Law in the Internet Society


What disadvantages, other than inefficiency, does the predominant system of digital popular music distribution (i.e. sale of copyrights to mass distributors) produce? Below, I do not attempt to fully answer this question. Yet, I do conclude that the predominant system prevents the communication of at least part of popular musicians’ artistic vision.


This paper analyzes only a small segment of popular musicians’ artistic vision: the degree of integration they intend to communicate in their anthologies. Based upon this limited segment of artistic vision, I devise a typology. First, there are “album artists,” musicians who attempt to communicate their artistic vision not through single songs, but through the album as a whole. For an album artist, a song is meant to communicate only a segment of an artistic vision.

Second, there are “singles artists,” musicians who try to communicate a distinct artistic vision through each song, but not through their albums. The singles artist’s album, then, merely represents a collection of individual artistic visions.

Third, there are “singles and albums artists (S & A artists),” who attempt to communicate unique artistic visions in at least some of their songs but also try to create a coherent artistic vision on their albums.

Dilution of Artistic Message: ITunes's Default Distribution Structure

Using ITunes as an example, we can see that the predominant incarnation of the copyright system, where the musician sells her song-rights to a digital distributor, compromises popular musicians' ability to communicate their intended degree of integration.

Because they have to make up for their rights-purchasing investment, distributors circulate music with the sole motive of maximizing profit. Of course, the most profitable strategy is to distribute music in a manner that appeals to the most listening preferences. Music listeners group into two segments: those who prefer hearing entire albums and those who prefer limiting themselves to single songs. In order to appeal to both groups, ITunes, for albums with more than 10 tracks, generally allows customers to buy the entire album for $9.99 or buy an individual song for 99 cents. Song-lovers like this deal because they can download nothing but the songs they want to hear. Album-lovers enjoy this structure because they get to buy an entire album at a rate lower than the total price of the individual songs.

Lost in this consumer-friendly structure is the artist’s communication of her intended degree of integration. Indeed, the only artists whose visions are conceivably conveyed by this structure are those S & A artists who try to convey a separate artistic vision in each song. But, even assuming a given musician is such an S & A artist, the uniformity of the structure would prevent a listener-consumer from realizing it. That is, since almost every album is packaged the same, the customer has no way of realizing that Album A’s packaging aligns with its creator’s artistic vision, whereas Album B’s packaging does not.

Dilution of Artistic Message: ITunes's Alternative Distribution Structures

ITunes generally makes derivations from its default structure when an album contains less than 10 tracks. If the structure remained the same, the $9.99 album price would then be greater than the combined cost of each song. This would cause album buyers to simply buy each song separately, making the album price useless.

ITunes picks one of two solutions to this dilemma based on what it sees as the most profitable. One method is to sell the album for $9.99 and make a single track “Album Only,” meaning that this track cannot be downloaded individually. The other solution is to allow each song to be downloaded individually and then lower the album price to reflect the sum price of the songs. Presumably, ITunes chooses the “Album Only” solution when it thinks the profit from those who download the non-“Album Only” tracks plus the profit from album-lovers who are willing to pay $9.99 will outweigh the profit from selling all tracks individually and charging album-buyers the sum price of songs. See Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, and Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited. In turn, ITunes applies the other solution when it thinks the “Album Only” method will produce a relatively unprofitable result. See Buddy Guy, Stone Crazy, and Talking Heads, Remain in Light.

Predictably, the lower-album-price structure creates the same miscommunications of integration that the default structure does. For its part, the “Album Only” structure communicates that the album and every song, except the “Album Only” song, is a separate artistic vision. Yet, in order to gain maximum profitability, ITunes will pick which song to make “Album Only” based on which is the least likely to be downloaded individually, not based on whether or not the song needs to be understood in the context of the album. For instance, if any song on Highway 61 Revisited can be heard as a distinct artistic vision, it is “Desolation Row,” an acoustic exception to the heavily electric set. Yet, ITunes makes this song “Album Only.”


Thus the predominant distribution structure of digital popular music, in at least one way, frustrates the communication of artistic vision. This conclusion poses further questions. What other aspects of artistic vision, if any, does the predominant system of digital popular music distribution frustrate? Is anarchical distribution, or even a more decentralized incarnation of the copyright system, more capable of allowing artists to communicate their visions in an uncompromised fashion? These questions are left to my peers, if any deem them worthy of answering.

-- AndrewHerink - 31 Oct 2008


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r4 - 25 Nov 2008 - 06:29:10 - AndrewHerink
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