There is Enough Content: The Problems With iTunes and American Idol

Categories: Local Music
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Photo by Stephanie Rae Berzon
Evan Rowe is a local songwriter and performer best known as Catalonia, a professor of political science and history at Broward College, and a small-d democratic strategist with no party affiliation. Each week, we surrender our space for his thoughts on the music industry and how they relate to our region. This week, why musical content (along with much of the digital realm) is unable to fit into market mechanisms.

In part three of the series, we discussed public financing for the radio system, in part four we need to delve into music and the marketplace. Whatever anyone's views on the efficacy of markets, the most fundamental economic explanation for how market logic works is supply and demand. Supply and demand models are in essence an institutional process that establishes pricing by calculating a set of variables too great for any planner to know. Thus, the big knock on central planning (i.e. Soviet economics) was that no matter how smart the pencil pushing bureaucrat in Moscow was, he could not know exactly what the price of bread in Kiev should be. And the price of bread under command economics is set by central planners.

There are simply too many variables for the central planning committees to know in order to set an accurate price on a commodity. Thus, in a free market (how free our western capitalist markets actually are is another matter entirely), the foundation of pricing is built around the idea that if I'm an orange producer and I sell you an orange, I lose the orange and you gain it.

But what has happened with the advent of digital commerce is that the supply on all things digital commerce is now infinite. If I create a music file and (try) to sell the music file, if I sell 10 copies, the cost to me is the same as if I sold 10 million copies. This is very basic and obvious perhaps but it is an enormous shift and it is also, in my opinion a core component of the economic crisis that is here and deepening.

The core problem, be it in music, print media, TV, film, stand alone software, etc is that whatever the price is somebody is selling their content, the price is a lie. Because the real price is much closer to the cost of creating the supply, and the supply, is now infinite. To ask the consuming audience to individually purchase content on a market basis makes little sense. It creates blockages throughout the online economic network with passwords, RIAA lawsuits, proprietary software, etc. -- all part of the great denial of the current technological reality of infinite supply. The result of this is low value of human creativity inside of the network commonly called the internet (or the internets as coined by George W. Bush) that stems from the simple fact that we have an economic doctrine in the country that attempts to place the vast majority of economic activity into a market system and that ideology is not conducive to dealing with the arbitrary nature of pricing that is characteristic of online commerce.

So instead of trying to sell everything, we need to reorganize the space so that everyone knows where they stand. If you had a tax-based or fee-based system paying for the total content pool, then this arbitrary math could be managed much better. And if you decentralize the management into local then regional, then national bodies, then you avoid the price of bread in Kiev problems of central planning. With this reality, digital commerce can be opened up and free can be accepted for what it is: Reality. Instead of paying directly for tracks or news content or film, there will be space in the economy devoted to the common good. This means you cannot opt out of it.

If society deems music important, then it can devote the total resources for it, and remuneration for artists will come from perhaps vouchers, online voting, or an accounting system like a music web suffix with a regulated accounting system that can hopefully pay out on the basis of consumer preferences and avoid fraud. This will remove the need to attempt to control or police piracy, and it will remunerate the creators of the content by pooling the costs of the system and increasing remuneration to content creators.

But this does not solve a second problem of modern reality: the over-supply problem. Even if we create this pool, we will still have the falling cost to produce the content as an economic force of gravity, and we will still have the vast majority of content creators unable to be compensated in the same way that farmers in the 1930s were unable to be compensated by their crop sales by overproduction farm crops. Unless an artist is connected, and by connected I mean when concentrated sums of money purchase fame for a select minority of artists, then the poorer artist cannot expect to be recognized by enough people to make a living doing it.

My system will transfer power from an elite, superstar based system to a broader system. It is not the number of elite artists that will decline so much as their power (financial/fame/exposure) in relation to other all of the other artists. You will have your national superstars, but they will be the cream of the crop that come out of the local, regional, national model slow cooker. It wont be like American Idol, because American Idol is as rigged of a game as American political elections are: You only get to vote on pre-filtered options in both systems.

I asked Kilmo Doome, for his views on the radio takeover plan and he said: It's not solely about money. That would follow. The two main benefits I see would be diversity and exposure. First by opening up access the sheer diversity (especially in our market) would result in more choices and an alternative to the currently extremely narrow scope perpetrated by monopolistic media outlets. And, in tandem this would result in more exposure to all artists regardless of style. End result: more choices, options and awareness for music buyers, i.e. listeners and more options and exposure for artists without jumping through the endless hoops of connections with those currently manipulating media outlets.
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