there is only $1.50 worth of materials here? They never thought about all the costs of production, keeping the lights on in the studio, and everything else which is added up and then amortized across the future sales of the CD.

This is the problem with pharmaceuticals. Everyone accuses Big Phrama of stealing from Granny because they charge $5 for a pill that cost them $0.50 to make, and never stop to realize that the first pill cost $10 million to make, even though pill 2 off the line only costs $0.50.

Back to CD's. People don't have a problem stealing MP3's, because they don't think they cost anything to make. After all, it costs next to no electricity to copy bits from one file to another when I do the copy command. They don't account for the costs of making the original music, marketing, advertising, etc. which is build into the production of the original copy.

The beauty of the internet is that it decreases all those costs that used to be built into the cost of a CD. In other words, it's getting cheaper and easier to make and advertise music now. I think you are closer to being on the right side of history than the other side, because they are no lowering their overhead to account for the changes in technology and communication...

But it's still a basic perception problem by consumers, not to take into account the cost of initially making something which is built into the per item cost.

Reid says

Thanks for this great post. I'd like to add that David's piece goes completely off the rails when he calculates how much money Emily would need to spend to compensate the artists. Where would she be able to pay ~2000 for 11,000 songs? The answer is nowhere. More likely she'd pay about $1 per song, making it around $11,000 for her music library. If it were only possible to get music by paying for it she could not have her music library. Period.

So there's my point. Emily, and I, and tons of other people have copies of music we didn't pay for, but never would have paid for. I like music, but I have probably spent less than $200 on direct music sales (concerts not included, that would make the total much higher.) I have a considerably smaller library that Emily's, but it still would have cost me several thousand dollars to buy all that music.

Using free copies of music removes the opportunity cost. For me, several thousand dollars for my music library is too much opportunity cost. I would instead have around 200 songs, given what I've paid. Without the opportunity cost, I have experienced and acquired far more music, while using my several thousand dollars for something else.

Using a streaming site, from a listener perspective isn't much different from using broadcast radio. You pay nothing, you get music. The economics are all on the back-end. Before Mp3s, that's how I experienced music. For people like me, Mp3s just changed the process, not the behavior.

VonKraut says

As long as you want people to listen to your music they will be able to copy it and give it to friends, you can't prevent this. You can shut down napster and torrent sites, but more will just pop up. We all have all shared music in the past either via mixed tapes, lending records, burning cd's or sharing mp3s. If you make sharing music illegal you are making criminals out of a huge percentage of the population. I think it is up to the artists to evolve and make a product that is worth paying for even though it can be had for free.

Yes it is sad when cars came along buggy whip salesmen went out of business, but the smart ones started making break pads!

Virgilio says

The one argument that keeps coming up as a savior for music artists is supposedly live performance. However, live performance has it's own problems as a revenue stream:
1) It can be a very grueling lifestyle that not many would want to sustain late in their life.
2) If you're concerned that artists get so little (as a percentage) from an album or song sale, how much do you think they see from their performances. Not much of that ticket price goes to the artist, ESPECIALLY when you consider they don't see anything from the excess scalpers sell their tickets at.
3) Live performances can also be pirated. I've seen many concerts on HDnet that I've enjoyed. Not the same as going to the concert itself, but why would anyone think that technology can't break down that barrier as well?

bowerbird says

even now, there is plenty of free music available
-- enough to last me for the rest of my life, so
i feel no need to "steal" any from musicians who
don't want me to listen to them unless i pay first.

so if i had any david lowery music in my collection,
i would be more than happy to delete it right away.

and any other musicians who'd prefer me to delete
_their_ music should speak up, loudly and clearly,
because i'll be quite happy to accommodate them.

because there are countless bands now trying to
thrust their c.d. into one of my hands, while they
attempt to thrust their gig flyer into my other hand,
while they exhort me to go and visit their website.

and -- based on my past experience -- i'll come to
like (and maybe even love) a few of them very much.

so i'm long on music to listen to. i'm short on time.

and most of the musicians that i know don't give a
tinker's damn about money; they wanna _be_heard._

but yes, absolutely, i support the bands that i like...
and i _very_strongly_ support the bands that i _love_.

and i don't support 'em so they "keep making music",
because -- honestly -- that sounds... self-centered...

i support 'em because they _already_gave_me_ music
that i love, music that is meaningful to me in my life...

so i give jonathan coulton money because i _love_ him.
and i want, in my own small way, to make his life easier.
i don't want him hungry, or uncomfortable, or unhappy.
i want him to feel joyous, because he lifts up my soul,
by making music i like, which he _gives_ to me, freely!

d. lowery barks at me, and accuses me of being a thief.
so no thanks, i don't think i wanna listen to his music...

but hey, if _you_ are a fan of mr. lowery, do please go
and buy some of his music. he seems to need the love.

and the money.


TPRJones says

The key to surviving in the future economy is very simple: good will. When every idea is reproducible for nearly free, you have to make them WANT to find a way to pay you for your music/software/designs/gizmos/etc. You have to make them WANT to buy a t-shirt or a poster or go to a show or make a donation just because they loved what you did so much it hurts them not to do it. And you have to make sure there are avenues available for them to do just that with a minimum of fuss.

You also have to be good. You can't get away with putting out crap and then using the marketing machine to push it into popularity.

That's it. That's all it takes: be good and make them love you. And it's why the MPAA and RIAA are failing so miserably on this front and are doomed to complete failure. Instead of trying to make their customers love them, they are making them all into enemies who are eager to rip them off at every turn.

Before anyone says this is silly, I would point out that it's already happening. It's why Joco is able to survive as a primarily self-publishing musician. It's why there are so many webcomic artists who are able to do it full time now. It's why online media moguls like Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton are doing so well. Because we love them, so we support them.

And like it or not when anything can be copied for free it's the inevitable way of the world.

TPRJones says

Another way to look at it is that the culture is moving towards infinite free demos. Everything is available for free and most people will treat is as a demo. If you keep it it was because you liked it enough to keep it. And if you liked it enough to keep it, you'll end up wanting to support the artist. That's where I think our culture is heading.

The idea that copying it in the first place as a "free demo" is theft won't even be a part of the conversation anymore in another few decades, except for a few old bitter media execs who are still ranting about it in retirement homes across the country.

Samuel "Iron Curtain" Abram says

While I am in complete agreement vis-à-vis the morality that "Piracy" (or rather, illegal downloading) is wrong, the question is raised as to what you can do about it. Legislation like SOPA and PIPA and trade agreements like ACTA and TPP are unacceptable for many reasons. So is DRM. Also, both will not be effective at stopping piracy. As it turns out, the only thing that has been able to contain piracy is making copyrighted material easier to buy. Here are some examples:

1. Bandcamp: As it turns out, Bandcamp is such an beneficial service to DIY musicians (like me) and their customers alike that they even lure some would-be pirates away from potential illegal downloading.

A few months ago, we began tracking the starting point of every sale that happens on Bandcamp. In the course of looking at the data (which we’re using to help us plan out what to do next), we’ve noticed something awesome: every day, fans are buying music that they specifically set out to get for free.

