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Tax the rich musicians

NB: This article was originally written for the Guardian newspaper’s Comment Is Free section, hence a slight lean towards a European perspective.
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Has every successful musician always made it on their own?

It is most likely preaching to the choir to say reasonable discourse in an online debate is as likely as U.S. Senator Ted Cruz turning to his Tea Party troops and telling them that they shouldn’t have led the charge for shutting down the U.S. government. There are parallels here with the internet; like government it can be attacked orally or in writing. It can also be attacked literally through sophisticated denial of service attacks upon websites. Unlike some governments, the internet is here to stay.

I mention this only in response to reader comments on my last Guardian Comment Is Free article, a rebuttal to the musician David Byrne’s stance on music streaming services. What is very clear to me is that the musician-versus-internet debate will continue to blaze like a welder’s torch for a long time, but this does not mean that commentators from both sides of the fence in these debates should be cowed by the responses left by “anonymous” in a comment field. We should continue to debate the issues while trying to find answers to real problems.

Some musicians and some of their supporters argue that music can be downloaded for free – that is true.

They say that everyone wants music for free – that is not true.

They say that big corporations are benefiting from the online advertising that appears on infringing music sites – I presume they mean Google. This is debatable but has nothing to do with the current debate about how “little” Spotify pays in royalties.

In his own Guardian article, David Byrne suggests “the internet will suck all creative content out of the world” – not true. He also says it will lead to disaster for all creative artists. This is obviously false.

On the other side of these arguments there is less foment. You might expect the opposing audience to be music fans and defenders of all creatives – a few speak out but not often. There are people who profess to represent artists, but they are opaque collectives and do not provide lists of their members. Therefore, when people like myself write an article that confronts statements, ones held as truths that I disagree with, it is seen as contentious; because I am a musician I am painted as a traitor to musicians, a corporate shill and ignorant. As I am a Lecturer at a university I am treated with suspicious derision. The best one? I am a “technologist,” some dour, gloomy nerd that everyone can dress up as this Halloween.

It is that kind of rhetoric that hinders, not helps, ideas-based solutions.

I am a defender of that wonderful technological marvel, the internet. Only those who are suspicious of the internet would take offense at that description. They may hate how people use it, but it’s hard to hate on an inanimate device. However hard you kick that flat tyre it won’t re-inflate itself.

“Everyone wants music for free” is a foolish statement. Who, exactly, is “everyone?” There is no data I know of that can prove this. It’s an assumption and creates a straw man for those who use that phrase.

The largest complaint from some music creators goes like this: streaming music service companies pay royalties that are too low, and by extension, if music fans only access music by these services, then some musicians will fail to make a living.

For me to rebut this position is, as Mavis Gallant put it about her own writing, “as rational an occupation as riding a bicycle over the Alps,” but I will attempt it.

The idea that arts and culture will collapse because musicians and other creative artists are not compensated as well as they would like to be is, I believe, a falsehood. Most musicians have never been compensated commensurate with their talent for many reasons. There has never, ever, been a time in human history when things were allocated fairly. The most we can strive for is that people are not HELD BACK unfairly – and on this point the internet has only helped. Never before has a kid in rural Iowa had a chance at building some sort of fan base.

The top ten percent of artists on record labels (a rough data point) tend to support the other ninety. Jay Z and Beyoncé are a billionaire couple, me and my wife are not. The disparities break down rather like the top one percent of the population of income earning Americans – they make on average $343,927 in income (many more make much larger income) while the median wage for everyone else is $51,017. Most working musicians would love to make either of those amounts and more, I’m sure. I’m also certain that the working poor in the USA are striving to just get above the poverty line.

Looking back only a decade it was clear to anyone who was paying attention that music had lost its appeal to young people as the go-to-first-with-my-money cultural good, fueled by the fact that a CD priced at $18.99 got a kid one hit song and nine tracks of filler. This was pure recording industry greed and it backfired. The market for music sales became fractured by young people having their dollars or pounds stretched by paying for mobile phones or video games. The marketplace and society shifted; musicians and the recording industry were in trouble. In 1999 along came Napster, so the industry doubled-down and began bankrupting its own customers when they used that platform. By the way as far as I know any “winnings” gained by the RIAA suing music fans never trickled down to musicians.

In 2013 Spotify gets held up as the latest “problem” in musicians eyes because it is the most popular music platform after YouTube. Streaming music services are simply serving an audience that has shown its preference for using their platforms. This could be seen as disruptive or adaptive. It can also be seen as an opportunity.

To the charge that Spotify doesn’t pay high enough royalties, we have to ask – based on what royalty baseline? Spotify pays out commensurate to the activity of a song in its system. The more a song is played, the more the song earns in royalties for the label. Asking Spotify to pay more to the labels is an odd request that most likely wouldn’t result in a great outcome for many reasons. Would the suppliers of buns to McDonalds demand that McDonald’s pay more to their franchisees?

At it’s heart then, the current argument against Spotify is about payment to musicians. The labels and publishing companies have struck their deals with Spotify so we are left with the plaints of musicians who feel entitled to success. The fact is, so many young musicians ARE making it, and they are doing it in the same system and they’re doing it by understanding the web, by using it fully, and yes, getting a little lucky. Luck has always been part of the game. As it is on the savanna, so it is in the music business.

Here’s a thought and a challenge: musicians who are better off than lesser paid musicians could offer their support in better ways than trying to badger Spotify et al into some perceived surrender. Bear with me here.

Unlike America, European countries have a long history of supporting the arts. Perhaps there is a model there that could become a solution. For instance, through 2015 the Arts Council of England will invest £1.9 billion of public money from government and an estimated £1.1 billion from the National Lottery in arts and culture, and says that it only costs each person 14 pence a week to fund its support of the arts. (That’s about a quarter, yes, 25 cents.)

A question then: should the UK and USA governments raise taxes on rich musicians and spread that income to struggling musicians? Clearly those musicians who are better off, myself included, wouldn’t be offended by such an idea as that would be tantamount to hypocrisy.

We saw France raise taxes on its rich and the actor Gerard Depardieu fled to Belgium, so yes, we might see more rich musicians parking their earnings in Luxembourg, or The Netherlands like U2. We would at least know then who cares most about music and the arts, and which rich musicians would put their money where their mouths are. By making this proposal open to public debate we could then learn of the public’s desire to help musicians. Music fans would get their say, musicians could back the plan.

It’s an idea that most likely won’t pass muster, but it’s at least an idea.

As the late, great Alex Harvey pointed out: “no one ever said paradise would be easy…” Just ask Macklemore.


Arthur Danto

Living and working in bubbles