Should Music Be Free? Fred von Lohmann Offers a Counterpoint

Fred von Lohmann Offers a Counterpoint

Steve Guttenberg's "As We See It" in the September 2013 issue brings to mind John Philip Sousa's famous 1906 polemic, "The Menace of Mechanical Music," where the famed composer championed copyright reforms to shut down then-new recorded music industry. (Now in the public domain, and thus freely available through Google Books.) One of Sousa's main concerns was that the player piano (and recording technology in general) would destroy the culture of amateur musicianship that thrived in America in the 19th century. So it is particularly ironic to hear Steve complain that new Internet technologies threatens the major label system and the "professional executants" (to use Sousa's term) who were lucky enough to get major label deals at the end of the 20th century.

History is a powerful teacher here. New technologies for the creation and distribution of creative works have frequently been greeted with horror by those whose established business models are threatened by those technologies. (See arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2009/10/100-years-of-big-content-fearing-technologyin-its-own-words.) Yet those very technologies have invariably enriched and expanded the ranks of professional creators, while at the same time expanding access for the fans. Just consider the player piano, broadcast radio, and the audio cassette recorder ("home taping" didn't destroy the music business, after all). There is no reason to think that the Internet will be the first technology in a century to deviate from that historical trend.

In fact, the Internet is already creating lots of great professional (and amateur) opportunities for musicians—and not just t-shirts and live touring. In addition to Kickstarter, mentioned by Steve in his column, YouTube has been creating new opportunities for bands that would never have gotten a major label deal. Streaming music services like Pandora are introducing audiences to a far more diverse mix of music than is available on FM radio. And the Internet has been crucial to thriving genres of music that never had the support of the major label system (consider the house concert circuit that has been pivotal to folk music, made possible by email and social networks).

So while Steve may personally know a disproportionate number of music industry insiders who are facing diminished opportunities, the reality is that there is more music being composed, recorded, and distributed today, by more musicians, than ever before. That's because, not despite, of the fact that "for a pittance, you can listen to the entire worldwide collection of music." That's not "insanity," Steve, that's a blessing for musicians and fans alike.—Fred von Lohmann

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