For example, just this morning someone paid $10 for an album after Googling “lelia broussard torrent.” A bit later, a fan plunked down $17 after searching for “murder by death, skeletons in the closet, mediafire.” Then a $15 sale came in from the search “maimouna youssef the blooming hulkshare.” Then a fan made a $12 purchase after clicking a link on music torrent tracker What.CD. Then someone spent $10 after following a link on The Pirate Bay, next to the plea “They sell their album as a download on their website. You can even choose your format (mp3, ogg, flac, etc). Cmon, support this awesome band!”

If some of your paying customers are taken away from the path of piracy, that is undoubtedly a good thing!

Source: http://blog.bandcamp.com/2012/01/03/cheaper-than-free/

2. Kickstarter. This has been mentioned before, but it just shows you that there are indeed business models out there for new art to be created. I should know, I pledged to quite a few myself!

3. Louis CK. Louis CK was able to sell his special DRM free on his web site for $5, and he made over $1,000,000 from downloads alone. This is startling because his show was also available for free from the Pirate Bay (some of whose downloaders also - like with Bandcamp example above - paid for it from his web site).

4. Steam. I've saved the best for last. Gabe Newell has been on record as saying that piracy isn't a legal or technical problem but a service problem. He has backed up his words by his business, which is selling PC games over the internet. He even was able to sell PC games in Russia, a land where it was believed where everybody pirated and selling PC games over the internet was impossible.

What's my point in all these examples? My point is this: Sure, it will get easier to copy, and there will still be people like Emily. But make your content as appealing and easy to buy as possible, and I'm sure that even Emily would buy music.

zoso says

Thank you Jonathan, and I'm glad you've had an opportunity to re-evaluate your position on so called free culture. People like free in pretty much any form, but as adults we know that is a largely unsustainable reality. People need to understand that you need to pay for the Piper as well as the Pipes...

I don't believe anything is inevitable at this point. If it was, people could go about their business and stop positing their opinions about the future they would like to see on internet forums.

I find it strange that the same people opposed to artists being paid for their investment in their art, find no problem with Silicon Valley VC's being paid for their investments in companies who exploit the very artists who make the VC's investment valuable.

In the battle for Artists Rights (and NOT for the RIAA/MPAA labels, studios, whatever), I call upon the words of MLK in urging anyone effected by the Illegal Exploitation Of Artists... "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." - Martin Luther King


dave says

If anything, I think you haven't stepped back far enough, and seen how broadly this Diamond Age reaches. You bring up the 3D printer, manufacturing in plastic. Now let's extend it a bit and create one that can manufacture in metal, better yet, applying multiple layers and alloys of different metals on the fly (ie copper and zinc). This is not technically unfeasible.

Now, let's create a deep 3D scan of a quarter. Now, reproduce the quarter flawlessly on our 3D metal printer.

See where this goes? Cash is a function of physical scarcity. Making copies of cash is called counterfeiting, and it's against the law. But counterfeits have always been flawed, detectable. Or too expensive. What happens when we wind up with Cylon dollars, perfectly replicated from a 3D digital model? The counterfeit becomes, if not perfect, at least beyond human detection.

Easy duplication of information has severely damaged the information scarcity model, to the point where some industries (particularly music) are on the brink of collapse. They relied on physical scarcity to enforce informational scarcity (you had to buy a piece of plastic with the music encoded on it). Now, we're on the verge of being able to replicate the physical using easily stored information. It's scary, and it's very difficult to tell what new economic basis will work.

Samuel "Iron Curtain" Abram says

Zoso: I take issue with your arguments. I'll take it one a time:

Thank you Jonathan, and I’m glad you’ve had an opportunity to re-evaluate your position on so called free culture. People like free in pretty much any form, but as adults we know that is a largely unsustainable reality. People need to understand that you need to pay for the Piper as well as the Pipes…

Ed: Emphasis Mine.

I think some people do know that. Or enough know that. If they didn't Kickstarter would have been a failure.

I find it strange that the same people opposed to artists being paid for their investment in their art, find no problem with Silicon Valley VC’s being paid for their investments in companies who exploit the very artists who make the VC’s investment valuable.

Explain who these evil, diabolical "Silicon Valley VC's" are. Do you mean Google? The same one that has launched Google Play, a music store? The same one whose YouTube provides AdSense for songwriters if the song they wrote is used in a video? Or do you mean Bandcamp, the web site that advertises how much money it has made artists on its front page?

In the battle for Artists Rights (and NOT for the RIAA/MPAA labels, studios, whatever), I call upon the words of MLK in urging anyone effected by the Illegal Exploitation Of Artists… “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King

I'm not going to be silent. That's why I'm speaking out against would-be censors who would want laws like SOPA and PIPA and trade agreements like ACTA and TPP (not saying you are one, BTW).


Oh, he just dug up those artist's quotes on the internet without actual context as to what their actual position is. There's a lot of nuance between "piracy is wrong" and "piracy justifies every draconian copyright law ever". Even Lawrence Lessig, the Free Culture movement founder, thinks piracy is wrong:

"piracy"...is a denial of a choice by a copyright owner. It says to the creator, "I don't care what you want. I am taking what you have created." It doesn't respect the freedom that copyright law gives to the creator. It denies that the law should secure to the creator any such freedom to choose. The only relevant choice in pirate culture is the choice of the pirate to take. Not the choice of the creator to make her work available.

But that doesn't mean he's pro-crazy-law. If that author were so concerned about the welfare of Artists and songwriters, he would actually notice the good things Google has actually done for artists (such as the aforementioned AdSense for YouTube plays and GooglePlay, an iTunes/Amazon-like-service) and not go on a crusade against them.

Mike Woodhouse says

I think the 11,000 song thing needs a little thought. At 3'30" each, that's about 640 hours of music. At 16 hours a day, 365 days a year, Emily's going to listen to each of those songs about 9 times a year. On average, if she's giving the songs attention every waking minute of the day. I'd say she probably has more music than she can sensibly keep available and listen to. My MP3 player currently holds about 4K songs and I use it about 2-3 hours per weekday. It takes nearly 5 months to listen to everything at that rate. What does this mean? I'm not sure, but I'm wondering if it's reasonable to make a direct link between Emily having these files (which cost next-to-nothing to acquire and store) and insisting that she should pay for them, despite the likelihood that much of what she has she'll probably never consciously listen to.

I'm beginning to suspect that a lot of corporate entities who rely on manufacturing what they design will go the way of the buggy-whip makers. As already described, Lego will need to reinvent itself or fall by the wayside, as the scarcity of those one-off pieces falls to approximately nil.

I think some aspects of the abundance economy are already discussed here: subscribe via Kickstarter (and the variants that will follow) to provide the enabling resources for creatives to, er, create. Amanda Palmer is the obvious leading light here, and JoCo will not, I suggest, be far behind. Beyond that, there's the one-to-one (or one-to-not-very-many) supply of a hard-to-duplicate skill or service.

It's all very interesting. Sadly, being in my 50s I regret that I probably won't live long enough to see how it all ends. Ho hum, interesting times indeed.

