Musicians on file-sharing, record industry as Monsanto

On TechDirt, Mike Masnick rounds up three thoughtful and thought-provoking statements from musicians about the way that their careers can be helped by piracy, and the how the response to downloading is bad for art and society. I was especially impressed with this op-ed from Doomtree Collective's Dessa, who makes a connection between the music industry's attempt to control music duplication and Monsanto's iron-fisted demand that its seeds be bought anew every season:

Peddling a product that consumers can duplicate for free is a tricky business. With affordable consumer technology, you can now copy a song a hundred times, with no degradation in the sound quality—and most people seem to immediately recognize why that’s gonna make it harder to get paid for songs. But my first experiences with lossless, duplicable technology didn’t have anything to do with my career as a rapper. My first encounter wasn’t with a torrent site. Or a bootlegged disc. It was a tomato.

Seeds, quite obviously, are the mechanism of plant duplication. You drop a sunflower seed in wet dirt and, bang, you get a brand new one. Essentially, you just 'burned’ a sunflower. The seeds of this new plant can then be harvested and planted to create an infinite, almost lossless supply of flowers and seeds.

Three Artists On Piracy: Sharing, Disruption And Turning Filesharers Into Your Street Team

(Image: Monsanto DSC03058, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from home_of_chaos's photostream)


  1. The “getting paid” aspect of this is out of whack because it is tied to copying and distributing rather than to the service provided by musicians. The model for appropriate compensation for musicians already exists: licensing. Advertisers and other artists that need music for their product license music from the musician. The payment for this use takes lots of forms, but is often a one-time payment to use the music for a purpose. This same model could be used with labels that want to sell copies of a recording. You want to put out 1000 copies of my song? Well, that’ll cost ya (say) $500. You want to put out another 1000, we’ll let’s renegotiate. You want to have my song available on your on-line music services, pay me an upfront fee, don’t force me into some nit-picky accounting nightmare based on individual plays of my track. $XXX up front for the right to include my song (for X/days/months/years).  The old label model shifted as much financial risk to the artist as possible. There is no longer a need for that. Artists need to start thinking differently about how they get paid for the services they provide…rather than trying to peddle “product.”

    1. This doesn’t make sense. Suppose you write a good song, and I write a bad one.  Yours is downloaded a million times, and mine only once by my mum. Should we be paid the same? If you don’t think so, then sooner or later, you end up with some sort of “nit-picky accounting nightmare based on individuals plays”. 
      If you think we should be paid the same, because artistic value shouldn’t be measured by something as crude as popularity, then fine, but the following will happen. Very many people will upload rubbish, because they’re “entitled” to a payment, because nobody is allowed to judge artistic merit. So then the amount of money available to reward artists (however it is generated) gets divided by a very large number of people, and nobody can make a living. 
      So what’s left? Well, you can have “the great and the good” deciding who should be paid. Kind of like the poet laureate system. Does that sound like a good idea? 

      1.  You apparently didn’t read the comment that you are responding to.  There is no part of icastico’s comment that advocates all artists getting paid the same amount.  In fact, icastico’s suggestions all involve artists getting paid according to how popular the work is.

        1. I was responding to the “nit-picky accounting nightmare based on individuals plays”. I think I read that right. I understood from that comment that measuring popularity in this way (which is technically easy to do) was not considered a good thing by the poster.

          1. You didn’t read that right.  The entire comment up until that sentence precludes your interpretation.

            I read it as “it’s incredibly difficult and inefficient to track individual plays accurately, it would be better and easier to sell one-time use licenses in bulk.”  Because that’s what the comment explicitly said.

          2. Well, ok. I don’t really understand what is being proposed then. Some sort of bulk buy arrangement? I don’t see how that matters much. I certainly don’t understand on what basis it is better. Different maybe, but so what?

          3. It’s not my argument so I’m not sure I’m ready to defend it — but your objection had nothing to do with the argument being made and I thought that was worth pointing out.  This is icastico’s moral justification for the scheme:

            The old label model shifted as much financial risk to the artist as possible.

