You've got a couple of misconceptions, Mitch -
1. The first is that nothing, or very little, goes to the artist. That's not true. In a typical publishing deal, the artist gets 50% of ALL royalties from publishing.
Two things affect this in practice, though. The first is how much is 'royalty'. If EMI owns publishing to a song, they may charge magazine x a royalty based on circulation to publish a transcription, and that royalty negotiation is based on the circulation, cover price, and the amount of space it takes up. If the transcription runs 5 pages, the magazine is 100 pages long, and the cover price is $5, they may decide that 5% of the cover price is fair, or 25 cents per copy sold at full price.
But subscribers don't pay full price - they pay less. So they negotiate more, and settle on a figure, maybe 10 cents per copy. Circulation is 100,000, the magazine writes a check for 10 grand, and the artist gets $5K.
But now that publisher has established a 'market price' for the royalty: 10 cents a copy. So when EMI prints up their own songbook with 20 of that artist's songs, and sells it for $20, the artist gets half of the 10 cents per song in royalty - a buck a book, or only 5% of the cover price.
The second thing that screws up royalties is radio airplay. Stations pay a license fee to play a management company's entire catalog. Let's say that works out to 8 cents per tune, per play, over the course of the year. The performing rights organization forwards 4 cents per play to the artist.
But they don't monitor every station 24/7. Instead, they rely on sampling random stations at random times (I actually know a guy who does this for a living!), and they pay out based on the percentage of times your song was heard in the selective sample - if you represented 1% of all airplay sampled, you get 1% of all royalties collected from stations.
That rewards the big artists, and penalizes the small ones. If you took a million played songs, the Rolling Stones may be played 10,000 times. If you took a billion played songs, they'd probably have something less than 10 million; they get overpaid, because they're popular, and therefore likely to be heard in the sample.
A niche artist like Michelle Shocked (or anybody else on the 'C' playlist) might get 100 plays out of a billion. Take a sample that's 1/10th of 1% of that size, and odds are 9 to 1 she won't even show up - so she doesn't get paid for the plays she actually got.
But in real dollar terms, about half of all royalty money collected DOES go to an artist - even if it's not the right artist.
2. The services provided by the music industry still have value - and a lot of it. It's true that artists are now able to distribute directly, and some do quite well at it, like Ani DeFranco. But it's also true that big music is a distribution machine - an indie will not get distribution to every radio station and CD shop in the country; EMI certainly will. From an artist standpoint, are you better getting 100% of 5,000 copies sold, or 2% of 5 million? Your personal income is 20 times higher with a smaller slice of the bigger pie!
I'm not defending the length of copyright; I think that's outrageous. I don't see much difference between a copyright or a drug patent... each represents intellectual effort. Drugs represent considerably more R&D investment than CD production, too. In the case of drugs, the prices caused by monopoly power allow the company to reap large profits, justified by the development cost; eventually it passes into public domain and we get cheap generics. I really don't understand the logic of why a 'need' (like a drug) passes into public domain about five times faster than a 'want' (like music) - if anything, monopoly pricing should be longer for needs, because filling those needs benefits society, and encouraging R&D investment through pricing makes more sense than filling wants.
By the way, a lot of the structure of 'industry' royalties didn't come about because the cost of production was so high - it was because musicians fought for them. In the early days of radio broadcasting and sound recording, a lot of musicians were put out of work.... and the union fought hard to get the musicians a slice of the new pie. The economic model that had worked well before the new technology (musicians played live, and got paid for it) changed drastically when a single performance could be reproduced in another time and place. That's why royalties exist today.
At any rate, no matter which way things shake out, statements like "Music transcends ownership" would place music outside of ownership, and deny artists anything at all for their work. I doubt that's the world you'd want for your own compositions.
Today's technology is changing, and the economic framework is tilting because of it. But arguments for a new direction have to be based on facts and logic, rather than just hope.
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