Note: This post was originally posted on Sunday, March 23 at 11:23 AM... but I've had a couple requests not to let it fall of the front page, so I'm refreshing the time. There's now over 130 comments and going strong. Please join the discussion if you've got some thoughts on online music.
Artists deserve a cut of Bebo's $850 million sale to AOL, says Billy Bragg in a NYT Op-Ed. His argument: Because social networks like Bebo use music as a lightbulb, around which the moths swarm, the musicians should get part of the payoff. Predictably, because it's online music, everyone's got an opinion on this.
I'm not 100 percent sure how I feel on the matter of artists rights and online music.
But I am 60 percent sure how I feel: Creating recorded music these days is no different than playing music on the subway. Once you do it's out there, and there's no helping the fact that some people will stand there, enjoy it, tap their toes, and then get on the L-train when it comes, without paying you a dime. Obviously, no subway musician is going to sue or claim that they're getting ripped off when train riders don't pay, but it's part of the bargain. If you can't stand the fact that some are getting a free lunch from your cover of Lovesick Blues, then play in your appartment.
And at this point it's the same way with recorded music. You put it out there, and there's really nothing that will ever be done to stop people for getting it for free (Bragg thinks it's only a matter of time before piracy will be eradicated online: "Technology is advancing far too quickly for the old safeguards of intellectual property rights to keep up, and while we wait for the technical fixes to emerge..."). Some will pay you in some way (paid downloads, merch, concert tickets, etc.) and some won't. If you don't like it, play in your apartment.
Again, I only feel 60 percent confident that this is the right attitude. Maybe 70 percent. But if we just accepted that the average recording artist had the same rights as a subway artist, that would really resolve all of this nicely.
Update: Billy Bragg stops by the comments below to explain why I'm off the mark. Also, my wife makes a rare appearance too, to point out that I'm a moron and to agree with Billy. Fair enough.
As for whether a site that uses music to make a buck has a "moral" obligation to the musician... well, I do think that's tricky territory. My preference would be to leave morals out of the equation, though I can understand why that's tough. If you're playing music on the subway and someone films you and puts that in a film, my 60 percent sense is that: well, that's tough, you didn't have to be playing music in public. And either way, I'm not sure that the subway musician can legitimately claim to have been harmed by their work being "exploited" this way. And with the advent of digital distribution, there's not much difference between having your music go out over the open air and having your music go out into the digital aether. So to some extent, I see things the same way.