This post has a few of my humble ideas on how we could fix this problem. It's taken me awhile to write it, because I didn't want to offer knee-jerk responses. I wanted to search and provide some quality answers, or at least, a few fingers pointing in the right directions.
We need to subvert our growing cultural expectation that everything should be free. This involves dealing with both copyright issues and cultural attitudes.
The internet has grown so rapidly, that copyright and royalty laws haven't really had time to catch up. (Actually, to be more precise, copyright laws have gone off in a completely ridiculous direction, hijacked by giant corporations, and are quite out of touch with reality. Copyright law has become a corporate mindfuck.) The original intent of copyright laws were to allow the creator of a work to profit from every copy made of their work, for a reasonable period of time (14-28 years, originally). After that period, the work would be released into the public domain for the benefit of the commons. It's a complicated subject, but suffice it to say, copyright laws aren't doing much to help the average musician these days. Corporations take most of the profits from royalties now, rather than creators; thus, of course, with profit being involved, corporations want copyright protection to last forever. The public, however, including ardent supporters of the Open Source and Creative Commons movements, seem to think Public Domain should be instantaneous. Nobody is looking out for the creators, no, not really.
The basic problem when it comes to music, though, is that a lot of really talented musicians are being trampled by the "everything should be free" expectations of the information age. Don't get me wrong; I love free stuff. I'm grateful to be able to search any topic and find quality resources in 0.4 seconds. But this stuff isn't really free; the cost-free-ness is just an illusion. People all over the world have put countless hours into creating these resources that I glibly skim over on GoodSearch or YouTube. But it's not just musicians --journalism, graphic design, education, and so many other professions are being eroded by this expectation. What ever happened to (shock and horror!) paying someone when we appreciate their contribution to our lives? Sure, not everyone can afford that. Believe me, I understand poverty's difficulties. But all of us can afford more than we think we can towards tipping creators of works we consume. Maybe we should buy less stuff and invest in more people. (For example, a few months ago I found a free template online for an APA formatted paper. This will save me a lot of time setting up the formatting every time I have to write a paper for school. This template is very useful to me, so I tracked down the person who created it and sent him a few bucks via PayPal. It wasn't much, but imagine if everyone who used his template paid him a few bucks! The several hours of work he surely put into it would have been worthwhile.) Most of us can, and should, reorient our priorities to ensure we are giving back to our society, not just taking from it. Just because it's easy to get information for free from the internet, doesn't mean it's healthy. It will benefit all of us in the long run to have a culture of gratitude, rather than a culture of entitlement.
So copyright needs to change, and attitudes need to change. What can help mitigate these two changes? How about technology? Here's something I'll throw out there as an idea: Jaron Lanier has written a new book called Who Owns the Future? In it he discusses how this "free information" paradigm will end up destroying the middle class, and he offers suggestions for modifying how the internet is set up. Basically, if I understand him correctly, we should create a system in which every time something is shared (copied!! copyrights!!), a micropayment is automatically withdrawn from the sharer's bank account and sent to the creator of that work. Thus, sharing works of art and music online will directly affect the creators' abilities to earn money for their work, (and the need for corporate mediation is drastically reduced), all while enriching the commons. The more shares, the more money the creator earns. It seems so straightforward and beautiful. I hope we can find a way to implement something like this in the near future!
The last idea I offer for ensuring a future of high quality musical influences is to change the prevailing perception on the function of music from being mostly about entertainment to being a provider of important cultural and personal assistance. I was delighted to discover a podcast recently in which the author of several books about art and culture, Alain de Botton, was being interviewed. This very inspiring interview helped cement my approach to art--he spoke for how I have always experienced art and never really expressed so succinctly. In his interview, he said that art (and I would say all "the arts," music included) serve six functions in society:
- A mechanism for remembering things (Humans have a cognitive weakness in the area of memory, and we need assistance in making sure important moments don't fly away.)
- Hope. We humans tend towards despair too easily, and cheerful or pretty art helps us maintain our spirits.
- Dignifying suffering and sorrow. In daily life, suffering can feel very isolating, humiliating, or baffling, but when we find a work of art that expresses exactly how we feel, we find solidarity and dignity in the human condition. Oddly enough, this also offers hope.
- Appreciation for mundane humanity. (He differentiates between glamor and art--one denigrates the mundane, the other exalts it; thus, in art we can see and appreciate our selves.)
- Balancing our emotional conditions by calling attention to what is in Shadow. Often we are attracted to works of art that stimulate areas in our lives that need rebalancing. Someone whose life is chaotic may be drawn to tightly-controlled, perfectly organized works of art, for example. Art serves to bring balance. (This prompted me to look around my house. What do I have hanging on my walls? Lots of black and white drawings of castles, photos of grand, luxurious, sweeping staircases, warrior goddesses and angels, and visions of Hildegaard von Bingen. I'll psychoanalyze all that later!)
- Art can instruct us in dealing with life's problems. Several centuries ago, The Church commissioned artists to train the public in morality and Bible stories. We think of such uses of art as suspicious propaganda today, but if the artistic guidance is coming, not from a centralized institution, but from fellow humans who have walked the path before us, there is no need to fear brainwashing. Art can be incredibly instructive and a source of wisdom.
While working on this article, I'd hoped to discover an immediately practical business model, or something like that, for altering society and exalting the musical profession. Instead I have written some rather grand, idealistic prescriptions that seem far from possible. That's the best my mind can come up with, though. Any thoughts?