John Connor says

Izabella Kaminska at FT Alphaville (http://ftalphaville.ft.com/) has been running a series of articles on abundance and the fact that the current financial crisis / recession / depression is actually the result of a shift from artificial scarcity to actual abundance. So, looks like econ writers agree with your thoughts around this too.


Sam X says

Pretty interesting thoughts, Coulton, thanks for sharing--I share your worries about adding to a discussion you feel unprepared for, but there are complex moral/ethical issues in addition to the economic issues, and I think every smart person available should contribute their voice. It's only through such a wide-ranging discussion can we as a society begin to understand our situation and perhaps create a better one.

Like everyone in the world, I recently posted about the Emily/David exchange. What's lost in this discussion is that while the new model is detrimental to the old model--i.e., musicians like David Lowery (or even yourself, Coulton)--there are people who are doing what they love because digital media exists.

Specifically, I'm think of webcoming publishers. Penny Arcade, Jeph Jacques, Danielle Corsetto, many others make a living on their webcomics. The topics are too niche and their language often too vulgar for proper newspaper distribution, but on the Internet they soar. A handful of book self-publishers are now making a living--and a plethora of smalltime bands can get their music easily heard across the nation.

It's a beautiful revolution of accessible art, and as you suggest Coulton, it foreshadows future revolutions on the basic ideas of property.

Al E. says

I want a 3d Printer so that I can make a buggy whip.

Ari's Take says

Nice illustration Jonathan! I like how you took this debate and shot it 20 years down the line (or 10..er..6?). Music is the warm up for everything else.

Now to bring my personal anecdotes, as a full-time, independent musician to the discussion. I am part of a large majority of independent musicians who don’t bitch and moan about the old music model and the “good ol days” when we could make money by sitting at home waiting for album sales checks to pour in. We understand the reality of the new music industry and embrace it. It’s a losing battle to scream that “it’s unfair.” It’s ALWAYS been unfair.

I have spent the past 4.5 years as a FULL-TIME independent musician spending about half of my year on the road MAKING MONEY. I had to get quite creative on how to make LOTS of money, but I have made between $35k-70k gross annual income as a completely independent artist (no management, no label, no publisher, no agent) by being smart about the business side of music and embracing the new model. I, like many of my friends’ bands, spend a big part of our year on the road and are building our fan base in a grass roots manner and actually making money.

Do I think artists should be paid for their recordings? Absolutely. I shelled out about $15,000 for my latest album (thanks in part to Kickstarter). Am I going to cry that I won’t make this back on solely album sales? No! I will in ticket and merch sales and a bit of licensing.

The industry is changing and instead of presenting the moral arguments on why we should return to the old system, the conversation should be more about how to move with the times and enter into the new model. Recorded music is now a loss leader (unfortunately) for everything else.

Will musicians like me sacrifice quality in our recordings because people aren’t going to buy it? Absolutely not. It’s our art and we will perfect it and keep quality at the forefront of everything we do because that’s important to us as musicians and artists. But us young, independent, grassroots artists understand that to be successful in this new industry is to understand the reality and current state of the biz and use it to our advantage.

I lay all of this out and explain how I did (and am doing) it as an independent, full-time musician and try and help other independent musicians enable themselves to do it as well in my (very new) music biz advice blog (shameless plug) Ari’s Take: http://aristake.com

Thanks for the healthy, constructive discussion.

Ari Herstand (27), Los Angeles/Minneapolis

Mike Stone says

In a 3D printed world, the mechanics of scarcity don't disappear, they just move to a place where they look different.

Right now we think of scarcity in terms of fabrication and distribution. It's an easy model to understand because in both cases the effort needed to do the job is obvious. There's another form of scarcity that people don't think about though: the skill needed to design the thing in the first place.

Yeah, widget designers get paid.. probably a salary, maybe a bonus for a product that really sells well, but the real money -- the ongoing revenue -- goes to the people who fabricate and distribute.

Internet distribution of music, and the 3D-printed world in general, happen because the cost of entry into the fabrication-and-distributuion business falls into the reach of the consumer. My MacBook, my iPhone, my network connection, and my 3D printer are a factory.. one that I could afford as an individual, and which is a good investment for me because it allows me to out-compete the guys with pressing plants and fleets of trucks.

None of the gear that I've purchased can replace the one truly scarce resource in this whole equation: the talents of the creators.

Thing is, the music industry is wierd. People think they should get paid every time a product is used.

Other design industries don't work that way. The people who designed the keyboard I'm tapping right now don't get a payment for every keypress. They did the design, they got paid for it on terms that have only the faintest connection to projections of individual or collective use, and they went on to the next job.

Yeah, there's some connection between their pay and sales of the physical product, but it's arcane. They get paid for their work even if a product is never released, for instance.

Today's music industry revolves around what the Writer's Guild calls "spec work". You do all the work up front, deliver it, *then* hope to get paid. The labels are the ones who built and maintained that business model, so presumably it works well for them. It doesn't work so well for the artists though, because "being a professional musician" is a gamble, not a job.

Tomorrow's musicians and 3D-printed-object designers will get paid more or less the way they do now. They'll create a proposal, shop it around, and arrange a payment-for-product schedule that both sides can accept. The difference is that the money will come directly from the public that wants the work.

Amanda Palmer just did that on Kickstarter, and made a respectable return.. and that was just an "I'm going to produce an album" proposal.

Other models are possible. Jonathan, if you announced to the world, "I want to earn $X much salary to be a musician this year, and here's what I plan to deliver," I assure you that people would take it seriously. Add reasonable investment/return and payment/delivery schedules, and I think you'd probably make your goal.

It wouldn't be patronage either.. it would be plain, hard business between you the creator, and us the clients.

Duann says


Come visit us at shapeways hq when you are in NYC and we can talk through some of the amazing stuff our community of over 150,000 are 3d printing.

AC says

I'll start respecting copyright when the 'entertainment industry' stops buying Congressmen.

Chris says

"These feel like a short-term goals, a little like skating to where the puck was a few minutes ago." Agreed. You've given us quite a bit to chew on here. Thank you, Jonathan.

Billy Gannon says

Thanks for the article. I completely agree and I'm glad I have a phrase for this - a decline in scarcity.
The music industry will survive - but it will be very different. People want to hear good music and people will find new ways of funding it.

But let's take the idea of scarcity to new and scarier levels! How about money? Surely the internet provides the possibility of endless currency. Maybe we should pay people in songs?

Jonathan Murphy says

Such a great post. Your thought experiment gets to the heart of the matter, which is why I never understood why people have online fights about small issues of current legality. It's a massive cultural tidal wave that is going to consume everything in its path.

I would move your argument one more step forward, and suggest something that I never hear from anyone: "We'll work it out." We'll work it out. Why wouldn't we? Maybe once people can't afford to be professional musicians, more people will start playing instruments again. When no one can afford to make $3 million dollar an episode television shows, maybe we'll start doing our own sci-fi epics in a basement theater. Maybe everyone will figure out how to entertain themselves for awhile. At some point we'll get bored of that so we'll figure out a way to pay the people with talent, and who work at being talented, enough to make a living.

