Why bother making music anyway?

Thai Temple Rubbing - Three Clasical MusiciansThree seated classical musicians in traditional Thai dress playing authentic instruments.
Thai Temple Rubbing – Three seated classical musicians in traditional Thai dress playing authentic instruments.

Tim Worstall at Forbes takes some issue with David Lowery’s criticism of the “free music culture” in a piece from last July.  Basically he is pointing out an insight by Adam Smith that “the purpose of all production is consumption: it is the consumption possibilities which are important.”  In other words, as Worstall states:

In this particular argument what this means is that we don’t care in the slightest whether musicians get paid or not: what we care about is that they continue to produce so that consumers can continue to consume. And there’s no good evidence that less new music is being produced now that there is so much copying.

And in fact, there is evidence that more music is being produced than ever before.

As I’ve stated in a number of blog posts that the number of music venues has increased dramatically as has the number of folks desiring to play music in them.  We’re to the point that many venues do not pay musicians, or pay very little, just because there is such a glut of them to be had for nothing or next to nothing.  Worstall continues:

From a public policy standpoint the aim of royalties, of copyright, is to provide an income so that creators create. No, it is not to be fair, it is not to insist that people be able to make a living: it is purely to make sure that the incentives to create are there. And if people are happy to create without those incentives then there is no reason to have them.

And people are more than happy to create without those incentives, and as the Emily White debacle illustrates, consumers are expecting or even demanding free music.  Of course, as I’ve been explaining, this is a generational demographic difference since the older demographics are far more likely to pay for music and far more likely to buy recordings rather than downloading them (even those purchased).

While digital piracy has been taking ab it of a beating, we’re seeing digital music media services like Pandora and Tunecore attempting to pay musicians even less or trying to show much more financial success of the music than would otherwise be the case.  Spotify isn’t much better off. As Worstall sums it up:

Just to hammer the point home: copyright exists in order to encourage creation. If creation will continue without copyright then there is no reason to have copyright.

At which point the entire argument of how to make sure that musicians get paid from downloads goes away. As they’ll still be playing music, writing songs, without such payments then why worry?


So with venues demanding free musicians and with consumers demanding free music why bother making music anyway?


    • Pretty much, Aaron. I think we all understand that many musicians just can’t stop making music and many of them are very willing to give it away for free. Unfortunately, that kind of undercutting ends up up hurting the rest financially, but I really don’t see much that can be done about it.


      • The same is true in theater. Many theater professionals who can’t make a living talk from time to time about the model being broken, when the truth is that freedom of expression and the desire that we have to express ourselves artistically means there isn’t a model that is going to work for all artists.

        There is nothing that can or should be done about the massive oversupply (relative to demand) of art. You might have heard about the tempest in a teacup that was kicked off when NEA Chair Rocco Landesman suggested that theaters might want to do something about oversupply… but art isn’t an activity that attracts only the profit maximizers. Thank heavens.

        Ian David Moss wrote an interesting reply, focused on how we might curate all this oversupply, to help connect specific audiences with specific things they might like and find the signal through the noise. Every institutional arts nonprofit with a “season” does this, essentially. But it’s becoming a bigger challenge as the amount of artistic output seems to be exploding. http://createquity.com/2011/03/supply-is-not-going-to-decrease-so-its-time-to-think-about-curating.html

        And I wrote a piece, also on Createquity, about how we often forget to take all the components of “demand” into account. If you can cut through the noise, there are customers out there willing to pay far more than the ticket price. If you can take donations, you have an amazing price discrimination tool to take advantage of this. It just operates in the philanthropic market more than in the conventional goods exchange market. http://createquity.com/2011/02/attendance-is-not-the-only-measure-of-demand.html

        I probably should have left a hypothetical question alone. Sorry! 🙂


      • No, don’t apologize! I think this is a really important, and often under-discussed issue. Yeah, I remember the storm when Rocco Landesman made the comments about oversupply–and I’m not surprised that it’s happening in pretty much every field of art.

        Those are very good points about cutting through the noise and connecting specifically with your own market. And while arts organizations are really having difficulties with this, I also think that it is understated that more popular forms of entertainment are really in the same boat. I was astonished to find out that 75,000 albums were released in 2010 (down from the 96,000 in 2009) since the last time I was looking at the number of album releases in a year (earlier in 2000) when the number was much closer to 25,000. I suppose this is just a reflection of both the lower entry barrier to making and producing musical content as well as the fragmenting of audiences into much smaller pieces of the market pie–which is why it is, as you say, so much more important for any artist or arts organization to cut through the noise and connect more directly with their market.

        Thanks so much for those links–going to read them now!


  1. The biggest problems with not paying musicians for their work is that your art and its availability ends up being entirely subject to the will of the entities providing the music services rather than the artists and consumers, and the vehicle for talented artists to stand out from the crowd is removed. There is no doubt that while the quantity of music has increased, the quality has taken a dive. While the music industry has always tried to make sure artists fit their format (song length, content, consumer market, whatever), paid artists who were simply undeniable were able to make their mark regardless of industry support because just playing small venues and making enough money to make it from one end of the country to the next, and selling their wares allowed them to thrive in spite of lack of corporate backing. These days you can do so little as be on the wrong side of the political spectrum and the industry can just ignore you entirely without repercussion. Not that I am claiming this has happened, but just reading terms and conditions (because so many of us do) you can see the possibility here of complete exclusion of artists at will for infractions that can be claimed by assumption rather than proof. This may not be by design, but latent effects come after times of change by definition. The majority of the population didn’t see climate change as being an issue over a hundred years ago with the industrial revolution kicking in, but I assure you that all of the information to predict it was there, and some people had. Artists’ potential can now be solely determined by content providers instead of merit. The argument that Worstall is making (from what I can tell from the excerpts here) assumes that art really doesn’t have any value and there is no such thing as one artist being better than another. I say the last 6 years since the last reply here have been pretty damning to his assumption since the only artists still creating any buzz are ones that have been around for 20+ years and the vast, vast majority if not all of pop music, rap, hip hop and rock of the last 10 years can pretty much just be discarded as it hasn’t contributed to musical evolution at all. It has contributed more to homogeneity of music, which is more the musical atmosphere that validates Worstall’s assumption if it were all that existed. There are studies of trends in popular music that show this, whether it be a lack of dynamics, complexity of composition or whatever. Where Worstall sees this influx of mediocre music as just, he ignores that people and human experience has value, and this devalues humanity. Regarding economy, all businesses dislike chaos and wish they could control every aspect of the industry they could, just as every government would love to have control over what people consume, believe, think and say. It keeps the rich rich and the powerful powerful. The music industry may like this setup for the income of people who have nothing to do with the music they are providing, but it is not healthy for art or humanity.


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