            I’m assuming that what he meant was that artists have to trust the licensee when the licensee reports the number of plays; otherwise, the artist has to engage in difficult and expensive fact-checking.  Also, the artist is locked in at the same rate even if the artist suddenly gains a huge boost in popularity (for example, a band whose second album increased sales for their first doesn’t see a larger share of the profits from the first album because their share is already determined).  This is not necessarily the case; icastico may have had something else in mind.

            icastico’s proposed solution is for the artist to say “Here’s a bulk package of X plays for Y dollars.  if you don’t use up all your plays that’s your problem.  If you want more plays we’ll negotiate a new contract.”  The latter provision lets the artist adjust the price of the product according to market rates, a freedom the artist would not have under current licensing schemes (as far as I understand them).

  2. Dessa also touches upon a secret here that many people do not know.  In order to get a sunflower to grow, drop a seed on the ground, spit on it, step down lightly on it, walk away.   Wait until Monsanto’s terminator gene crosses into everything and mutates.  They will have single-handedly destroyed the world’s agriculture.

    1. The terminator gene that has never been sold in a comercial product ever? You do know that natural mutations that prevent or greatly reduce a plant from producing viable seed do occur in the wild yeah? They don’t cross into everything and ruin agriculture because they are not selectively advantageous. But never mind. Big corporation doing evil things, who can be bothered about actual facts.

      1. While true, they are not likely to be disadvantageous enough to be rooted out over a few generations either.

        1. I’m actually having a hard time imagining a trait that is more strongly selected against than one that keeps you from producing viable offspring. That is about as disadvantagous as it gets. Natural or GM.

          1. ok, it seems i misunderstood the “terminator” label. I figured it as a conditional trigger that would basically kill a crop when sett off, not produce sterile seeds.

  3. The seeds of this new plant can then be harvested and planted to create an infinite, almost lossless supply of flowers and seeds.

    Hmm. Surely that old-school natural reproduction is closer to old-school degradable tape-copying than modern, lossless, digital reproduction? OK. I know they said almost, but the DNA-tape-mutation analogy is pretty much spot on.

    Lossless biological reproduction would be something else. Somebody should come up with it. It’s the only way to stop that awful evolution cytoblastemy.

    1. Yea, biological reproduction is more complex than a straight up digital cloning process.

      And that is one of the issues. Nothing in nature or past can be used as a straight up example to ease debate. Anything from the past either degraded, required some physical skill/effort, or both.

      1. Mmm. Dunno that I’d go as far as claiming that digital cloning was ‘straight up’ or as simple as all that. If you can guarantee error-free copying by a competent transcriber then it’s simple. But you can’t, so you need error-correcting copying and appropriate redundancy in the encoding. I don’t believe biological is as complicated as that – unless that’s yet another use for that there ‘junk’ DNA (but I don’t see how).

    2. One area where the analogy falls down a bit is due to the fact that growing seeds takes a lot of effort. It’s called farming.
      But otherwise the analogy is spot on. I might want to invest a fortune into developing a plant that provides some sort of benefit, but since I know it will just get stolen, I won’t bother. So that particular development route is closed off. Is that a good thing?

      1. One area where the analogy falls down a bit is due to the fact that growing seeds takes a lot of effort. It’s called farming. 

        Or the seeds could just drop and grow without a farmer. It’s called propagating.

        I might want to invest a fortune … but since I know it will just get stolen, I won’t bother.

        Your choice. Inventions seem to happen anyway.

        1. Inventions don’t just happen anyway. If they did, then you’d expect them to be distributed evenly throughout the globe, but they’re not. They’re directly or indirectly linked to money, and a disproportionate number happen in rich countries.
          Also, some inventions require a lot more investment than others. So if you choke off likely return on investment, you slow down (I doubt you stop) the rate at which innovation occurs in that area. 

          1. Inventions don’t just happen anyway. If they did,  …

            And yet they do.

            I believe you may be confusing me with somebody who said something you wanted to dispute. Which is OK – that TechDirt post was designed to be thought-provoking. 

            The statement from the original post provoked me into pointing out that biological reproduction actually had more in common with old-fashioned error prone analog tape copying than error-free digital.