Older people always talk about the tragedy of their industries going away. I get it: if newspapers, great musicians, our favorite televisions shows, and legos disappear we will suffer a great loss. Things will get definitely get shittier. Maybe for awhile. But, my response is always, so what? So what if things get shittier. We can still have dinner parties and drink beer and goof off. We'll work it out.

Gillian Welch wrote Everything is Free in 2001 that pretty much sums it up. Here is a youtube search of it, where you can watch her play it, tons of bands cover it, people in front of a webcam learning to play guitar doing it, remixes of it etc...

here is a half japanese half german kid singing it

Joseph Bielski says

I'd like to bring up something that David asked in his response - which you sort of touch on here. You say the reason Emily will fork out money for physical goods like Mac's, phones, etc. is because she can't go and download them for free, so there is no substitute for those products. So my question is, so what are musicians & the music industry to do now? Just ignore the fact that people are willingly breaking the law and committing acts of piracy, because they can't stop it? We just accept that in this sector, piracy will run rampant and we should just look the other way? I don't think thats the right answer, for many reasons, but the main one is that it sets a terrible example / precedent. In all aspects of life, when something bad happens, or an injustice occurs, the response shouldn't just be to "look away" or "accept it", even if you can't stop it.

Also, your example re: 3D printing, at least at the beginning, when you mention downloading a lego piece that was accidentally destroyed... well in that example, at least you ORIGINALLY purchased the product, legally, and you are just replacing a broken part. I think a comparative example in music would be if you scratched a CD and one of the tracks didn't play anymore. You purchased the unit, so you are in the right, and just downloading a "fix" for your small problem would probably be acceptable to most. It gets sticky when you are talking about the ENTIRE unit, and in the circumstance that you didn't pay for it up-front.

Wilson says

Maybe someone can find this book interesting: an analysis of IP and it's effect on economics and artist revenues: http://www.dklevine.com/general/intellectual/againstfinal.htm
Someone will be surprised to know that presence of copyright has actually reduced revenues and production.

Mike says

"... a specific custom piece that they spent money to... license from George Lucas."

Oh , you mean the creator of star wars that has grossed over $33 BILLION dollars, the guy who hasn't paid the actor for Darth Vader any residuals because the movie "hasn't made a profit" ?


Yeah, those poor "artists", who make $33b but don't pay their actors. Gee, I'd be such a thief if I downloaded that movie off bittorrent and didn't pay for it, wouldn't I ? I'd almost be as big a thief as the people who made the movie itself !

Brad H. says

joseph, your thinking is incorrect on a number of levels, but the easiest one to demonstrate is that there are perfectly legal and socially acceptable ways under the old paradigm to deprive artists of theoretical money (such as with the BMG music clubs where artists got zero, because the records were "free") Under a library/loan system, a single purchased copy can be transferred to an arbitrarily large number of people who did not have to pay. The new paradigm is illegal and not socially acceptable to you, but the idea that any greater injustice has occurred than under the old paradigm is flat out wrong.

A truly "ethical" system of commerce would very likely have artists receiving much, much less compensation, for the same reason that a professional basketball player "ought" to earn less money than an EMT.

"so what are musicians & the music industry to do now?"
If they believe that what they do is valuable to the public, then they ought to lobby for their product to be considered a public good, and paid for by taxes. Canada, for example, has a grants program in place for Canadian artists, and despite its faults, it is instrumental in keeping alive a local music culture.

Matěj Cepl says


I am neither American nor Irish, so only last week I've heard first time about John Ford’s movie “The Silent Man”. I put the name to the Youtube search and after a few clicks I found http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxoXz-apwH8 I don't believe anybody in the Republic pictures (or whoever bought their catalog) or in Google could miss complete uncut copy of the movie (and since recently it is not the first full-length copy of the movie which could be found on YouTube), so I guess they either post it there by themselves or they are silently complicit with it being there. However, in case they would need to they can anytime charge anybody from the copyright infringement. That whole double-talk, lies, misleading information and conspiracy, which makes me so disgusted with the system, that I have tendency to cheat. So far i don't (and I rather support more serious publishers like Magnatune), but I am really not sure why I should be honest when the other side isn't.


Jay Turley says

Decline of scarcity is in fact the root of the problem. In a universe of abundance, how do you limit people from enjoying it? By imposing artificial scarcity. And artificial limits quickly fall.

We need to rethink our entire approach. I personally think this will be accompanies by transition into a post-money economy where reputation matters instead of greed.

Forrest S. Higgs says

Before there was recorded music, performers were retained by wealthy patrons either on a temporary basis, viz, traveling performers or as part of the household. In the Baroque era, a musician would most often have a second skillset, such as gardening, in order to acquire an in-house appointment. It is important to note that musicians were paid to perform. Royalties only began to become available with the advent of recorded music when recordings were, as Jonathan says, physical objects that could and did wear out. Once they became nothing more than electronic documents the era of royalty earning recordings ended. The only reason it has struggled on is that a corrupt state can be bought by established business interests to lend the police power of the state to intrude on personal privacy.

Acting was the same way. Prior to recorded performances with a physical substance, actors were paid to perform, not given royalties for past performances.

Jonathan misses a few subtle but very real points with his 3D printing analogy. Additive printed objects are only 30% as strong as their injection molded counterparts. If you want printed Lego parts, you have to redesign the blocks to achieve the same robustness. Once you do that, you are no longer making Legos. You may be liable for trademark violations if you insist on calling what you print Legos, but you are not making Lego blocks per se any more.

It gets more interesting when you put scanners into the mix. A scanned copy of a patented object does not create a patent violation. Only if you use the original design documents to make the copy are you in patent violation. Ask anybody who makes spare parts for engines if you don't believe me. :-)

David Muir says

Artificial scarcity will always fail eventually, even with tons of laws in place to try to "mold morality" on the subject.

Mike Stone already mentioned that scarcities move around. In an age of digital abundance and the cost of distribution falling almost to zero, new scarcities actually rise up. For example: the scarcity of attention. Time spent with the artists directly, or personalization of the music, or even licensing in other media (TV/movies) that includes personal appearances. So many artists and so little time to enjoy them all. What about the scarcity of expertise in curation or cataloging?

A business model based on REAL scarcities will always succeed over one based on artificial ones.

Demetrius says

I would TOTALLY buy a song about that bear you described!

etho says

Well, you've convinced me. I'm off to pirate all your music.

Seriously, though, I'm definitely in that category of youngsters that don't pay for music much anymore. I'm a little older than Emily, so I can't say I've NEVER paid for music. As a kid, I had quite a collection of CDs. But now? I dunno. I do what I can to support artists I appreciate, but frankly, I am an unemployed college student living on financial aid. I just can't afford to buy music the way I did when I had an allowance from my parents. So what it feels like Lowery is saying (and I realize that he's NOT, not explicitly, but it is hard not to infer it) is that I shouldn't have music because I can't afford to buy CDs anymore. I reject that wholly, and I don't really think any actual artist (Lowery included) would really take that position. So I can't afford to pay for all the music I listen to. But I also definitely want to support the artists I like, but it has to take different forms, usually somewhat larger, but more occasional contributions. I save my pennies and buy merch and concert tickets. Or if I have a few bucks left over after buying groceries, I'll pick one of my favorite albums, and buy a copy of it, even though I already have the digital files on my computer. And, as I tend to support artists that would never really get big label support in any era, I feel reasonably ethical.

