June 23 2010 03:59 PM

Is file sharing a major-label slayer or simply a detriment to artists?


“A commodity has value and a gift does not. A gift has worth… a thing has no market value in itself except when it is in the marketplace, and what cannot be exchanged has no exchange value.”

—Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

istening to an interview with Devo's Gerald Casale on American Public Media's Marketplace radio show the other day, I couldn't help but be reminded of how prophetic a vision the band once had—that humans had passed the point of any real progression and are in a constant state of “de-evolution,” despite any technological, social or scientific advancements that may seem like evidence to the contrary.

Of course, what still makes “de-evolution” such incisive satire is that it directly relates to two huge current problems in the music business: a) the industry's panic over how to maintain profits when the public can get music for free, and b) certain listeners' presumptions that because music is available for free, they're not obligated to purchase it.

“Look what's happened—the implosion of the music business in general. The functions of labels are almost gone. People have devalued music in terms of its cultural importance and they feel that they shouldn't have to pay for it,” Casale said.

For me, it would be deeply satisfying to watch major record labels crumble one by one—their business practices are often unfair and manipulative at best and completely devoid of any ethical compass at worst.

For example, this past week, Interscope Records— owned by Universal, one of the “big four” record labels, along with Sony, EMI and Warner—released a new album by Swedish pop singer Robyn. There's a sticker on the spine of the album that says “MSRP [manufacturer's suggested retail price] $8.” However, retailers pay $7.99 to stock the album, which means that Universal actually expects stores to lose money on each title they sell. This would be fine if they were only suggesting that price to the retailer, but revealing the same number to the consumer via an irremovable sticker is a deplorable tactic.

By the looks of things, if the large record labels are going down, they're doing their best to take specialty music retailers with them. It's an undeniably shitty move, but as angry as it makes me, I'm not surprised. Ideally, a new, more efficient business model would arise from the rubble, one in which small retailers wouldn't be as dependent upon major-label products.

But another reality is that while file sharing can be rationalized as a blow to major record labels, at the same time, it also tends to deprive artists of their livelihood.

“Artists no longer make a living by selling music.

They only make a living by tour grosses, merchandising receipts and having their songs licensed to commercials, video games or films,” Casale notes.

By forcing musicians to license or heavily merchandise their material for the sake of financial support, there's less focus on the creation of songs and albums as cherished works of cultural worth and more focus on them as commodities.

If you're involved in the music business, this is probably good in the long term, because it makes works of art increasingly easier to market. If you're a music fan, the outlook probably isn't as positive, but it doesn't have to be that way. One only need look to Radiohead's In Rainbows for an example of how success can be redefined for the modern era. By offering a direct download and letting consumers choose how much they wanted to pay for it, the band ended up making more money between the album's digital release on Oct. 10, 2007, and its physical release on Dec. 31, 2007, than all sales of its previous album, Hail to the Thief, combined, according to an October 2008 report by NME.

In an ideal world, art would not be exchanged as a commodity. But, unfortunately, this is not an ideal world. So, because we derive a sense of joy from listening to music, it's inevitable that we have to put a price on it. Otherwise, we truly have devolved.

Write to toddk@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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See all events on Thursday, Apr 28