The Dollar Value of Music

I read this short article on the damages for pirating music. One thing that struck me is the minimum damages for copyright violation is $750 per track. Call me crazy but that seems really high, especially when everyone seems to be suggesting that the current state of the music industry is actually correcting itself. If Brian Eno is correct and the music industry really similar to that of whale blubber, I can’t help but think that the RIAA’s quest to get money via lawsuits should be extinct.

The point is not so much that music isn’t worth anything. But, if the labels are obviously suffering and the recent trends really are an indicator of scarcity more so than an unintended consequence of new technology, then the ability to expect huge damages should also be greatly reduced. If I steal a pack of gum from the grocery store, it is not the same thing as if manage to embezzle money from a bank or steal a few hundred cars. If I get caught stealing from the store, there is a good chance I’ll just have to give the gum back or pay for it along with a fine. Worst case scenario I might spend a night in jail, but no judge is going to send me to jail for a few years since the actual cost on society is so little. Likewise, if the value of a song has clearly become devalued, why then can someone have the ability to sue for huge damages. This is especially true when the track record of record labels is horrible when it comes to consistent profits. Venture capital funds can’t sue the random users when a tech startup fails, so why can record labels sue listeners when a song is pirated? While it is true the pirate is stealing, that doesn’t mean the record label lost money. Just because someone pirates a song or even an album doesn’t mean that person would have paid for it had they not been able to download it. With iTunes and Amazon making music so readily available, it is tough to argue that pirating a song means a loss in revenue.

This doesn’t take into account the aspect of file sharing such as torrents where you not only download, but upload files at the same time. Again, unless you make your entire music library available 24/7, I can’t see how it is possible to be a huge source of free music. Likewise, if you consider the same circumstances where you downloaded the track illegally, the case for huge damages continues to not make sense. You didn’t want to pay because you wanted to hear the album a couple times on your ipod. If you make a similar assumption about those downloading it from you, then it is clear that the presumed damages the record companies are assuming don’t hold water.

All that said, if labels can figure out a way really prove how much they lose from pirating, then I think the lawsuit damages would make sense. Personally, I seriously doubt they can, but if they get smart it might be possible. Bandcamp has a great new model for this sort of thing with their BCWax label. It is so simple it hurts. They look at the statistics of what is selling, see if they like it, and if they do, they offer to put out extremely high quality physical versions of the music. This is how a label should work! Bands should keep excellent records for this very reason. We’ve sold out of our EP, which is pretty good. We have decent sales from the digital retailers and have a good track record selling at shows. From a potential sales standpoint, we are a pretty decent risk in that we have a good track record of selling recorded music. Yet, not one label has asked for any information regarding our history selling music. This is what makes me wonder if we really are seeing an industry correct itself more so than a technology destroy a business. In the end, it really doesn’t matter either way. It has become harder to make money making music, so you should either accept it and move on or try something else.