Freedom of Thought in a Vacuum of Patronage
Last month I was invited up to Ringo Starr’s home in Beverly Hills. He asked me to write a song with him for his next “virtual” album. I went up and did so. In two days’ devotion, we conjured a piece called “Bamboula”. We also recorded it in those two days (with blown instruments).
We then sat back and guessed what our possible”day rate” for that time and effort would be. What an irony!
Forty years ago, co-writing a song with Ringo Starr would have provided me a house and a pool. Now, estimating 100,000 plays on Spotify, we guessed we’d split about $80.00.
When I got home, on closer study, I found out we were way overly optimistic. Spotify (on-par with other streamers) pays only .00065 cents per play.
There’s less support for all the Arts. It impacts on Dance, Opera, even Academia, and significantly—the Art of Journalism.
Let’s just look at the Art of Journalism: Had we had hard-ball Journalism in 2003, U.S. citizens wouldn’t have tolerated George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney bombing “the Cradle of Civilization”. Yet, hard questions from the body-politic about “weapons of mass distruction” in Baghdad were not asked in the corporatized Press. The American public dozed through it all, unquestioning. The result now is a 4 Trillion dollar trans-generational debt on the shoulders of American youth.
We recall President Eisenhower’s parting caution (in his Presidential farewell speech of 1961) to “beware of the Military-Industrial Complex!”. So much for real Patronage of the Journalistic Art!
The blade gets duller with every cut in Arts funding. In the USA, public opinion suffers from what we call “Infotainment”. That’s a genre of media news that’s neither informing, entertaining, nor remedial. It’s a direct result of a Vacuum of Patronage.
But let’s limit ourselves to a narrow-band study of royalty rates in my occupational
field, Music Composition. I’ll limit it to industry practices in the U.S.A., from 1914 to 2014—and use a neat time-line century,for dramatic affect. The numbers cited are based on U.S. standards. Still, they correlate to First-World global practices. Such declining figures reveal a real dilemma: an imploding commodification of Intellectual Property Rights.
Royalty rates impact not only the very quality of Music, but the way society values creators, whether of “serious” or “popular” art (as if they can be easily bifurcated).
Even “serious” music isn’t being taken all that seriously, it seems.
We unavoidably discover a present-day talent pool hammered down by a stringent decline in patronage, and compensation for ideas, both big and small.
I see that as a very bad thing, not just for Composers, but for society as a whole.
In 1907, American March King John Philip Sousa went to Washington. He raised his prescient grave concerns to Senators and Congressmen about what he called “canned music”. He predicted an inevitable damaging effect that recordings would have on live musicians. So let’s now define some terms that describe the technology and related industrial attitudes in this hundred year span to see just how right Sousa was.
Music “Residuals” are shared by Publishers and Composers via “Mechanical” reproduction. The noun “mechanicals” refers to any physical reproduction of a composed and performed work. That is, “canned music”.
It all started out so gayly, about a hundred years ago, when in 1914, Madam Ernestine Schumann-Heink sang the first recording of “Danny Boy”. It derived from the 19th Century Irish ballad (“Londonderry Air”). Her platter “sold like hot cakes”. That nostalgic song became a musical signature among Allied soldiers in Europe. Many songs, before and since, have enjoyed such galvanizing popularity in historic moments, much as “The Marseillaise” did in 1792, or “We Shall Overcome” did in the American Civil Rights movement of “The Sixties”.
So, when that “War to End All Wars” ended in 1918, those Yankee “Dough Boys” came home. They brought back “Danny Boy”, as they did their cigarettes.
Back in the USA, they found the middle class had adopted the piano as a sign of refinement.
Parlor pianos were all the rage then. Some came with a Welte-vorsetzer. Husbands gave them to their wives, as “maternity gifts”. The Steinway in my living-room was such a gift. It was brought into a Parks parlor for my grandmother by her husband, the very day my father was born, March 11, 1911. I play it to this day.
Robust sheet music sales at the outset of World War One made piano-composers like Percy Grainger (who transcribed “Danny Boy” for keyboard) very wealthy.
Literary music, like “Pennies From Heaven”, held its supremacy as the main market target, until
our great Depression.
In a Pie Graph of the Music Industry in 1914, we see that the Composers’ profit slice was–relative to now–quite generous. That’s because, in the U.S., such royalty rates established became statutory, with non-negotiable minimums. That law was by an Act of Congress of 1909— The rate set for a mechanical reproduction at two cents. It was held in place until 1978.
At that, Sousa could have made mega-bucks if he’d just gone along with it. But he avoided the microphone, as the recording industry paraded ahead without him.
Exactly 100 years ago, the main revenue for composers was the piano roll. That two cent Mechanical rate of 1914 dwarfs the similar per-copy mechanical “sale” folks now pay. Today, that statutory rate is 9.1 cents per physical copy of a composition.
How does that nine cents compare to the two cents of 1914?
If you take that two-cent royalty from a century ago, and multiply it at today’s value given inflation, and a conservative per song-play royalty rate would be two dollars.
Not two cents. Not nine point one cents.
These low returns just don’t equate with any other industrial growth in compensation for Intellectual property. People, am I going too fast?
Let me be clear:
In 1914, a loaf of bread cost 5 cents (for the minority who didn’t bake their own bread). We had a Model T automobile. It was made by Henry Ford, (a contemporary of Ferdinand Porsche). That car retailed for $200. An average teacher’s salary then was $60 for the school year. A song copy got two cents—a figure held for the next 64 years.
So, in 1978, our U.S. Congress decided to review this discrepancy. Why had our government waited so long to act to be fair? I’ll tell you why. They were bought by “lobbying” donations from the Record industry to finance politicians’ campaigns.
Jeder Mensch hat Seinen Preis!.
In ’78, our Congress finally set up a Copyright Royalty Board. It’s a tribunal of judges that’s set to meet every five years, to re-examine rates for physical copies (and, the new income-stream for copyright holders called “downloads”.
Oops! We’ve just plunged into a whole new market arena. It is beyond physical.
Royalty rates lower and get dramatically fractional beyond in this new “non-physical” arena. Let’s quantify this new arena called Downloads,.
A typical (non-physical) download now costs 99 cents at i Tunes. Of that, Apple (the distributor) takes fifty cents. Forty cents goes to the record label. Nine cents goes to the Publisher. Record companies pay the Artist’s royalty out of its 40 cents, and the Publishers pay the Composer(s) the slender 9.1 cents stipulated by the ’78 Copyright Act.
My peers and I adjusted. Since the iTunes Store launched in 2003, these new digital music sales werethe industry’s only saving grace in the face of declining physical album sales and rampant online piracy. Any revenue at all would be entirely welcome.
Okay. Let’s fast-forward, to 2011, and STREAMING. The new thing!
Just as Composers and their related industries were adjusting to the horrors of such concessions, Spotify, with its concept of “streaming” hit the U.S. shores in 2011. The result?
The rise of streaming has been a blitz.
Last year, U.S. digital track and CD sales went down 14% from the year before. Digital downloads (the record companies last gasp) simply weren’t able to stem the allure of this new thing called Streaming.
Streaming offers all the music in the world for just $6.00 per month, splitting royalties indiscriminantly, shared by a vast collective talent-pool.
The good news is that Piracy dwindled at the same time, as the Big Five (Warner, EMI, Sony, BMG, and Universal) monetized this new thing called“streaming”.
These giants joined to make this new market “better than free” for the first and emerging developing world. They thought that streaming would increase profits exponentially-with the emerging developing world listening audience. They thought it would raise their market shares.
At the same time, the Public didn’t give it a second thought in terms of Ethics. The mass-midget mind was concretized with the very idea that “free thought” means “free stuff”. In maximizing profits for packagers and distributors, the public went along with the idea of minimizing composer/artist revenue..
In my view, this is exacting a heavy toll on live performance, collaborative esthetics, and the variety of life and its expression.
A new generation has been born into this “free stuff” idea, at the same time we’ve seen the concept of privacy dissolve. These youth will never know the value of privacy. That concept as a civil right is gone. So are the immutable protections of Intellectual property rights of my time. How can you miss something you’ve never had? Yet, I see this new disregard for such property rights as sinister in every way.
In that, I am as skeptical as once was John Philips Sousa. Try to imagine how many sales would cover the cost of just a three hour string quartet session.
I see in 2014, as Sousa did in 1914, an uneasy truce between the ideating Creators and their distributors.
A handful of Musical Conglomerates have gathered to snuff out reasonable Artist/Composer revenues. There’s a centralized homogeneity of Music
Those Musical Giants are (BMG), EMI, Decca, Gramophon-Phillips, Sony Music (BMG just absorbed into Sony), Universal, and MCA. Warner, jetz ausverkauft was bought by one Russian Multi-billionaire. Tycoon Len Blavatnick, shelled out $3.3 billion dollars of his own money for the Warner. The result? “Americana”, once a vital global lingua franca, is now just trip down memory lane, and the lingo of a Russian plutocrat. Merger-mania plows on with the progress of profit.
With Chinese and Indian youth in villages with Wi Fi now pay in micro-cents. Admittedly, new markets are emerging…but at-risk in a conglomeratization of thought.
There’s another aspect: In the vacuum of patronage, there’s a increased rarity of accoustic ensembles available to new artist/composers. It’s as lamentable as the loss of glacial ice.. Ensembles are of vestigial interest in this new Pop culture. In the USA, Orchestras, Opera and Dance companies are losing their endowments in this swill of a Bourgeoise Bohemian Rock ubiquity. As the French say, “Bo Bo”. This vernacular diet of a faux gras American pop-rock hegemony has replaced a vibrantly precious global musical elasticity and variety. We’re attempting to get out of that box.
I hate to sound like a curmudgeon. It’s not sexy. Yet, I relate to the skepticism of John Philip Sousa, in his cautions about unfair practices in a free-market of recorded music. Something’s wrong, when the tail wags the dog, the provider dictates content. That’s not Freedom of Thought. There must be a discovery of the means of subsidy by which Music, and parallel Arts may thrive, unapologetically. Let us remember:
“Freedom of Thought” does not mean “Free Stuff”.
We must fix this ruptured pipeline for the Popular Arts.
It can’t come from a half-hearted, flaccid or schlaffen Philanthropie, but a nexus of Patronage from both Private entrepreneurs and the Public sector.
We’d better take a real hard look a.s.a.p. at the proportional profits of the creators and distributors of ideas. Our priority should be in nurturing new ideas.
Those who bring them must be fairly compensated, systemically and legally.
I’ve been inescapably subjective. I’m in shock and awe at what I’ve witnessed in the struggling artists and composers that surround me. My emphasis is an inconvenient truth. Yet, it’s corroborated by no less than Abraham Lincoln. Let me quote him:
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fuit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration”.
It’s high time we pay the pipers.
Van Dyke Parks is composer and musician. He has collaborated with the Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson, Phil Ochs, Ringo Starr and many others. His records include: Song Cycle, Discover America, Clang of the Yankee Reaper, Jump!, Tokyo Rose, Orange Crate Art, Songs Cycled, and Moonlighting: Live at the Ash Grove.
This essay was originally written to the Advisory Board of Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt, April, 2014.