|Excessive rock-star lifestyles and rampant music-industry greed aren't sound ideas.|
The global recession is biting so hard, Sir Mick Jagger was spotted driving around London in a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle singing "(Can't Get No) Satisfaction". Jagger's biggest gripe isn't that his long-time sparring partner, Keith Richards, might have snorted his father's ashes or that former band manager Allen Klein might have siphoned off a few million dollars of hard-earned royalties. Instead, it is the high cost of maintaining his fleet of luxury cars, as well as his bevy of former wives and jilted lovers.
Equally grim, Ringo Starr has sold his palatial Hollywood pad to return to his modest childhood home in Liverpool's working-class suburb of Dingle. He, too, has downgraded his wheels by trading his 2008 Bentley for a 1962 Ford Zephyr. His song of choice is "Don't Pass Me By" from The Beatles' White Album.
These fictitious sketches reinforce a delicate piece of polemic the record industry continues to peddle: the illegal downloading of free music from websites is threatening industry profits and the lifestyles of pop stars. This valid point needs to be assessed in a wider context.
A BBC World news item this week rekindled the downloading debate. According to the Beeb, 66% of British survey respondents say it is "morally acceptable" to download music free. If one conducted a similar survey in South Africa, it wouldn't be surprising to hear that more than 50% of participants share this view. The facts about the free downloading of music are shocking. The growing signs of amorality and indifference among many music listeners are more startling.
Not wanting to be reactionary, creative people have the right, under international intellectual-property laws, to protect their creations. They have a right to reap fair rewards for their creativity, especially if the paying public deems it enjoyable or entertaining. It doesn't matter whether the artist is a highly lucrative 50 Cent, Eric Clapton, Metallica or Shirley Bassey, or a fringe artist like Roy Harper.
Entitlement and avarice
However, not everyone agrees. A few extremists advocate no individual or organisation has the right to intellectual property (IP). They argue that creative works belong to the public domain for liberal exploitation by anyone. The word "copyright" has an unfortunate political connotation. The anti-IP brigade associates it with the politics of the Right and a privileged capitalist system. Unsurprisingly, they have coined "copyleft", a word you can "Google" if you have an appetite for zany thinking.
The music piracy debate has a dreadful schism. On one side, the music industry is labelled greedy and extravagant. At which point does fair profit become avarice? Across the chasm, there is a culture of entitlement. Some consumers want freebie downloads, while others feel music is overpriced. To exacerbate the debate, we are spoilt for choice. As teenagers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we shared our favourite albums made by a few admired artists. Today, thanks to a far greater spectrum of music, we can enjoy hundreds of musicians - and we want to continue widening our musical horizons.
Besides today's cornucopia of music, we read stories and watch documentaries focusing on the excessive lifestyles and ludicrous behaviour of certain music stars. The media also delights in publishing information on the wealth of pop stars. If you tell your teenage son that Sir Paul McCartney is worth about £800m, he might feel a few extra bob won't make any impression on the ex-Beatle's coffers if he downloads a free copy of Sgt Pepper. He may be equally indifferent when downloading the latest Scandinavian heavy metal, American hip-hop or Britpop anthems.
The astronomical wealth of some rock stars is an issue the record industry should reflect on before deciding how to stem the tide of rampant digital piracy. Some rock stars' outrageous antics convey the wrong messages and encourage the flood of illegal digital downloads.
In the ‘70s, before the booze finally toppled him, The Who's raucous drummer, Keith Moon, had a penchant for driving brand-new sports cars into his swimming pool or crashing them beyond repair on some nearby stretch of country road. In 1976, Canadian authorities bust Keith Richards for carrying a giant stash of heroin that automatically classified him as a "drug dealer". Many of the so-called music-biz royalty have indulged themselves in scandalously extravagant and hedonistic lifestyles founded on seemingly limitless amounts of drugs, alcohol, sexual escapades, flashy homes and the finest cars.
If you haven't watched The Osbournes, try enduring MTV Base to understand what hip-hop stars relate or aspire to, none of which suggests any humility or frugality. Today's younger generation forms a profound impression that these stars will continue to delight in their Dionysian lifestyles regardless of digital piracy. Alternatively, perhaps people download music free to spite musicians.
While talented musicians have the right to make a good living, it is time for the record companies to extricate themselves from their own fetid quagmire. These companies include the EMI, Sony BMG, Universal Music and Warner Brothers empires, all of which generate multibillion-dollar profits annually and shamelessly promote avarice, however tacitly.
In South Africa, most new albums on compact disc (CD) retail at about R160 when made locally. Depending on the exchange rate, country of origin and music label, an imported CD can cost more than R300 for a single disc comprising a few pennies' worth of aluminium, plastic, paper and ink. Our music industry doesn't divulge its costs and profits. Nevertheless, a few industry sources say a CD costs less than R5 to produce (inclusive of mastering, packaging, manufacturing and distribution).
Unlike their 12-inch vinyl predecessors, which needed greater skill and time to press, one CD can be encoded, labelled and packaged with its booklet in less than five seconds. This means one uninterrupted production line can make at least 17 000 CDs in a 24-hour shift or more than 500 000 units a month.
Business leaders love to tout the merits of "economy of scale". When the global music industry phased out vinyl records and cassette tapes to promote the digital CD, their economy-of-scale prayers were answered. However, they failed to understand the fuller implications of the Internet era by belligerently refusing to re-evaluate the intrinsic monetary value of recorded music. Most consumers have an economic "pain threshold" and lose the propensity to buy something when the asking price is high.
Fervent music fans are far from fickle. They form a loyal and dedicated consumer group. The good news for the "threatened" music industry is that the true fan is a regular and usually lifetime consumer, someone who loves to buy music every month.
The challenge to record companies is simple: slash your prices to make music more affordable to the record-buying public. In our world of unrelenting inflation and spiralling consumer choices, your market for legal music sales is destined to wither if you don't find a mutually beneficial way to keep recorded music pleasurable, affordable and sustainable within the ambit of fair profit making (not profiteering).
If you halve CD retail prices, most fans might increase their music purchases. This would help "flat" music industry profits to hit the high notes.
*Michael Waddacor has been a versatile journalist, writer and music critic since 1979.
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