The True Value of Music

The blogosphere has been buzzing ever since U2 manager Paul McGuinness gave his talk at MIDEM in which he explained that:

he believed the Silicon Valley culture and its ecosystem had to undergo a cultural shift, noting the original “hippy values” of the west coast technology pioneers in the late 1970s and their internet equivalents in the late 1990s.

“Embedded deep down in the brilliance of those entrepreneurial, hippy values seems to be a disregard for the true value of music,” he said.

Evidently he believes ISPs have a responsibility to stop P2P music exchange, although:

He said his plea was not made from a position of self interest, pointing out that U2 had sold more than 150m records and grossed $355m on their Vertigo tour.

Where to begin? Well, others have been tearing this apart on many grounds, but I want to take a stab at “the true value of music.”

I used to work in a record store. When they switched from vinyl to CDs, the labels raised the prices dramatically although we all knew the actual production costs went down. The music business has never had any moral claim to recognizing, honoring, or promoting “the true value of music.”

When I read McGuinness’s comments, I wondered, as I often do these days, when it happened that the industry came to believe it has an inherent right to speak for Music. Or, perhaps more honestly, how it came to believe that, in its current incarnation, it has an inherent right to exist at all.

People have been around for a very long time. Tens of thousands of years. Music has been around for most of that time. Every culture managed to invent it, even without professionals to help them manage it. Miraculously, despite the absence of music industry professionals, for all those years music created connections within communities, music enhanced spirituality, music provided entertainment, music moved, music taught.

And then, not that long ago historically speaking, recording technology came along and businessmen got involved. And now they seem to think they own the stuff. And I’m sorry, they may own some copyrights and they may have fronted some of the costs of making physical objects and moving people around on tour. But they don’t own music. And they don’t have a right to own the business of music. If their model is failing it’s in part because they have put the true value of music below the true value of money.

Yes, it’s good if musicians can make enough money on their music to do what they do for a living. But the true value of music is priceless. The challenge is how to reinvent the business of music given a technological ecosystem that includes the internet in a way that allows musicians to receive appropriate financial reward for their efforts (something the industry has often prevented, just look at all those poor people who wrote hit songs of early rock ‘n’ roll). The challenge is not to save the music industry as it currently exists.

On another note, I recommend that in the future before lambasting those hippy valley 1970s tech pioneers, Mr. McGuinness read up a bit on internet history, like how it started well before the late 1970s, and how those “hippies” were motivated by military security concerns. And seem now to be motivated primarily by capitalistic wealth-accumulation concerns. Now there’s a pair of hippie causes! Janet Abbate’s book Inventing the Internet is a good starting point on internet history.

But why learn when you can blame? Blame is so much easier!

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Comments (5) to “The True Value of Music”

  1. Hi
    i like the way you are writing ! This is something really awesome … its really cool to see this kinds of posts … Fantastic .

  2. “If their model is failing it’s in part because they have put the true value of music below the true value of money.”

    I have never heard that expressed so well before. This post was very moving – thank you.

  3. This has to be one of my favorite posts of yours. Very well said. I’ll probably be linking to it!

  4. Gosh, thanks.

  5. Really, was a grand post. But then, aren’t they all?