Oh, sure, I have my Lady Gaga on my computer, and I'll probably never buy her albums or go to one of her shows. But, while I kind of enjoy her music, I don't enjoy it so much that I would bother to buy it if the files weren't available on legowarez.to. I feel a bit more conflicted about that, but I can't really see giving her (or, more accurately, her label) any money even if it was my only option for getting her music, so...? It's not really a lost sale, but should I be paying for it just because I like it a little bit? I honestly don't know. I guess that's a question for JoCo: would you, as an artist, rather i listen to your music and not pay for it, or not listen to it and not pay for it? Obviously the ideal would be to pay and listen, but as I said, I just can't afford that for all the music I like.

I tend to assume that most artists would rather I listen, and tell my friends how much I like them, than not listen because of a lack of money. Maybe that's just how I keep the guilt at bay. But I don't see what I do as unethical exactly, but neither is it optimal.

So that's my situation, and to be perfectly honest, I can see my current habits becoming an ongoing pattern of usually not paying for music files, even when I can afford it. I'd like to think I won't, but it's hard to say.

There is also the issue of convenience. You are correct that it is pretty easy to buy music. But it can still be a pain in the ass to use the files once you buy them. Legitimately purchased music files tend to be less transferable and less versatile than the illegal ones. I could buy and rip physical CDs, but A) I only have so much space, and it is full of cats and books and game consoles and B) physical media is for chumps.

austin says

"video killed the radio star"
new technology tends to destroy old models, people who make their living on those models may find their skills dont transfer to the new medium or the new medium can't hold the standard of living/income they are used to. just as video killed the radio star, or the car killed the buggy business and there is some question of whether warhammer can survive the internet (3d printers and PDFs pretty much kill their business model) most in the molded plastic market have some work to do to stay relevant. but the solution is finding your place in the new model, or going somewhere else, not kicking and screaming an fighting tooth an nail til you are dragged forcibly into the future.
creative work may need to be done on a commission basis. being payed only to make the original product then distributing for free or you may need to find some other niche to exploit to make money to support yourself on your work. or you may need another job that pays the bills.

i think most people will pay for creative work, if you make a model for a 3d printer, or an album, or a video,or whatever and you include a donate button many people will donate. alternatively if you sell the product at a reasonable price people will pay for...not everyone but many because most people at least TRY to be fair and honest.

Mark G says

No one had a problem when Picard made Earl Greys on The Replicator®. You think he stopped there?

G says

By then IP will be a pointless term. Post scarcity even creative brain power will be a cheap commodity. A small bit of the AI network could write and perform your entire body of work better than you in less than a nanosecond. AI can write the greatest works of fiction we have read, know better than us what it means to be human. Novelists and song writers, painters and interpretative dancers, all artists will be also-rans, creating works that meagerly parrot that of the greatest AI constructs. But not just artists. Beyond manufacturers, there would be no need for programmers, industrial designers, architects, any creative professionals, really. We would be, simply, a culture of consumers, and maybe, if we are still lucky, explorers. But then, why explore the universe when all outcomes for it have been simulated and can be explored from the comfort of home?

uthor says

FY about 3D printer technology:
The way most DIY 3D printers are made is some guy makes the parts on an existing 3D printer and gives them to the next to guy to put together. They, in effect, already make copies of themselves.

More mind boggling is that 3D printers can make newer, upgraded parts that are used to improve the 3D printer itself. The device makes [i]itself[/i] better. It's not hard to imagine a 3D printer where every component has been replaced by a new piece made by that 3D printer.

Cesar says

This exactly. Downloading illegally an album does not equals to stealing a bicycle from a store, but to copying it or "printing" an exact duplicate. I don't know but I think a bicycle manufacturer wouldn't care if I copied my friend's bicycle, unless I intend to make a bunch and sell them for cheaper, but if there were enough 3D printers out there...

Now, there's a very peculiar instance which has been accepted by society, artists, and labels (I believe) and that has the very same characteristics and results of pirating music: buying used CD's/records. A store is selling artists music and making a profit, which can be a very considerable one, yet not of that money is seen by artists or labels. It's almost like someone in China selling burned CD's of popular music, almost.

Part of the problem is that what you're buying when you buy music is just the right to listen to it whenever you want, and in a cyber world seems rather complicated to stop people from listening to music whenever they want without paying. Seems like a lost war to me. Is there a way to make people making a profit using in any way other people's music pay a license? I'm not sure, maybe.

Anyway, I came up with the same conclusions in a much less eloquent and almost infantile (in comparison) blog I wrote here: http://www.ce54r.com/2012/06/thoughts-on-open-letter-to-emily-white.html. A friend of mine just told me about this blog because of this.

Austin says

I was on the "Whee, everything I can consume is free" band for a little bit, but I got off the train because, well, it's stealing. Bottom line. And from a karma standpoint, I know it's wrong. You can make up all kinds of creative rationalizations, but if you have to work at rationalizing then that is your first clue that there is a bad smell here.

You make a great point with your Lego example, and I agree that day is coming quick. Personally, I like the approach of seeding the interwebs with versions of the "cracked" and "free" file that are fundamentally flawed. As soon as you make it difficult for your average user to get the goods without having to worry about their machine getting hosed, you'll find that dropping a quarter for the template for the missing piece is a lot easier then having to go to the trouble of getting rid of the virus ( or physically fixing ) my 3D printer.

I think another model that is showing us what the future could look like is the App Store model. It took me a long time before I bought my first app, and once I got over the fear of it, I don't think twice about dropping .99 here, there, everywhere. This model works because the network for the device is basically locked up by the provider ( Apple to an extreme, Google following relatively closely behind. ) Sure, I COULD jailbreak the thing, but why? On the bell shaped curve, only an extremely small set is going to go to that trouble, no matter how easy you make it. So I think that we'll move more from an increasingly difficult to maintain DRM model to a closed network model.

Tyler says

First and foremost, I'm guilty of many, many cases of what this girl has done. At 15, I have pirated(STOLEN) video games for my PC, and many, many movies. I also have illegally downloaded music.

It's not right, by any means. Will I stop? Probably not, to be honest. I mean, I sincerely felt guilty when I had downloaded Artificial Heart day one, because I simply couldn't pay for it. I wanted to hear it, knew I could in fact, and went ahead. It's a sick reality for the industry. Recently, I did delete many of the things I'd pirated out of guilt(Not my entire collection though, which still means I'm just as guilty as Emily.) and realized that "Sure, one sale doesn't hurt anyone." But I'm not just one sale.

I'm a generation to be exact. I'm one of the worse ones of this group as well. A $.99 mp3 to begin with, and most people don't ever go beyond the few hundred/thousand mp3s in their life. But some who have the know how move up and takes bigger things. A movie copy. A full video game. Software. Operating Systems are huge sources of money for a computer company(Microsoft makes a massive profit off of each Windows release for example). These small crimes add up. They destroy entire industries. I mean, sure Microsoft won't collapse because people don't all pay for Windows 8 Ultimate, but it will hurt them. Reduce the quality of their next project(Theoretically) and begin the decline that we're seeing in the music industry.

