Archive by Author | Andreas Duus Pape

Music is not Bread

Wilco’s most critically acclaimed album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was released only after they were famously cut free from their original label (Reprise Records, now owned by Warner Brothers). Foxtrot found its new home (on Nonesuch Records), says lead singer Jeff Tweedy, because of leaked tracks on the internet. “Music is not a loaf of bread,” he says. “When someone steals a loaf of bread from the store, that’s it. The loaf of bread is gone.”  But that’s not the case with an mp3. “People who look at music as commerce,” he continues, “don’t understand that. They are talking about pieces of plastic they want to sell, packages of intellectual property.”
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The Marina City Building in Chicago, photo by the author

The Marina City Building in Chicago was put on the cover of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Picture by the author.

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I am an economist and a musician.  Does Tweedy’s claim mean that that an economic view and the musician’s view of music are in conflict?  I don’t think so.  I think Tweedy’s claim is exactly right on the economics, that music is not a loaf of bread.  I also think that an understanding of the economic properties of music, to which Tweedy hints, can illuminate as set of strategies for musicians today.  I describe the economics of “music is not bread,” below, and then discuss the strategy that I am pursuing (in my podcast, The Lion in Tweed), which is informed by this perspective.
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THE ECONOMICS OF “MUSIC IS NOT BREAD”
Economists study how goods are produced (among other things), and loaves of bread and mp3s are produced in a very different ways. To explain this difference, economists make a distinction between private goods and public goods.  Private goods are rivalrous: as others consume the good, there is less is left for you.  Public goods are nonrivalrous: as others consume the good, the amount of good left for you is unchanged.  Bread is a private good. If I eat the bread, there is no bread for you.  Music is a public good. If I listen to the song, there is still a complete song left for you.  If bread were a public good like music – no matter how many times you took a loaf of bread from the counter, there would still be a loaf of bread on the counter. You could feed the world with that loaf of bread.
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The idea that music is a public good underlies the fundamentally economic claim that copying is not theft. An economist would say that theft is a thing that applies to private goods, to things that one is deprived of, when another takes them. Public goods cannot be stolen: they can only be shared.


Video: “Copying is not Theft” by Nina Paley.

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Economists will also say that the reproduction cost of a public good is essentially zero. An idea is a public good: consider the cost of telling someone an idea versus the cost of inventing the idea initially.

“If we are having a conversation about music, we are having a conversation about ideas.”
–Devon Powers, At “Sex, Hope, and Rock n’ Roll: The Writings of Ellen Willis” Conference,
April 2011

It is important to note here that when I use terms like “public good,” and “private good,” I am only describing the economics of that good’s production. I am not making a legal or political claim. So, what is the point?  What is the value of looking at music as a public good?
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Economics can tell us a lot about the supply of public goods; public goods are undersupplied, according to economists.  This is a problem. The natural price of a good it its reproduction cost (also called `marginal cost of production’).  Consider a private good, like a loaf of bread: the cost of `reproducing’ a loaf of bread is that of making a new loaf of bread, so the natural price of bread is the cost of the ingredients and baker’s time.  The reproduction cost of music is zero: so we would expect the price to go to zero.  As the price of music approaches zero, however; there is no money left to cover the costs of recording and songwriting.  For this reason, making music becomes a labor of love alone; very few people can afford to be musicians. Hence the conclusion: public goods are undersupplied.
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So how can we solve this problem?  The traditional corporate response is to transform the public good into a private good by controlling and charging for access.  Some examples include: hard to copy CDs, control of who is allowed to sell CDs, digital rights management in music files, and gaming the legal system to punish those who copy music.  The CD era was the heyday of the music labels. CDs were sixteen dollar objects that provided access to what is essentially a public good. Today, record labels attempt to reproduce this structure with digital rights management.
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To control public goods in this way is an economic tragedy. Once again, imagine the loaf of bread as a public good – it is a single loaf of bread that can be copied costlessly, bringing bread to the multitudes.  Such a loaf of bread is considered miraculous.  That is exactly how MP3s work.  The corporate approach is not to celebrate the miraculous nature of this good, but instead to curb it: to make it costly to reproduce.  Therein lies the tragedy.
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WHAT STRATEGY AM I PURSUING?
The business model of my podcast, The Lion in Tweed, is to give my music away and ask for memberships – like a public radio station.  And, like a public radio station, I will never charge for content or try to restrict access to my product. This ethos acknowledges the nature of music as a public good.  I try to appeal to the listener’s sense of community, of being part of something.  I believe that the public goods problem can be overcome if the podcast is intimate, if the listener feels a kinship with the producer, if the listener has the opportunity to support the producer. Donations are both a way to support producers and a way for listeners to feel more involved, and included.
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This is my strategy.  I intend to document my downloads and membership carefully. I am hoping to learn more general principles about how these public goods can be produced.
The Lion in Tweed and Peter C. DiCola

The Lion in Tweed and Peter C. DiCola, a lawyer and economist who works with the Future of Music Coalition


Andreas Duus Pape: is an economist at Binghamton University, a musician, and a regular contributor for Sounding Out!
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Post script: Are you a musician?  These issues of compensation are very real and very important.  You can help scientific and policy research about making music by taking the Future of Music Coalition‘s “Money for Music” survey.  The survey is designed to accommodate the diverse careers of musicians in any genre, full-time or part-time, young or old.  The team has worked for the better part of two years refining this set of questions. They have interviewed musicians, talked to groups of musicians, and tested several versions of the survey.  Your participation in the survey will help the Future of Music Coalition be able to talk sensibly about how musicians in different genres are faring economically.  Here is a short video:
Here is a link to the survey itself: https://www.research.net/s/moneyfrommusic

Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #2: Building Intimate Performance Venues on the Internet

Sounding Out! microphoneThe podcast is (or, can be) an intimate performance venue on the internet because it allows you to whisper into the ears of your fans. It allows you to grow close to communities of listeners. And podcasts also do one last thing, to be revealed at the end of this piece, after we’ve seen how far I can take you. For now, I will quote podcasters I admire to help explain these ideas in their own words. I also quote these podcasters in an audio format. I have recorded this essay as an episode of the Sounding Out! podcast. You can listen right here, and I suggest you do. Go ahead, press play:

The podcast is what’s happening if you’re listening to these words. Are you? Because remember: my central claim is that a podcast is an intimate performance venue on the internet. Keep that in mind.

