Monday, May 21, 2007

A look at the industry and the war amongst artists, labels, and fans

Last month, Yahoo! Music entered into a deal with Gracenote allowing Yahoo to offer song lyrics from the big five publishers. A pretty big improvement over malware and spam sites that offer horribly wrong (and unlicensed) lyrics just to get hits. Of course, I have settled many a dispute, both between myself and a friend as well as internal disputes over what a song is saying, thanks to search engines and quality fan lyric sites. And I've also hit a number of sites that bog my hard disk down with spyware (thanks, Google search for Dashboard Confessional lyrics). I'm probably better off surfing the digital version of The Block (Baltimore knows what I'm talking about) than searching for song lyrics.

The Wall Street Journal just published an interesting story taking Yahoo and Gracenote to task for not allowing the lyrics on the site to be copy-pasted. This is prevented by publishing the lyrics on the site as an image rather than as text. It protects the lyrics from being hunted online by robots that would turn and republish the lyrics on other sites, but it also prevents search engine robots from adding the lyrics to popular engines, thus precluding fans from searching lyrics on any engine other than Yahoo to avail themselves of this new service.

Why all this rigamarole? Money. The copyright holders are asking for this protection, according to Ian Rogers of Yahoo Music. Lyrics are copyrighted just as the actual song is, and allowing the lyrics to be grabbed for free online prevents selling the lyrics in other fashion, such as in sheet music, or even in the publishing rights to print the lyrics. The more "frugal" users, but for this protection, would go on a site, copy and paste, and voila, they have lyrics without acquiring them through the normal business channels. Right now, the article indicates that iTunes and other download stores may slowly be moving towards including lyrics in the metadata for downloaded songs, for which the publishing company would be compensated by a couple "cents" out of the song sale. This is partially evidenced by the fact that you can go into iTunes and add lyrics to the metadata yourself in the "Lyrics" tab of the song file, but they won't come by default.

I am in complete agreement with the article's author, Jason Fry, that fans who are online searching for lyrics are seeking a level of engagement with the song and with the artist that merits including lyrics without charging the consumer or making it overly difficult for the consumer to obtain the lyrics. Having fans who are ravenous enough to go searching online, doing more than just listening to the song, but analyzing it, are an artist's dream come true. And the fans are being inconvenienced, if not punished, by the current state of lyric discovery.

But is this really all that different from before the internet? What about all those LPs, cassettes, and CDs I have bought over the years with no lyrics at all inside? I'm very ambivalent on the whole subject of maintaining protection of the lyrics versus providing them to the fan as easily as possible, to the extent that I can understand everyone's involvement: the artist (with the dichotomous paradigms of being both an "artist" in the true sense of the word, and wanting to live off of profits from that art), the fan, and the business(es) that invests in the artist and seeks to recoup and profit.

Being adored by fans is an obvious goal. Let's move past that, and analyze further. Of course an artist, as noble and altruistic and creative and unique as the word connotes, needs to survive. Surviving (and thriving) off of one's art is an actualization of an American dream. Thus, royalties are an important and necessary element to the artist's work. Sure, artists on most major labels get very little from individual album sales. There is a popular notion that the real money is in touring. Both may be true, subject to case-by-case analysis. For purposes of this writing, I take the position that even the "very little" that the artist gets from sales is the artist's due. In this respect, stealing recorded music (that is, taking it without permission), lyrics, written music, all copyrighted, is wrong as between the artist and the fan.

As a business, whether a record label, music publisher, or other entity who can capitalize on holding a copyright to a certain musical composition, the goal is to profit, plain and simple. Business exists fundamentally to profit from its goods or services. Therefore, all potential avenues must be monetized. Sell albums, sell sheet music, sell lyrics. Sell, sell, sell.

But that's not entirely bad. The labels invest a lot of money in creating quality (and some not) albums. They also invest a lot in creating star power; for example, Justin Timberlake, who has been groomed from Mouseketeer on up. And don't try and tell me that pop stars are what ruin music. I heard Peter Bjorn and John in The Gap yesterday. Even this type of artist is being groomed for a business purpose. If that's indie, I'm Miles Davis. Music is entertainment, and entertainment is an industry, plain and simple. Whether high art, low art, or just plain pop art, there is money to be made, and industrialization of entertainment has long been the status quo. And maybe Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have been doing the whole business for themselves, but it's cost them money to get out there, and they want to recoup that money, and then some. They wouldn't invest money just to get the name out. They want to thrive. So, whether philosophically shameful or not, that is the state of the industry. To thrive off of music, via profitability in multiple avenues.

Left to be spoken for, then, is the fan (who, of course, needs no introduction, since the fan is reading this article, even if the fan is also an artist or in the business). Investing time and money in listening to radio and watching videos (both businesses of their own, which engage in business relationships with the aforementioned, spinning certain artists more than others and each profiting in the end), researching online for lyrics, going to shows, and telling other fans about cool music, the fan is arguably most pure in this triangle. The fan doesn't seek to survive from love for music. The fan seeks the sensation of enjoying the music and engaging in it. The fan invests money in return for entertainment, and in some cases, emotional experience. This is in direct opposition to investing money hoping to turn it into more money. But the business model for the fan, if you will, turning money into pleasure, is a losing one. The fan must find ways to finance this emotional investment. The artist and business have that figured out, assuming their venture is successful.

But fans are on the losing end of this business relationship. Fans are overwhelmed with purchasing opportunities and with rising prices for CDs, tickets, and now, lyrics. And when the fan cries, "Enough!", and seeks to curb the expenses through Robin Hood maneuvers like downloading songs without permission (the modern-day equivalent to burning CDs), they run afoul of the business model and the law. And now the business seeks to keep the fan from downloading lyrics, too? Of course! The way the fan seeks to engage goes directly against their business model. The fan is de-monetizing an entirely monetized (and copyright-protected) area of consumption.

This whole complex web of multiple equations and paradigms comes down to opposite and (as yet) irreconcilable viewpoints: business and pleasure. Anyone who works realizes that mixing business and pleasure is often a dangerous brew. The irony is that the entertainment industry makes business from pleasure, buying (sometimes at a fair price, sometimes not) from the artist (unless the artist is, itself, handling the business) and sells it right back to the fan. And it's come down to a silly game of emotional warfare between the factions. The big guns, though, have a bigger thumb to press on the legislators and that helps determine what is "wrong" and "right" in these arguments.

So I have no answer to the problem. I leave that to the greater minds and the masses to figure out. If anyone has any points to add or counterarguments to what I've stated, please comment. I'd love to start a dialogue.

No comments: