Choosing Wisely

The music world is faced with an interesting situation. On one hand, we have the recording industries. They make their money from copyrights, and they want their control to be iron clad and never ending- or at least lifetime plus 100 years. On the other hand, we have at least 300 million people every month who like to share files. They spend 30-35% more on music and films- not a bad audience. If they like what they get, they are willing to pay, but they’d rather see if they like it first.

I’ve been involved with the professional music world for roughly 50 years, first as a performer, then as a computer programmer, then as the founder of a company that developed software that was (and still is) used in recording studios, and finally, as the founder of Safe-Xchange. I have also studied the history of inventions that help people communicate with each other, including the invention of the printing press, audio recording, radio, and, now, the internet.

Musicians love making music. Fans love listening to music, and are willing to pay money in order to enjoy what musicians do. But getting the money into the hands of the musicians has often been difficult. Duke Ellington had trouble getting his music publisher to pay. There was a musician’s strike in the ’40’s because vinyl records were taking the place of live performances, but the money was not going to musicians.

Today we have two major shifts that affect the music world. One is the shift to digital rather than analog. Analog (especially vinyl) is hard and expensive to duplicate, digital is easy and cheap. The other is the internet, which makes it easy to exchange digital files. Both make life tough for musicians.

Right now the major record labels are doing everything they can to eliminate file sharing on the internet. That may sound like a good idea, but the means they have chosen involve a complete re-write of laws and, according to many observers, a violation of people’s individual rights. If you happen to be at a Starbucks using your computer at the same time as somebody else is downloading files that are under copyright, you stand a chance of getting a letter asking for thousands of dollars with threats of taking you to court. And- if you pay up- almost none of the money will go to the musician.

On the other side are the people who are sharing files. They do it because they love music, and they do it because it’s free. At the same time, they spend 30-35% more on audio and video products than other internet users. Yes, file sharing is causing problems. Are file sharers, as the record industry says, “worse than pirates”?

I don’t think so. I think they are like the people who started using the printing press, despite the fact that the Catholic Church put people to death for using it. They are using these new inventions as they are meant to be used. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s the rest of us who are behind.

It seems to me that there are really just two options at this point in time for those of us who want musicians to get paid for their work. We can lock down the internet (the option being pushed forward by the record and film industry), which will prevent file sharing but also stop any free exchange of information.

Or we can look for- and find- ways to adapt to the technological changes and make sure that musicians get paid for their work. Safe-Xchange is built on the idea that it is the musician, not the record industry, that should get paid for their work, and our goal is to find ways to do that.

This is a turbulent period for everybody. Each of us must choose between trying to stick with the old ways, which is a bit like agreeing with the Catholic Church about the printing press, or finding ways to use the technological changes to enhance our world with great music. I have friends who are staunch defenders of the old way, and I completely understand that.

But I’d rather see what I can do to make the new way work for musicians.

Tom Jeffries, CEO and Founder, Safe-Xchange

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