Some of us go down in a blaze of obscurity…

I attended the second meeting of the Open Rights Group. As usual, I got my fill of copyright activism and listened to a talk by Cory Doctorow, former EFF European Affairs Co-ordinator, novelist, copyfighter, etc.

He said something in the Q and A period that was something of a revelation to me. “My biggest problem as a novelist is not piracy,” he said, “it’s obscurity.” This statement made me realize two things: First, he’s right, and second, that this is the retort when our side is accused of not caring about artists.

Record companies are basically bankers. They loan artists money for the cost of making an album, marketing and promotion of the album, distribution, etc. The album sales go toward paying of the loans. So, the record company wants to make its money back from the successful artists’ albums and cover the bad loans it made to the unsuccessful artists.

This is why you have top ten lists, massive payola on the radio, enormous marketing blitzes aimed at getting teens to buy the latest boy band album, etc. You see, the record company actually needs a few big name artists who are going to sell a massive amount of albums to cover the loss on the other artists. Like any banker, they are going to try and maximize their returns while minimizing their losses. That is, they will pick a few “safe” artists that they know will appeal to a wide audience and promote the hell out of them. Everyone else gets left behind.

So, if you sound like the big selling artist of today, you’ll probably find the record company will promote you. This is why, when one band with a new sound makes it big, you suddenly get five or six other bands who sound the same. The record companies don’t want to take risks, so they basically want to sell you the same thing again, with a “new and improved” sticker on the outside.

Lets try a little thought experiment. Imagine a world where the record companies have achieved their goal of creating a technical and legal confluence, such that DRM systems really do work to stop people from sharing music. Leaving aside the impossibility of such a state (for reasons I won’t go into, but if you do any research on security, you’ll understand).

So what happens in this world where perfect DRM exists? There is no casual sharing of music. The only artists that anyone hears are the ones the record companies decide to take a risk on. Now, answer honestly, is this a good thing for artists?

Sure, it’s good for few that the record company decides to promote. But what about the vast number of artists who don’t appeal to a multi-million dollar audience? Or who don’t sound like the hit artist of last month?

Lets say your an artist whose style of music might only appeal to enough people to make, say $60,000 a year. That wouldn’t get you in the door of a record company. But that’s a pretty nice amount of money for your average artist. If, through the sharing culture, enough people found your music such that you’d make sixty grand a year, I think most artists would be pretty happy with that.

The current situation is a fiefdom, where a few at the top make millions and the rest starve. Yes, some artists might not get money every time someone downloads their track, but most artists have a bigger problem. Nobody knows who they are and cares enough to download their track.

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