Naked Economics

posted by Nick Hornby August 26, 2008 at 2:43 pm Books, Music , ,

Charles Wheelan’s ‘Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science’ turned out to be the book I was hoping for, a stimulating, smart, entertaining read for the innumerate. I was rarely in a position where I was able to disagree with Wheelan about anything, so I was grateful when he turned his attention briefly to the subject of illegal music downloading:

“Imagine a world in which you spend all summer tending to your corn crop and then your neighbour drives by in his combine, waves cheerily, and proceeds to harvest the whole crop for himself. Does that sound contrived? Not if you’re a musician – because that is pretty much what Napster did by allowing individuals to download music without paying any compensation to the musicians who created it or the record companies that owned the copyrights….”

There are several differences between farming and making music, but the most obvious is that an album is not a finite resource, like a field of corn: if someone steals one, the musician still has an inexhaustible supply to sell. (One reason why people – OK, evil people – feel it’s OK to download, say, a Jay-Z album without paying for it is that there are few outward signs that Jay-Z is suffering as a result.)  Or is the record company the farmer, in Wheelan’s analogy? Well, if the farmer had spent decades overcharging grotesquely for corn, and spending his inflated profits on cocaine and loose women, then perhaps the thieves would have been cheered all the way to the bootleg farmer’s market.

‘Naked Economics’ was first published in 2002, and since then music downloading has followed such a peculiar economic model that even a thinker as lucid as Charles Wheelan would be baffled. Look around on the net now, and you can find millions of free, legal mp3s, to the extent that if you decided never to buy music ever again, you would still not be able to get through everything you downloaded in the course of a lifetime, or even a week. Try archive.org, for example, which offers over fifty thousand free concert recordings by nearly three thousand bands, most obscure, some not. (There’s a great Little Feat concert on there – the 1974 Ultrasonic Studios show, which used to fetch a lot of money when it was on vinyl back in the day. And if you like that sort of thing, there are nearly six thousand Grateful Dead recordings to choose from.) And there are sites like Daytrotter, where bands with contemporary currency offer specially-recorded versions of recent album tracks, and mp3 blog sites like Aquarium Drunkard, where bands and record labels have clearly colluded in making free tracks available. And many artist sites are giving away songs like there’s no tomorrow: check out lauracantrell.com, or the Go! Team’s website.

In other words: sometimes the farmer is happy for you to pick a few ears from the edge of his crop, stuff that’s still green, or misshapen – Laura Cantrell’s downloads are mostly songs she recorded for radio sessions.  Sometimes he’s happy to give you a portion for your dinner, in the hope you’ll come back for more. Sometimes (see Radiohead) he leaves out a bucket, and you can pay what you want, or nothing at all, if you feel like it. Sometimes he sells the entire crop to a neighbour, who gives it away for free in an attempt to get you to buy what he’s selling, as Prince did when he gave his last album to the Mail on Sunday.

A couple of weeks ago Paul Westerberg was selling an album’s-worth of material as one big, indivisible mp3, for 49 cents. Ben Folds has just leaked a fake version of the real album he’s releasing in the autumn, bashed-out tracks with the same titles as the official release, but with different tunes and lyrics. Nobody knows what’s going on any more, least of all economists, but many musicians are having a great deal of imaginative fun with, and in, the confusion.