As music becomes more accessible in this manner, the industry will fall more and more. Artists will struggle more and more. Sure, the pop stars won't have issues for awhile, their revenue isn't sales. They get money from being THEM. Sponsoring products, appearances at venues, product lines of things other than musicv(Justin Bieber Perfume anyone?) but other artists, independent, lesser known ones, such as JoCo himself, will fall behind, unable to pay to do what they love, and in the end, helps them support themselves. As each generation comes up, they find more and more ways to pirate these things, and down the road it won't be digital files of Artificial Heart or The Avengers movie, it'll be Press Patterns for Sheet Metal Siding, or instructions to "homebrew" medicines such as Tylenol, Ibuprofen, and eventually prescriptions*.

I don't help the problem. I exacerbate it. I don't try to prevent it, I aid in teaching others the ways of gaining these things free. It's sick what I do... But it's reality. In the modern age of technology such as the internet... This is the way the world ends. Slowly we indulge ourselves into this "Free" Market and we destroy industries, destroying our economy, and the lives of those who built it, such as artists and workers, and leaving anarchist states, which all insist upon mass murder of anyone who doesn't believe everyone has a right to everything.**

*An exaggeration, in case I must point it out.

**That sentence's importance ended at the end of the phrase artists and workers.

Doya says

Cesar said: "Now, there’s a very peculiar instance which has been accepted by society, artists, and labels (I believe) and that has the very same characteristics and results of pirating music: *buying used CD’s/records.*"

Used music isn't a problem, but used video games are a MASSIVE issue right now. All the major companies - Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, have come out with digital downloads for their consoles to combat this by ensuring every purchase goes to them, not someone off eBay or Craigslist. Game developers have implemented 'online passes', where if you bought a used game and want to play the online multiplayer, you're charged an extra $15 or $20. Some game publishers actually require ALWAYS ON internet connections to play the game. That's an offline, singleplayer, by yourself game we're talking about. The DRM (which never works in preventing piracy anyway) is getting insane and ever more labyrinthine.

But don't think that the music industry isn't whining about used record shops out of the goodness of their hearts - the used music market simply isn't as big as used games, due to the nature of the media. People play a game, finish the storyline, and are generally done with it, whereas people keep albums around to revisit for years or indefinitely. Not to mention that a video game costs $60 as opposed to the album's $10-$15, and people like to recoup some of that cost. Rest assured that if millions of albums were being traded, they'd be up in arms about it.

Music piracy seems to be the main focus of discussion these days, but the tech-savvy have moved on to pirate any form of information. I know people who haven't paid for movies, TV, computer programs, video games, operating systems, textbooks, or novels in years. And as Internet speed and bandwidth grows ever faster and cheaper, we'll see the same thing that happened to the music industry (and that's currently happening to the game industry) happen to every other one I listed.

Maybe we just have to give up on the idea that information = property. Maybe we should embrace the downfall of these monolithic, impenetrable industries. We can erect a smaller, more sustainable business model in its place where donations go directly to the content creators. All I know is we shouldn't bury our heads in the sand like the music industry did and pretend that DRM will be enough to stop this sea change.

Christopher Bingham says

I'm an "old" guy who has been writing music since 1975. I don't pine for the good old days, because under the old model, the only way to find a significant audience was with the gate keepers permission, and what I did was not what they were interested in at the time.

Now I'm finding an audience. More people are making and releasing records than ever before. (75,000 cd length releases in 2010 - up from 35,000 in 2004 and down from a spike up to 115,000 in 2008, due to a whole pile of record catalogs being released as "new.")

The reason that people don't (and shouldn't) feel bad about file sharing is that it's airplay for guys like us that would never have gotten it under the old system. People heard "free" music all the time and still do - and the labels pay for the air time. It's called payola and they get around the law by hiring "independent" promoters to funnel the money to radio stations.

But the other reason that people don't feel bad, is because you can't "own" a song. Once it's out in the world, it "belongs" to the person who is hearing it. Believe me, I'd love to "return" Achy Breaky Heart" and never hear it again, but it's in my memory, probably for good.

When you re-arrange the ones and zeros on your hard drive, you're not depriving anyone of anything. PLEASE give me 100,000 people downloading my stuff this year because they truly like the song. If I can't turn that into an audience, I don't deserve the job.

You can't own an idea. You can try to lock it up for awhile, but they have a life of their own. If you're really lucky, it becomes part of the culture.

Roman Armstrong says

I always enjoy reading your stuff. Sometimes, it reaffirms my own beliefs (i.e., your original thoughts on the MegaUpload shutdown), other times it gets me thinking.

I'm 18 years old--3 years behind that girl who never grew up with physical music. I am, however, seeing that transition with video games. In a lot of ways, it's the same. Used to be, if I wanted a game, I got the disc. I owned that thing. Now, between digital distribution and DRM, nothings absolutely certain. If a publisher wants to take that game back, the only thing I can do to stop them is to never open it, or the program that runs it, again. That works the other way around, too; there will always be someone willing to crack a game to make it free, or design an emulator to run something that doesn't work anymore.

It comes down to this: how many people like the product? How many of them CAN pay for it? If the designer or distributor was going out of business, how many of them WILL pay to keep them running?

I can guarantee that, should you give all of your music away for free and subsist only on donations, you'd make almost the same amount as you do now. I could find any of your 99 cent songs for free on a filesharing site, but I won't do that. I like you, and your music. I'll do my part to keep it coming.

Laura says

FWIW, I buy your stuff and go to your concerts because I like you. Just like I buy stuff from Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Joss Whedon, Wil Wheaton, John Scalzi (blah blah blah) because I like them. I do not like Orson Scott Card. Might still read his stuff, but not if I think it'll benefit him financially.

Copyright exists to promote progress in science and the useful arts; not to create profit centers as an ends to themselves. A lot of what I see RIAA and their ilk doing undercuts the constitutional purpose in favor of the profit one, and one way they're doing that is try to make file sharing the moral equivalent to theft. I don't buy it. Sharing a file does not deprive the lawful holder of the files, only of the unknown potential for a sale. It cracks me up that the Millennials aren't buying it either.

By the way, I was at the Seattle show and BOUGHT Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow on the strength of the Cthulhu ode, which I'd never heard before.

James says

I wonder if anyone has looked at the movie business in this area. Certainly, pirated movies are a problem, but it also seems that the movie industry is finding a way to keep making money / surviving (and, if you follow Lowery, which I mostly do, plowing money back into new "art"). More and more movies are coming to your satellite / cable provider earlier and earlier. I honestly don't know what this has done to movie-theater receipts, but I wonder whether these new revenue streams are making up for any losses? Admittedly, the movie theaters have something to "sell" (the experience, the going out, the hoping-for-a-kiss-at-the-subway-stairs, whatever) that you don't QUITE get streaming, and I don't see anything analogous on the digital-music side. Maybe it's the fact that movies are produced (i.e., financed) largely independently of the distributor, but since the distributor (i.e. studio) is still making money, money still gets back to the "artist" (i.e. the studio is willing to pay for distribution rights). I know it's a little more complicated than that. (In fact, my ignorance is part of why I post this: I'd love someone more knowledgeable than me to weigh in.)

