Mar 312014

[MODERATOR’S NOTE: Rather than simply add a link to the originally published piece and make a few comments directing readers of Rock Town Hall to the content that follows and possible discussion that may flow from an examination of the original piece, I believe the legendary “Original Links Linkerson” has merely copied and pasted somebody else’s work into “his” own thread. This is not really cool in copyright terms {hence my prelude}, but neither is the “author” of this, that is. That’s cool with us. That said, I’m glad this founding RTH member is finally making his presence felt here and contributing to discussions. Read the following piece that has been published elsewhere by some other author and see if we don’t rally around some key points for discussion!]


A dangerous or ingenious musical precedent?

The Wu-Tang Clan are releasing just one copy of their latest “secret” album in the hope of sparking a shift in the way music is funded and distributed.

The general premise is that the art of music has been devalued by cheap modern distribution techniques and it makes sense to revive the…

“400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity and allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale, as any other contemporary art piece, we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music…”

The Wu Tang Clan appear to be miffed, basically, that music isn’t being treated the same way high value art is.

Felix Salmon has, however, argued compellingly against that point.

In Salmon’s mind the difference between music and art is actually pretty marginal. Both industries “have skewed themselves towards a winner-takes-all model where a very small number of people are making gobsmacking amounts of money, while everybody else struggles.”

He also argues that music by nature is an inherently social experience, and that creating something for the consumption of just one person defeats the whole point of music.

To be fair to the Wu-Tang Clan, it doesn’t seem that consumption by just one person is really what they are aiming for. What they seem to be aiming for is a) marketing buzz and b) the creation of a rentable asset that allows them to presell their album, and receive its value up front rather than over the course of years in copyright revenue.

Indeed, as the Forbes article notes, Wu-Tang aim to take the album on a high security tour, where people will be provided the opportunity to listen to it for a fee. It is only after this that the bidding process will be opened up to the public. For Salmon’s scenario to play out, i.e. solitary consumption, we’d be talking about the sale of exclusive user rights only. In effect, whoever buys the album would be beholden to the copyright terms which would not allow him to share that music with anyone.

As Salmon notes, this defeats the whole point of music, and it’s hard to imagine anyone would go for it.

But the Forbes article suggests it’s not really user rights which are really being sold here, but rather copyright:

Once the album completes its excursion, Wu-Tang will make it available for purchase for a price “in the millions.” Suitors could include brands willing to shell out for cool points and free publicity (just as Samsung spent $5 million to buy copies of Jay Z’s latest album for its users) or major record labels hoping to launch the album through the usual channels (they’re used to paying top acts seven-figure advances). There’s also the possibility that a wealthy private citizen could buy it and either keep the album or release it to the public for free in the name of democratizing a cultural artifact. That’s essentially what clothing mogul Mark Ecko did by purchasing Barry Bonds’ 756th home run ball for $752,467 and conducting a plebiscite to determine if he should blast it into outer space, send it to the Hall of Fame unblemished, or brand it with an asterisk (he eventually did the latter and sent it to Cooperstown).

If whoever buys the album can do with it what he pleases — whether that means charging rent for the right to listen to it, or distributing it for free, what we’re really seeing put up for sale is copyright. That said, it’s unclear whether Wu-Tang plan to retain some copyright for themselves.

Either way, this one fact does make the model interesting for artists, but not necessarily because it turns them into Renaissance artists but rather because it turns them into modern day writers.

After all, if you’re a new author today that’s exactly the process you go through to get your work distributed. You pre-write it, or at least provide a good idea of what the content will be like, allow a handful of agents or publishers to read it under condition of secrecy, and then have them bid for it if they happen to like it. Once a deal is agreed, they either pre-pay you to write and complete the work, and then allow you a share of future sales proceeds, or (more likely if you are a new author rather than an established one) immediately offer you a share of future proceeds deal. Copyright in either case is passed on to the publisher as soon as you sign.

The reason the system still works in this day and age of web publishing is because the commissioning process (much like the art dealer sponsorship process) is quite clubby in nature — they can make or break names, and thus control the likely break-even on the prepay sums invested — and also because once money has been dedicated to a name, it’s the publishing industry’s marketing arm that blasts into action to get that author distributed on a much wider level than he may have been able to if he had self-published.

By that measure it’s the rights that are the commodity, not the product.

The thing, consequently, to really be concerned about if this sort of distribution becomes more popular — whether it’s rights to writing, video, photography or art — is the potential suppression of artistic content more generally. Whether that’s because the artistic content is seen as unfavourable to the purchaser or because — more cunningly — they want to eliminate competitive content from the public market in order to glorify their own.

Which is why what we’re really talking about with Wu Tang’s move is not a return to Renaissance patronage at all. With Renaissance patronage the artist was sought out for a particular job — more often than not a very public work — for the sake of glorifying his patron’s name in the eyes of the public. The whole point, consequently, was finding and securing the best artist for the work in hand. It was not the artist who touted original creative work to the patron, on the basis it might be publicly valuable one day.

Wu-Tang on the other hand are creating content according to their own directive, and opening it up to a bidding process which will be based on its likely future worth over time. If a wealthy benefactor or institution thinks they can extract more value from the content over time than what they pay for it today, they will see it as a yield bearing security. Wu-Tang as a result will be able to collect the value of the content up front by effectively creating a competitive futures market in their own content.

There is one issue however.

One would imagine Wu-Tang think they will get better value for their content by opening up the bidding process in this way than by depending on the conventional music label system. The increased value in their minds coming from the fact that buyers who may wish to suppress the content will now be able to compete with those who wish to distribute it.

But that takes us back to Felix Salmon’s original point: music is no fun unless it’s universally distributed. That means unless someone sees value in suppressing this sort of music specifically, it’s unlikely that moving to this sort of distribution channel will increase the value of the content beyond, potentially, the initial new marketing buzz effect.

There is, of course, one caveat… if the content speaks some uncomfortable truths about a particular individual or institution, which may then give them a very big incentive to suppress the content. But that would only be taking music into mafia extortion territory. Lovely.


  3 Responses to “The New Capitalism, Same as the Old Capitalism”

  1. If I understand most of this long piece, the author is concerned that people, in this model, could buy the rights only to suppress them. I can think of master recordings I could have purchased only to suppress them, starting with the works of Journey.

  2. 2000 Man

    I was thinking about this the other day. You know how enterprising bootleggers are, and there’s no way stuff won’t get out. Look at how many U2 albums, Prince albums etc. have come out before they were supposed to. So if this comes out (or the next project like this) then it could cost the band everything. I mean, if I paid a million bucks for exclusive content of my favorite band, it better damned well really be exclusive. No rough takes, alternate mixes – nothing like that had better be laying around. If I ever saw something that said it was from those sessions, I’d lay claim to it. I think it’s pretty stupid.

    I’d like to go back and suppress all The Eagles music, please.

  3. How about if this model went REALLY Old School and people could bid to commission their favorite musicians to make the kind of album they wanted to hear? For instance, you could pay Bowie to make another album like Hunky Dory, not one of his newfangled, atmospheric musings on the fate of humanity.

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