Billy Bragg: when songwriters develop a sense of entitlement

In a Saturday op-ed in the NY Times (via Techdirt), Billy Bragg argues that musicians deserve royalties for the use of their music on the web. Bebo, a social networking site which rivals Facebook and MySpace in popularity in the UK, was recently sold to AOL for $850 million. Bragg thinks musicians deserve a cut.

Problem is, that doesn’t make any sense. At all.

The main and obvious problem is that, with websites like Bebo and MySpace and Facebook, artists upload their own music to the website. If they don’t like the terms, they don’t need to participate.

These websites don’t pay musicians, but they offer them a platform. Bebo offers its services at no cost and, in exchange, musicians allow their music to be used at no cost. Obviously, many musicians are grateful for the free promotion these websites offer (e.g. no hosting or bandwidth costs). But, there are alternatives. Last.fm, for example, is now paying royalties to artists, though they function more like a radio station than a MySpace.

What bugs me about Bragg’s comments though is his sense of entitlement. It comes through in the article, and it comes through in the discussion about it.

The claim that sites such as MySpace and Bebo are doing us a favor by promoting our work is disingenuous. Radio stations also promote our work, but they pay us a royalty that recognizes our contribution to their business. Why should that not apply to the Internet, too?

For one, no artist needs to upload their songs to such a website if they don’t like the terms and conditions. Second, while I don’t have a problem with a website paying royalties to artists (e.g. Last.fm), why is it necessary? Artists have a choice to use these sites or not. MySpace would not exist if it had to pay royalties to anyone who uploaded their music; it would be a fundamentally different thing, more like a radio station than a platform for artists. Bebo and MySpace provide a different service that radio stations do because you don’t need to be selected to be heard. I mean, they’re functioning more like a web hosting service than a radio station. But the point is, artists have the option of seeking royalties through services like Last.fm or seeking exposure through Bebo (or both), why force one of these options out of existence? Clearly, artists and fans alike have found such services to be useful.

More importantly, I think it would be entirely impractical to try and apply the royalty systems that worked for radio to the Internet. The fundamental difference is that it’s pretty easy to identify radio broadcasters, but the distributed nature of the Internet would make it impossible to police such a thing. Plus, there are so many different ways in which content could be distributed. If every webcast were subject to the same type of terms and conditions that large commercial radio stations are, Internet radio would be stiffled. What about blogs? What about derivative uses of a song? Even if there were technical measures to attempt to police the Internet, I would argue that enforcing that sort of thing would do more harm than good. The Internet is fundamentally different because anyone can be a broadcaster, whereas broadcasting terrestrial radio is more analogous to owning a printing press.

Billy Bragg seems to embody a sense of entitlement in the music business that just gets on my nerves. We would never apply his thinking to other businesses.

If I am guilty of thinking in an old way, then its because I believe that businesses which use my music to generate revenue for themselves should pay me a royalty for doing so. [from a comment on Joseph Weisenthal's blog post]

This sounds like my discussion with John about whether or not artists deserve money from the sale of digital audio players. It’s really easy to come up with examples why this idea is wrong.

Does Rogers’ owe Google money because Google’s services make Rogers’ ISP offering more valuable? Does Google owe Rogers money because it generates ad revenue from users that connect through Rogers? Do home decor businesses owe construction companies for building the houses they decorate? Does Slash owe Gibson for making money by playing a Les Paul guitar? Do I owe Lenovo when I make money developing websites using my Thinkpad? Do students owe their teachers when they put into practice ideas they learned in school to make a living?

It’s easy to see how this gets ridiculous very quickly. Why do we tolerate such thinking for music?

Furthermore, Billy Bragg himself admits in the comments what the real value of radio airplay was for him, even though he doesn’t seem to realize it.

Sure I started out doing shows and then made a record. But until that record was on the radio, I couldn’t get gigs outside of my area. The record legitimised me in a way that passing out cassette tapes never did. Promoters and media around the UK started taking me seriously and, more importantly, people in the US heard me and invited me over to tour.

The promotional value is the real value in such broadcasting. That’s what Bebo is offering artists in exchange for uploading their music.

Is the contradiction glaringly obvious enough yet? Businesses that make money from Billy’s music owe him money, yet when Billy makes money from other people’s businesses (such as the radio stations that promote him), they… also owe him money. When asked this question directly, he confirms his contradictory thinking.

Should I pay Bebo for the privilege of being on their site? I don’t think so. I never had to pay record shops – remember them? – for the privilege of being in their racks. They stocked my record so people would come into their shop. Same reason why Bebo hosts music.

One second Bebo is like a radio station, now they’re like a record shop? Do record shops pay royalties to artists? Why is it that Bebo apparently owes musicians when it profits from their music, but musicians apparently don’t owe Bebo when they profit from the site?

It’s child’s play to point out the holes in his article and his comments. I commend him for starting the debate and discussion, and for participating in it, but his ideas seem to me representative the industry’s denial over the death of their traditional business models.

Personally, I’ve decided to forgo the royalty thing entirely for my music. The sooner this sense of entitlement dies out, the better…

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4 Responses to “Billy Bragg: when songwriters develop a sense of entitlement”

  1. [...] Bragg himself was participating in. Well, it was great in that Joe, Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, Blaise Alleyne, Thomas Hawk, and some others had the opportunity to debate the issue of the moral obligation Bebo [...]

  2. [...] your opinion and would be interested in proving you wrong. Either way, you may want to read the first post to get up to speed, if the topic interests [...]

  3. [...] that started off great, but the ending sounds like Billy Bragg’s whining in the New York Times. The phrase “all associated profits” seems quite overarching. [...]

  4. [...] that started off great, but the ending sounds like Billy Bragg’s whining in the New York Times. The phrase “all associated profits” seems quite overarching. This sounds [...]

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