Opinion: The Humble Minstrel

We’ve had some feedback on our review of the Witness Podcast about Napster, mostly concerning the old business model of the music industry and it’s relentless pursuit of ‘pirates’ in defence of the old revenue model. Some established musicians such as the band Metallica aren’t gaining any friends by siding with the major record labels

The argument does illustrate what many people have been saying for years: the music industry needs to return to its’ traditional business model. I find all the metaphors about plumbers and wrench-monkeys used as justification to be utterly specious.

Metallica’s Mr Ulrich is in that generation of musicians which got huge royalties from record sales based on physical media; an artificial market of ephemeral products that has had it’s time and is dying. In former times, from the medieval minstrel to the music hall variety star, the money came from performing, where fortunes could be made by virtue of talent, the live stage experience being the only medium.

Certainly vinyl and CD’s brought music to the masses wanting music on-demand, but these are artificial media, largely incidental to the creative act (that’s not to denegrate the contribution of George Martin and the like in recorded art). It is not how a musician’s ‘living’ was ever derived in the previous 40,000 years of musical performance.

Metallica is among the big league bands that can make fortunes from touring and so should count themselves lucky. Most recording artists shifted small numbers of expensive vinyl and CD’s; most consider them as promotional items that just might become a revenue stream in the event of that lucky break of chart success.

Professional musicians go out and play to audiences. Recordings are only worth what you can get for the TV and radio royalties, for as long as those licensing agreements exist. What that does for studio-based artists such as Kate Bush, I don’t know; previous generations didn’t have that luxury of choice, either. But the accounts are in for artists such as GaGa and Madonna and show they make little on recordings and a lot on show tickets and merchandise.

Downloads and file sharing won’t go away. There is no scarcity of computer data bits. I don’t blame artists and record companies for trying to hang on to this outdated revenue model, it’s ‘a nice little earner,’ thank you very much. However, there is no automatic entitlement, just as there’s no ‘job for life’ for the rest of us. The market that artificially inflated their incomes is going the way of the buggy-whip. Time for the super-groups to come back to the real world where the bar-room bands and buskers make their living. AJS

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