Or maybe the entire issue boils down to the fact that good-quality digital movie files have been, until RELATIVELY recently, just a little too big to easily pass around, and the movie industry will face the same situation very soon.

Andrew Parker says

^ Movies are complicated though because so many of us like to enjoy them easily and quickly and with friends.

Jonathan you mentioned your "mp3 sales" .... 20 years before this though you had no mp3 sales. I'd say most big artists today are popular *because* of the current system of free distribution of their music.

It's like a blessing and a curse, right? This new crazy system allows small artists that are really really good to blow up, but when those stars do blow up they can't turn around the complain about mp3 sales .... this was the very system they rode on to get popular.

Todd says

does the scarcity just move? So the scarcity goes from the end product to the raw materials &/or energy it takes to produce them? I guess my hope is that a decrease in scarcity maps to a decrease in the cost to live such that the creators don't _need_ to make as much as they did and so it all balances out. Perhaps overly optimistic, but if we had limitless energy then what would be scarce? Raw materials could come from astroids etc.

The only remaining scarcity will be TIME. And that goes away when we have immortality. Then the danger will be boredom and then the artists who entertain and distract will suddenly become highly valued for their ability to hold the boredom at bay. maybe. :)

Des Moines Iowa lawyers says

As they say -What goes around comes around

12from1 says

I'm wondering where I fall in the scheme of things? I'm just a decade older than Emily, and have watched the whole music distribution models change before my eyes. I have not yet fully embraced buying music online, and have purchased over 95% of my music collection in physical form. I have problems seeing how the digital model actually gets "more" money back to the artists. If the artist doesn't offer the files on their site for a value, then I'm not sure how much of my money is getting back to them when I use sites like iTunes and Amazon (among others).

I also have problems with the overall value placed on songs these days. Everyone seems to think a song "costs" $.99. That seems bogus. I understand that for artists that are still under contract they have a lot of overhead to cover - but as an "artist" I don't see how they can only value a piece of their work at $.99. I mean, there are songs I've listened to hundreds of times. I wouldn't want to have to fork out a royalty every time I listened to them, but those songs are worth WAY more than $.99 to me.

And then there's the conundrum of how much SHOULD an artist get paid to make music. It was brought up about how maybe being a musician shouldn't be something you do "professionally" anymore, and maybe that's the answer. I'm hearing some of the best music ever at the top end of the spectrum (and paying for it), but there is a widening gap between who is really putting out the hits, and all the other music that is out there today. The lower costs of production lower the barrier for entry into the music world, but that also, in my opinion, has the effect of lowering the overall quality of what is out there.

I'd like to see more artists put their music up on their websites and put a value on it. It can scale as they recoup their costs. Maybe a whole album starts out at $500 or something. As enough people buy it, the costs comes down, until maybe it's $10. Anyone who buys it at $500 gets backstage passes or something when they tour, or a T-Shirt, or their name in the liner notes.

I'd also like to see more artists cut out iTunes (while it isn't inconvenient to use for paying for music, it is a bloated piece of software that I absolutely loathe anytime I am forced to use it) and Amazon - or at least delay their access to the song until a few months down the road. Or, sell them the access to release day privileges. The bottom line is, artists should start adapting to put a value on their product that allows them to continue to make it, and fans should pay the fair share of those costs. As with most things, it's the ones who follow the rules who end up paying for privileges.

With that - it's also our duty to educate the younger (and older - it's not just kids stealing music) generation about what's right. It's only a matter of time before one of our favorite bands hangs it up because they just can't support their art anymore. We should also mention to the youngsters who feel they shouldn't "have" to pay for music - the ones who were lucky enough to stumble into the world during this wonderful "free-for-all". You don't have to pay for music...that's what the radio is for.

As for your comments on three dimensional printing technologies, I do find it odd that you reference/hyperlink the Maker Bot, which has designs for building a unit that are in direct violation of current patents held by Stratasys corporation. That doesn't negate your points you made with this, but I thought it was funny.

Ishmael says

Jonathan and a lot of people here brought up some really interesting points. As a Software Developer (NOT about to get into music though!), I am faced with the difference between digitally transmitted "intellectual property" and physical objects. And the difference between doing work you're paid to do (i.e. corporate software), and work you love to do (i.e. open source software, robotics, etc).

The issue, though is more fundamental. We are all trying to understand this in the context of our western "capitalist" economy, which we've been brainwashed since birth into believing is the "one true way".

Trying to get past this ingrained thinking, I see a few things. Most musicians don't make music for the money, but because they love music. Most really enjoy the emotional connection they make with their listeners. Some make music purely for themselves, but that's a bit of a different issue. We don't need to make incentives for it, like we do for creating software documentation.

However, many musicians don't make their music (and many more in the past) because they couldn't break through the wall and get blessed by those who controlled the money and the system. The old system sucked donkey balls. The corrupt labels, the formula mass-market music, the forcing-to-buy-a-whole-CD-to-listen-to-one-good-song model was so terrible, I gave up on music until MP3s and the internet came along. I just didn't listen to it, I didn't buy ANY music. Now, I'm finding all kinds of great music, and unless they're mega-millionaires already (yes, that matters to me), I make sure to buy (at least most) of the music I listen to because I'm selfish and it's in my best interests for them to make more of it. :)

The most interesting pause I've had is when one artist had a link to buy her song, and it asked me how much I want to pay, and there was no minimum. That was an interesting moment.

What I think we really need to figure out then, is how to ensure artists (that have some decent level of fan support) can have at least a comfortable living doing what they love to do, and the resources they need to do it? That's a different question than how can we monetize "intellectual property" and control the distribution.

I don't have a good answer, but it's something we'll have to figure out soon. Jonathan's point about the 3D printing is a REALLY good one. Another factor in the larger picture is that people are slowly starting to realize that this consumerist consumption of crap that we've been pitched really kind of sucks, and doesn't make us healthy of happy. When we stop buying all the junk, we'll find that we actually need very little, and modern technology, manufacturing and the 3D printing tsunami will give us all the "things" we need at very little cost. What happens to the economy then? Without a driving need to "consume", and the need for people to work at empty jobs for money, how do we allocate resources?

For the music/art/design question, here's a crazy thought - leaving aside the obvious Big Brother issues: if technology could provide a way to tell when someone listened to a digital recording, use government taxation to collect revenue (an amount determining democratically, not via lobbying) and distribute it based on the information gathered?

Ishmael says

Also, it is NOT "stealing" music. Stealing is when you take something from someone else, and they can't use it anymore.

It is a copyright violation. Copyright violations are (most often) not good, but very different than stealing. Don't use the word stealing, because then you're doing exactly what the RIAA jackals want you to do.

Masau says

I haven't paid much attention to advances in music distribution, so perhaps I'm mistaken, but for the most part, I tend to agree with Emily that there really isn't a viable "legal" alternative at this point. Spotify, last I checked, isn't available in the US. Itunes severely limits the freedom you have to move the music you've payed for from one place to another in an attempt to prevent piracy. Pandora (and spotify and similar services) don't have a lot of the artists that I listen to. Granted, I really don't listen to music, but when I do, it's rather niche music, even more obscure than your own (pandora also has some huge issues lumping comedy music and stand-up comedy in the same group, very annoying. But that's supposedly gotten better).

