DDJ Portal Logo Dr. Dobb’s Portal
October, 2005
Article on DDJ site

How important is music in your life? Chances are good that the answer ranges from somewhat to very. People like music. I don’t think Science can tell us why yet, but the relationship between people and their music goes way beyond normal affection.

How many hours a day does the average cube dweller spend listening to music? If you are a knowledge worker of any ilk, and you don’t have to use your telephone, odds are you listen to music eight hours a day or more. And odds are this is very important to your ability to make it through the day.

How many times have you or a friend of yours latched on to a catchy new song, only to have it playing over and over in your head for days on end? Depending on whether you actually like the song, this either sours your mood or puts a little extra spring in your step. Judging by what I see in my humble domicile, I’d have to say the net effect on total happiness in the world is very, very, positive.

A Serious Problem

Given the importance that music plays in our lives, I think we have a serious problem. The industry that controls the flow of music into our brains is having trouble adjusting to the new world we live in. Instead of making it easier and cheaper to listen to music, they’re letting new technologies make it more expensive and difficult.

As an example, if I want to purchase digital music for the much-loved iPod, I pay a purchase price close to that I would pay for CD versions of the same music. (Assuming a $12 price at your favorite big box store.) But for that price, I am stuck with a reduced fidelity image that is locked down to a limited number of computers and other devices. And I am limited to playing these songs on a single vendor’s portable player. And worse yet, should the vagaries of hard drive reliability play out the wrong way, a careless consumer can lose their entire digital investment via a single misfortune.

This is all wrong. Being a good American, I always want to see market forces solve our problems, but in this case market forces are not working. Instead of making things better for us, they are making things worse.

As a result, I’m calling on our nation’s leaders to take a drastic step–nationalize the music industry.

My Proposal – The Details

My proposal is simple, economical, workable, and benefits both listeners and musicians. Let me spell it out for you and I think you will join me in my wish to see this become reality.

Step 1 is for the government to set up a music archive. By law, all copyrighted music must be published to this archive. The Library of Congress is well suited to management of this task, and really, all they need is a giant server farm, a high-speed Internet connection, and a copy of MySQL.

An important point to note about this publishing system is that publishing data to the Library of Congress music library would be a simple task. Any artist who can master the use of a web browser will now be able to publish their music by simply pushing a few buttons. There will no longer be a daunting distribution system standing between artists and listeners–and the majority of the revenue will no longer be siphoned off to what amounts to a parasitical business.

Step 2 is the development of a payment system. This is simplicity itself. Artists will be paid based on bandwidth, and nothing more. I can download 128Kbps MP3 versions of the latest Brittany Spears CD to my iPod, and the pop idol will get a small payment. If I download the 5.1 CD quality image to burn to a DVD, she’ll get a bit more. If I stream it to my PC over and over, she’ll get even more. The accounting is simple, and doesn’t require any technological advances to implement.

Where does the money come from? That’s where Step 3 comes in. Every paycheck issued in the US from now until the end of time is going to have a $5 monthly deduction to fund music. Everyone pays, and everyone benefits. With no record companies in the way, that $5 is going to go straight into the artists pockets, and I predict that the vast majority of performers will see an increase in their cash flow.

The final step: We must compensate the poor record companies who are going to lose this source of revenue. Basically, we buy them out using a discounted cash-flow analysis that properly reimburses them for the business they are giving up. For a company that does nothing but sell records, this should approximate their current stock price. And since the record companies tell us that business sucks, they ought to be happy to get out of it. And don’t worry about the money, this is going to cost a lot less than the war in Iraq or Katrina rebuilding, and it’s going to make everyone a lot happier.

The Results

The upshot? You now get to listen to any music you want. Promotion and distribution of music changes radically. And the U.S. becomes the first country to make a sensible adjustment of Intellectual Property laws to deal with realities in the 21st century.

Incidentally, this may sound like satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal, but I assure you, this is a plan worth considering. Yes, it is a big change in the way we do things, but I believe it is the appropriate response to dealing with a system that is too clumsy and dumb to deal with new realities. We didn’t ask the market to build our Interstate Highway system, we don’t ask the market to defend our borders, and I don’t really want to the market to control my music. It’s time for a change.