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Saturday 22 February 2003

The Future of Media?

The International Herald Tribune has a story about pop music in China, and how it survives despite near-ubiquitous piracy.

Wang Lee Hom, a Chinese pop star and actor who was born and educated in the United States, appears to have become something of an anti-piracy activist in China.

“Pirates have already killed China’s music industry dead,” Wang said. “It frustrates my life and destroys China’s creative future.”

Though the fact that Wang makes enough money from recording music for him to continue doing it seems to directly contradict his statement that the Chinese music industry is “dead”. The IHT notes this as well.

That may be an overstatement. Record companies say that what piracy has really done in China is to cause fundamental shifts in the way the country’s music industry operates. It has simply forced Wang and his fellow stars to change the way they live, work and play. ‘‘There is no income from the royalties, so artists in China record single songs for radio play instead of albums for consumers,’’ said Lachie Rutherford, the president of Warner Music Asia-Pacific. ‘‘Stars need to look elsewhere to finance the rock-star lifestyle.’’

And therein may lie the problem: the rock-star lifestyle.

Those of you who are regular readers know that I am, or at least used to be, a fan of MTV Cribs. These days, it’s become a parody of itself, as even Andy Dick tells viewers that they “ain’t a playa” unless they have some specific posession. But even with the schedule packed with B-grade and lower ‘stars’, Cribs still manages to tell the same story, that in the entertainment industry, success appears to be almost totally binary: either you are playing gigs at night and working a regular job during the day, or you have an 18,000-square-foot house with a guitar-shaped swimming pool and a garage full of Bentleys. And you know what the almost all of the people with the Bentleys say? That they love what they do, and that it’s all about the music.

The record companies, on the other hand, tell us that it’s all about the money. Without the fantastic payoff of the rock-star lifestyle, they expect us to believe, no decent music would be created.

Music, like other arts, has traditionally not paid very well. An awful lot of art of all kinds — from sculpture to painting to music to writing to performance — is undertaken around the world, despite the near-certainty that there will never be any financial return for the artists in their lifetimes.

Substitute any other job for that of pop musician, and it’s hard to deny the absurdity: let’s consider computer programmers.

Some computer programmers get unbelievably wealthy, far wealthier than even someone like Michael Jackson. Some more get into the Ferrari-and-giant-house league. A great many make it to the Porsche-and-big-house league, and some — particularly those just starting out and those who aren’t very good — drive Chevies and live in townhouses.

Imagine now that the universe was changed in some way that resulted in computer programmers having a 1% chance of making many millions of dollars, and a 99% chance of never being able to do much but recoup the expense of the tools of their trade, their computers, chairs, and Jolt cola — and maybe not even that. In that universe, would there be more computer programmers, or fewer?

If pop musicians were paid like computer programmers, we’d have much, much more music, and potentially better music as well: the market would make decisions, rather than a small number of label A&R men.

It’s probably true that the collapse of music distribution as we know it — which appears to be inevitable — will make the current rock-star lifestyle much rarer. It’ll be a little harder to make millions upon millions of dollars (it’s already very difficult), but it’ll be much easier to make a living. This is what the rock stars and record labels are considering when they complain about ‘piracy’: it’s not that the collapse of the music distribution racket will result in less music, or worse music, or that it’ll make it harder to make money at it. It’s that it’ll make it harder — but still not impossible — to make enormous amounts of money without working very hard.

Posted by tino at 22:10 22.02.03
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