            Biologicals have been reproducing themselves without farmers for rather longer than farmers have been around and – over a slightly shorter timescale – humans have been inventing things for rather longer than money farmers have been around.

            See – thought-provoking works!

          2. I agree it’s thought provoking. That’s why I was commenting ;-)
            Not sure where you’re going with your analog tape analogy though. For one thing, DNA is actually extremely accurate and performs very high quality digital copies, and for another, if it didn’t, then instead of becoming inventive we’d just die out.

  4. Grrr.  Arguments like this make me so mad.  
    Fine, the internet is a good marketing tool.  Fine a lot of musicians tour.  But they never seem to have any data to back any of this stuff, it’s always anecdotal, and always in an attempt to justify piracy.

    Corporations don’t make music.  Musicians do.  

    I’m not saying that DRM is a good thing, and I understand all of the arguments about convenience and promotion, and all of that.  But there’s no going around the fact that RECORDED music takes a lot of time and money to produce.  And it’s rare that a musician can make that back touring or selling t-shirts.  

    I know Lars Ulrich and Sony Media gave everyone a sour taste in their mouth, and with just cause.  But the sad part of our capitalist system is that those douchebags are the only people with the capital to actually attempt to fight piracy.  Independent, struggling (occasionally trust funded) artists rarely have the time or money to group together to try to save their own careers.  So instead you have websites like Boing Boing which USUALLY is on the right side of things (in my mind), arguing for a world where musicians have no financial interest to make great recordings.  

    Spotify and youtube are legal piracy, and no musician actually makes money off those things, so any argument about ‘convenience’ is moot.  

    P.S.  Data:

    1. But there’s no going around the fact that RECORDED music takes a lot of time and money to produce.

      For that to be a fact you’d have to be posting from the 1960s.

    2. ” arguing for a world where musicians have no financial interest to make great recordings.” 
      Yeah, because there was no reason to make music before Edison’s phonograph. /sarcasm
      Forget about any moral arguments for or against piracy and explain to us how a business model based on artificial scarcity is sustainable when there is no way to control the duplication process.
      No one is saying that artists should not get paid, only that one of the business models they have been using for the past 100 years is no longer feasible. Live performances, merchandising, licensing, etc. all all still available.
      The biggest hurdle for artists in the future is not piracy but obscurity. If you start to look at music distribution as a marketing strategy rather than lost sales, you are on the right track.

      1. Look, I agree.  It’s a losing battle that I am talking about.

        Just pay attention to the word “recording”. I’m not saying great music.

        Recording music still does take a lot of time to do correctly, and time is money.  Please don’t dismiss this and make a joke about Thomas Edison, because the musicians who’s music you enjoy, understand this very deeply.

        All I am saying is that a song recording is an art in and of itself.  It is not a live performance, and it is not a tool to sell ipods or something through licensing.  I am saddened that this very specific art is becoming diminished, and smart people are attempting to justify this.

        We will never be able to turn the clock backward.Musicians are struggling.  If more people were spending more money on live shows, then it wouldn’t be as much of an issue.  But they’re simply not.  They are spending the same amount of money on live shows, spending zero dollars on music, and buying the same amount of t-shirts.  

        I’ll say it one last time.  I do not see a simple answer for this dilemma, but I do not enjoy people minimizing the real impact that it has on an entire class of people that was already struggling to make ends meet.

        1. Something something, buggy whip makers. :)
          But seriously, yes there will be a lot of turmoil during a huge economic shift like this and many will be left behind. But look on the bright side, the loss of intellectual property as an economic engine will pale in comparison to the loss of manufacturing when 3D printing becomes mainstream.

