The Return of Patronage?

by on February 6, 2011

Over at Louder Than War, there’s a good old argument going on. It’s mainly between Alec Empire (who opposes the Pirate Party and free culture by the sounds of it) and some others who are representing the “progressive” view.

As I read Alec’s views, I can’t help thinking that while Atari Teenage Riot is a great name for a band, if most people heard them they’d find it quite hard work being entertained. Personally, I’ve always liked Alec and his work (and even met him briefly), but I say this as somebody who happily chooses to listen to Consolidated and various other industrial stuff.

But why is that observation relevant to a debate about the free exchange of music made for commercial gain? What follows makes me look dangerously like some objectivist lunatic, but I’ll give it a go.

Many musicians like Alec Empire, Metallica and Feargal Sharkey argue for the regulation of the Internet, the arrest of music “pirates” and the destruction of methods of free information sharing on digital networks. They do this in the name of putting money back into the pockets of musicians. That money, they say, is being stolen by file sharing. They do not, however, consider the historical context in which they are saying these things. I think that in fact that historical context may be telling them that the party is over. From now on, it’s back to 1850.

Before about 1850, if you wanted to make a living from writing or performing music, you had to rely on patronage. This was from the Church, philanthropists, the occasional millionaire, or civic institutions. The music industry then began to grow up around the industrial regulation of copyright. Because distribution was a difficult and expensive business, the owners of printing presses needed protection from one another, and this became the model for the music industry too.

Through the auspices of music copyright, contract law and technology, we now have more music, and more people making music, than at any time in human history. That isn’t surprising when you consider that one of the main effects of the industrialisation of music has been to create a powerful link between the writing of a good song and the making of a shedload of cash. But that association simply didn’t exist before about 1850. This is because – put simply – music just wasn’t seen as important enough. And even today it’s actually only a shedload of cash for a very, very few artists. Most of the money paid by listeners goes to people who have no direct role in the making of the music at all. That’s because the music industry is like any other commercial institution: it exists to maximise profits. Musicians are factors of production, just as rig crews and factory workers are factors of the oil and auto industries.

What I think is now happening with the breaking of copyright’s spell, is that we are returning to the pre-1850 era of musical patronage. This time, however, the bulk of the patronage can come from the listeners themselves – if they wish to provide that.

But, say the likes of Alec Empire, how will musicians make a good enough living to carry on making music? Many young musicians are having to give up on stardom to become plumbers and shopkeepers instead! The answer is to let them turn away from making music for profit. People are no longer thatchers or farriers or tea traders either.

Of course, this will mean a great deal less music being produced. But in our heart of hearts I think we all know the truth about that. If half – or even most – of the musicians that exist today stopped making music, would anyone really care? If nothing else, the music that survives would have to be popular. Or at least it would be supported by fans in the tradition of patronage. And the mechanism for such patronage exists easily today with the Internet.

So if that means it’s good music to enough people, that is what matters. Just like it did before 1850.

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