The same battle is happening right now in both the gaming industry and the motion picture industy. In some respects, the gaming industy has fared far better than either of the other two, but I'll get to them later.

The motion picture industy has been faces the same issue as the music industry has. The internet eliminates the monopoly they had on distribution. Sure, there were the occasional bootleg tapes back in the day, but the quality was poor usually (though, nowhere near as poor as cams are today *shudders*). Like the music industry, advances have finally been made to handle internet distribution, but again they fall short and result in me still prefering to simply download or stream content much of the time.

I don't watch movies too often, so I'll focus on TV shows. First, you've got Netflix. I rather like the service. However, it's got two major flaws - 1) it doesn't contain some of the shows I love (i.e. House MD) at all due to being unable to make a deal with the netwoks that own them, and 2) they are always 1-2 seasons behind. Then you've got Hulu. This is a nice service if you don't mind being a week behind. Again, it has two problems 1) lack of shows due to deals not being made, and 2) episodes are kept up for a fairly short period, so watching old episodes often isn't an option (note: I haven't looked at the premium subscription for a long time, so it may be better on both fronts). And of course, many networks either host their own shows, or use Hulu (or a similar service) to their shows on their sites. These are actually generally the best in my experience for new episodes, often having them posted within 24 hrs of air. But again, they only keep 3-4 episodes per show up at any time. And of course there is cable with on demand, recording of shows, ect. But as I'm at my computer 90% of the time...why would I want to deal with cable as well? I'd much rather get it at my PC than on my seldom used TV.

All of these options are even worse when it comes to foriegn content that requires either dubbing or subbing. I personally watch quite a bit of anime. Unfortunately, it's often months or years before an anime is picked up for subbing (if it ever is), and even longer for dubbing (luckily I can't stand dubbed anime). Contrast this with fansubs. They are almost always as good, if not better, quality as the (eventually) officially released ones, but are out within days of a new episode rather than months or years. Again, there have been *some* advances here, i.e. crunchyroll. But these only sub a very select few anime that are either long running (naruto and bleach for instance), or get picked up early for subbing, and the subbing tends to be lesser quality than that of fansubbers.

Finally we get to game distribution (I don't play console, so I'll ignore those and stick with purely PC). I think the game industry has a significant advantage over the other two. Unlike music or video, games typically require multiple computers working together. By forcing players to log into a central server, game companies (i.e. Blizzard) can combat piracy to an extent (though I still played starcraft 2's campaign from a torrent when it came out). There are also a few platforms for distributing games, with steam being the largest and most well known. I don't use it, but most games companies allow purchasing/downloading of games online either through steam, some other platform, or directly from their sites. In my opinion, game companies have done the best in terms of capitalising on onine distribution. But again, they have the advantage of being able to effectively force players to use centralized login servers in order to play multiplayer games.

Oh, and I almost forgot. My own profession (and your old one): Software (specifically, not gaming software). As a heavy advocate for free and open source software, I tend to care little about piracy in my field, and in many cases encourage it to some extent (when I can't convince people to move away from the a proprietary garbage). Proprietary Software however is in the same boat as the first two industries though. All it takes is a single programmer to modify part of most software products and it can often not only be used for free, but can also get updates by convincing the central server that it's legit. Again, I heavily advocate for FOSS, so I really don't give a shit at all about piracy in this field.

Brandon says

It occurs to me that the concept of "free" music has been around a long time. The Golden Age of Radio started in 1920. AM radio broadcasts sent "free" music over the air waves, and even today I listen to "free" music in my car on the way to and from work. Classic rock fans may remember the King Biscuit Flour Hour. I always associate it with King Crimson, for some reason.

Thing is, from the perspective of the listener, music on the radio is "Free". It is ad-supported, and these days the performers aren't paid, only the writer/composer. But for the listener, despite the lack of control over what song plays next and the necessity of either listening to all the ads or, more likely, switching to another station in search of more music, what you hear is effectively free. Sure, FM radio is lower quality than an MP3, but it has some innate analogue filtering that makes it sound just fine and less susceptible to listener fatigue than your average, medium-quality MP3 file.

Services like Pandora and Spotify have legal agreements. They aren't illegal OR unethical. They are just like radio in that sense. To the listener, they appear to be free. So before we talk in too much detail about the ethics of downloading MP3 files and not paying for them, we need to consider that the association between music and free has been around for almost 100 years now. Free doesn't have to mean artists aren't compensated, or at least that artists have no way to get paid, anyway. But music has had the stigma or free hanging over its head for a long time.

Damien says

I like how you started the MegaUpload entry with "Uh oh, he’s blogging. What happened?" and started this with "Here's what happened:".

Damion says

Hi Jonathan,

As someone who's worked in the 3D scanning (and tangentially, printing) industry for a while, I don't share the view that 3D printing will have anything like impact on consumer goods that's frequently bandied about. It makes for good science fiction, but the reality of 3D printing for the foreseeable future is nothing like that. Most low cost "consumer grade" printers print objects out of a spool of very thin thermoplastic; if you picture extruding play-doh into a thin coil and piling it up to build a sculpture you understand the basic mechanic. The resulting prints look about like you'd expect; the surface finish looks a bit like a layer cake, and since the object consists of fused thin strands of plastic it's not especially sturdy.

To be sure, you might argue that this is a technical limit on current technology, and it's true that there are many other printing technologies out there that produce higher quality parts than fused deposition modeling (the extrusion approach). But also consider that the underlying business model of printer manufacturers, 3D or otherwise, is selling you the feedstock for the printer. Ink and paper aren't free, and I can assure you that thermoplastic spools for 3D printers are decidedly non-free.

So, to suggest that 3D printing poses a risk to conventional manufacturing processes ignores a couple of things. At present, both printers and feedstock are cost prohibitive for anything other than serious use. I freely concede that there is business model to be had selling the printers at low or no cost and the materials at a markup (as with laser and inkjet printers). In the latter case, the markup on what is essentially a free material - plastic - needs to be high enough to support the entire 3D printing industry. This is certainly possible, too.

This then begs the question of what the printed part is competing against. Again, given that the commercially manufactured LEGO has (approximately) zero material cost, it's difficult to imagine there being a financial argument for "pirating" the LEGO. And that's assuming a printer capable of producing a replacement part of high enough quality that look and feel aren't an issue.

In any case, my point is this. There's a cost associated with all known rapid prototyping technologies, and this cost is usually orders of magnitude higher than a (better) commercially produced part. This is, after all, why the industry is rapid *prototyping* - rapid manufacturing does exist, but involves a different set of technologies and is not something pitched for consumer use. I would propose that the problem facing the music industry, and digital goods in general, is one related to there being identically zero marginal cost for duplication. As a first approximation, 3D printing doesn't offer this, in the same way that photocopiers weren't a threat to the paperback novel.

AnneTherese says

Good God, Coulton....give it a rest...!!!!