        2. We will never be able to turn the clock backward.Musicians are struggling. 

          Yes, it’s very similar to how the invention of recorded music put thousands of live musicians making a living playing local venues out of work back in the 20th century.  Many more musicians were able to make a living that way than were able to make a living by recorded music.  Hmm, if only we could turn the clock backward…

          1. Lifeways change, especially in response to changes in technology. You can lament the decline of recorded music — a premise for which I actually see VERY little evidence, by the way — but it’s very obviously a moralistic plaint, not a rational argument. You want to help musicians? Don’t try to outlaw technology — that never works and has terrible effects. Find new ways for musicians to make money.
          2. Music recording isn’t going anywhere. As long as there are big-budget Hollywood movies there will be big-budget Hollywood film scores recorded in gigantic, state-of-the-art recording studios. As long as such places exist, vocational programs will exist to train people to run them. Also, there is a pretty good DIY music scene in my locale where ordinary people working day jobs record and put out their own records. There’s a few people with sound engineering experience who do this without getting paid, or without getting paid much. Sometimes art is even more meaningful when it’s done for love rather than money (I know, I know, not even remotely plausible, right?).
          3. Recorded music was not very good at getting money to musicians in the first place. Recorded music put thousands of musicians out of work with the effect of making a tiny cadre of top sellers fairly rich (or at least seem that way while their contracts were in effect).

  5. ALL the music I’ve purchased for myself in the last few years (not including gifts for friends & relatives) has either been from local bands I personally know and follow, artists’ own websites or Kickstarter projects.  I don’t know if those are included in the data Carlos pointed to.

    I’ve backed many Kickstarter projects, and some of them are raising serious money for projects (multiple millions of dollars).  I think this is going to be a big part of the new economy.  Imagine a well known movie director or band saying “we want to make the movie or album WE want to, with no interference from the studios or labels, and ALL the profit goes to cast, crew, et cetera.  Are you in?”

    1. That’s great! You should support those bands who you enjoy and you seem to understand how much of a difference giving a little money makes.

      But my problem is unfortunate reality that music is an act of charity, rather than a legitimate product in our capitalist system.

      Because I think people like you are the minority, and most people will never think about who makes the stuff they like. Or worse, (as in the case of this article), try to rationalize not paying those people.

  6. Ok, I’ll try to rationalize.

    Just as Jimkirk, for the past (lots of) years I’ve been only buying CDs of local bands.
    Quite a few of which actually invite me on stage, but beside the point.

    Being old, I already legally own more music than I really have time to listen to (boy, just half the stuff I inherited, would take… decades :), but that is also probably beside the point.

    The point I’m trying to “rationalize” is, there is so much good music already recorded and being recorded (yes, it takes time and money, but nowadays much less money and time is proportional) that no one can reasonably listen to just a little portion of it.

    Good musicians will make music regardless of money. And record it regardless.
    Bad musicians will drown them out because of the record industry and the money involved.
    Good musicians can make reasonable money with live gigs. And they can still sell a _reasonable_, mark the word, amount of recordings.

    Maybe the fallacy of the argument in our day and age is that you can, or should, really, make ridiculous amounts of money by selling recorded music.

    And, I really believe, that theory is _not_ good for music, in any way.

    1. Hey Don, this sounds nice.  And I’m glad you really believe this, because it describes a much nicer world than the one I, and all of my musician friends, are living in.

      No-one is asking for ridiculous amounts of money.  Most of us are just trying to pay for the normal bills that come your way.  I am lucky that I don’t have children, because one of my friends (who’s music is quite popular and tours quite a bit), just had his house foreclosed on, and is about to move his wife and 4 kids back to his mom’s house.  

      1. Hey Carlos, I’m obviously sorry to hear about your friend, but it doesn’t really describe the world as any different, really.

        No one is “asking” for the ridiculous amounts, but the fact is, quite a few people are making them. Don’t get me wrong, I love Taylor Swift, cute as it gets and all.. you foreclosed friend is probably a better musician, and all…

        My point is, the music industry is bad for music _and_ for (most) musicians –  of which, luckily for music but not so much for musicians, there is no shortage of, even good ones.

        Now, I’m not advocating a ban on the music industry, but giving them what amounts to unfair legislative advantages for something that is bad for music, musicians, _and_ the general public does not strike me as a good thing, no.

      2. I don’t see how your friend’s situation is really relevant. Realistically, your friend is not being foreclosed on because pirates prevented him from selling that crucial few records that would have saved his house. 

