For-profit music distribution industry fundamentally redundant

In an article (via Furdlog) on the fabulously-titled field of “Rockonomics”, Slate magazine summarises the findings of Princeton researchers Alan Krueger and Marie Connolly (PDF), who have analysed the various revenue streams of pop and rock artists over the last three decades.

One interesting finding, which is highly relevant to the current upheaval on the ‘net surrounding music sharing, is that most artists make far more money from concerts than they do from recordings – even those with multi-platinum albums to their name. Furdlog found this relevant quote:

Gayer and Shy (2004) present a model of an artist and her publisher, and show that the artist’s revenues are greater under file sharing since the more revenue comes from live concerts, which get better publicity from the distribution of songs on P2P networks.

This is exactly how I feel about current trends in the music industry. The best way to contribute to a healthy music industry, and the wealth and well-being of artists, is to share their recordings and attend their gigs. Now that the cost of music reproduction is virtually nil, there is little point trying to make money out of it. As this paper clearly states musicians are much better off using music sharing as a tool to raise awareness of their art than monetizing their wares through a profit-sapping gatekeeper.

The only artists that won’t be better off are the dozen or so Britney Spears-types of the world, and their generic mass-marketed pap won’t be missed. Assuming that people still spend just as much on music, but put that money towards seeing gigs instead of overpriced trinkets, we should see a surge of creativity and viability in the music industry.

In a few years time, physical copies of electronic recordings will be more like a souvenir than a content delivery mechanism – people will already have most of the tracks, but buy the disc because it represents the music that they love, much like they would buy a band t-shirt. And the current crop of corporate labels who have profited so mightily from delivering music on a near-free medium at a grotesque markup while making artists liable for the costs of the recording and promotion will fade into irrelevance.

Update: In a Slashdot article about the BSA’s response to trackerless Bittorrent (yay!), Shani summarises my position perfectly in the following words:

Most people either download music, and/or see nothing wrong with it. The “extreme” that you mention is the norm.

It is not possible for every activity to result in somebody getting paid. Neither is this a reasonable goal.

There were no “content producers” for most of human history, yet people made music, works of art, and so on. It will be different, neither better nor worse, if the world returns to a state where people are not paid for making digital recordings.