I am a podcaster, musician, and assistant professor of Economics. I have released six episodes of my own podcast, The Lion in Tweed.

This is what I look like.

Me. (Photo by Hadassah Head)

This is the Lion in Tweed.  He's a lion who teaches economics.

The Lion in Tweed. (Drawing by Winston Rowntree)

My podcast is primarily a narrative, with music and sound effects interwoven. It is about a character, The Lion in Tweed, and his experiences as a musician and professor of economics. He is also a lion. The second half of each podcast episode is a references section where I cite my sources and leave the fictional Tweedoverse canon to discuss real things.

I am not the first podcaster to remark on the ability of podcasts to traffic in intimacy. Chris Hardwick, of the Nerdist podcast, has claimed that, due to their intimacy, podcasts are the best medium going. He stressed: “you’re talking directly into the ears of your listeners.” There is no doubt that Hardwick was referring to those white iPod earbuds, which are a primary method of listening to podcasts. Part of a podcast’s intimacy comes from the closeness of the earbud to the membrane in the ear. Listening to earbuds evokes the intimate, and physical, closeness of someone whispering in your ear. Hardwick’s style of podcast is also intimate: vocal storytelling, mostly three comedians talking about the funniest things that have happened recently. The fact that it is not visual accentuates the intimacy of “whispering in your ears.” Although I would like to argue that the visual always reduces a sense of intimacy, I may simply prefer the sonic over the visual. Nevertheless, I believe that, the intimacy to which Hardwick is refers, is tied to the fact it is only sonic.

Chris Hardwick

Chris Hardwick.

The Nerdist Podcast

The Nerdist Podcast.

COMMUNITY

Podcasts as performance have a strange kind of liveness, episode-to-episode interactivity. By this I mean that they are not immediate; they lack the urgency of a theater-goer’s applause, or a heckler’s retort. Though not immediate, they are still dynamic, with their episodic pacing. And, unlike heckling, almost completely positive. This sense of long-term interactivity provides a foundation for understanding a second way that podcasts are intimate: they can cultivate intimate and interconnected communities of listeners.

They [Stop Podcasting Yourself, hosted by Graham Clark and Dave Shumka] have a really good community of people, community interaction: people send them stuff, sometimes people send them stuff unprompted. And they have a phone number [for people to call in messages that they play].

To illustrate how interconnected this community is, let me describe to you where this quote came from. It is a clip of Dan Sai, recorded by Davin Pavlas at MaxFunCon (the annual convention of the MaximumFun.org podcast label). I know Davin because of our mutual love of MaxFun podcasts. When I brought The Lion in Tweed into the world, I advertised it on podcasts in the MaxFun network. When Davin heard the description, he began to listen to my podcast. Now we are collaborating on an episode of The Lion in Tweed, which will quote these very words when it comes out two weeks from now. Similarly, UK resident Will Owens and I exchanged tweets after he started listening to my podcast and I found out he reviewed various narrative media on his website, and now he has written a review of my podcast, which we both promote. Ours is a community in which a feeling of value comes with a sense of connectedness. The podcasts give a shared culture.

SO IN PODCASTS, WE FIND A MEDIUM that is both sonic and vocal. They provide a platform for intimate and interconnected communities, which are rooted in an alternative kind of interactivity (long-term liveness), to grow. The whisper-in-the-ear quality of podcasts, as well as the feeling of community, all but completely explain why podcasts are so intimate.

AUTHENTICITY

Podcasts may be hip and modern, but they are not ironic. Podcasts represent a distillation of what the podcasters genuinely love, and in that they find their authenticity. According to Paul F. Tompkins, a comedian and podcaster:

It’s very freeing to be able to say: “Here are all the things that I like; I’m going to put them all into this [podcast].”

That was at minute 50:32 of Nerdist podcast ep 33 hosted by Chris Hardwick, with Paul F. Tompkins as a guest.

Paul F. Tompkins

Paul F. Tompkins

The Pod F. Tompkast

The Pod F. Tompkast

Here is Jesse Thorn, mastermind behind the aforementioned MaximumFun.org, in an interview by Neiman Labs:

I can mostly just do things that I am interested in, and so I don’t have to do something that is false to me, and I can let my guiding light be, “Do I like this and think it’s worth doing?”

Jesse Thorn

Jesse Thorn.

The Sound of Young America

The Sound of Young America.

And we see that authenticity completes the puzzle: podcasts are intimate because they feel so real. In podcasts it feels like you are listening to a real person because you are listening to the things that a real person loves…and interacting with real people is much more intimate than feeling like you are interacting with a marketing department (as you may when listening to a CD, or radio-show).

This is how I construct intimate performance venues: Audio-only, voice/storytelling focused, in which I try to build and exploit supportive, interconnected communities of fans with a shared culture (the podcasts). And, in doing so, I try to remain true to what I truly love. This authenticity, I believe, deepens the intimacy.

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In the background of this podcast episode, Andreas plays an instrumental cover of “Bound for Hell” by Love and Rockets.

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