        1. I’m going to stop arguing with you guys, but you should actually go out and talk to some independent musicians.

          Preferably ones who have been around for 10 years or more.
          Just ask them about their finances.  

          I’m not arguing for SOPA or anything like that.  I am just asking intelligent people to understand that there are very real consequences to free music.  

          If you really believe that music is better if musicians can’t spend as much time working on it, then that’s weird, but fine. 

          If you think that Hollywood and large corporations should be paying musicians, rather than consumers, also weird, but you’re right that’s where it is heading.   

          Of course there’s always going to be music, of course people will survive.  Just acknowledge that it’s not all gravy for us out here, practicing our scales and saving up for new audio interfaces.  

          1. If you really believe that music is better if musicians can’t spend as much time working on it, then that’s weird, but fine.

            How do we decide which musicians get to spend more time working on music? I’d like to spend all my time working on music…but I’m not a very good musician. I’m not sure my output would justify someone paying for my rent and food that whole time. This attitude, as far as I can tell, is a completely arbitrary moral value that says “artists have a right to make art instead of doing regular work.” I don’t agree. You make the art first and if it’s successful you get the financial freedom to focus more on your artistic work. This is how it has always worked throughout history.

            If you think that Hollywood and large corporations should be paying musicians, rather than consumers, also weird, but you’re right that’s where it is heading.

            This makes no sense. That is the way things are now. Customers pay corporations, corporations pay artists. We’re talking about filesharing as a way to stop this very thing that is going on right now that you seem to think is a bad thing!

            I am just asking intelligent people to understand that there are very real consequences to free music.

            Yes, we already know. We are discussing those consequences. You do not seem to really be listening to us, it seems as though your mind is already made up.

            You don’t seem to be engaging with anyone’s arguments anyway. It seems like you’ve already decided anyone who disagrees with you is wrong and that you have nothing left to learn about this issue. I’m sorry that’s so, but if that’s the case please stop whining about how no one is paying attention to your opinion. You don’t seem to be willing to listen to anyone else’s.

  7. One needs to look no further than the fashion ‘industry’ to see an example of the value of not having patents and copyright.  Fashion has none.  All you can do is copyright logos in that field.  All the rest is fair game and we are all, the industry, and consumers the richer for it.

  8. Actually musicians tend to produce ridiculous amounts of offspring – second perhaps only to Arab princes and sperm bank owners – some of which they’re never aware of. Which could explain the number of bankrupt musicians that keep at it…

    As to the viable, Dweezil Z. could be a good example.

  9. So you object to having to pay for the modified genetics of the Monsanto-licensed corn species, which you hate because it’s genetics were modified.

    Simple answer: don’t buy it.

    Hint: ALL corn is genetically modified, otherwise it would still be maize and you couldn’t get a decent mouth-full off a cob.

    1. Maize became corn through hundreds of years of artificial selection.  Monsanto alters the genetics of corn in a few seconds by inserting viral DNA into germ cells.  If you can’t acknowledge the difference between these two processes then your opinion probably isn’t worth very much.

      (Also, this thread is on file sharing and the record industry, Monsanto is just a point of comparison.)

        1. Speed of the change is actually really important when we’re talking about evolution.  Slow change can be accommodated by evolution, fast change often cannot.  But speed wasn’t the only factor I mentioned.  You can’t breed corn with human beings to produce hardier human beings with larger fruiting bodies, but you can insert all kind of genes into humans using viral DNA.

        1. I didn’t cavalierly dismiss you as a loon.  I dismissed you as a partisan — someone who doesn’t listen to the arguments of the other side.  The fact that you would cavalierly equate gene recombination techniques with traditional agriculture made that a pretty likely assumption.

          1. Modification is modification, I’d say. So is it the speed or the precision you object to? You’re happier with the inevitably random nature of the outcome during sexual reproduction?
            I’m perfectly willing to listen to objections that do not reduce to “Ugh! GM BAD!”

          2. Modification is modification, I’d say.

            “I’d say”? “Seems”? Do you have an actual argument to make, or are you just going to keep dropping weasel words into the discussion?

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