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You Cannot Buy Music
by Simon S. Foust

Many people hold a flawed perspective about music that the major labels and the record stores love for people to have. The perspective, quite simply, is that when you, a consumer, shell out that 15 bucks per CD, you buy music.

But you do not really buy music.. because music is not the physical product that we sometimes mistake it for. Music is an intangible, eternal form of artistic expression.

A simple concept one must understand lies in the fact that anything that has no mass also has no time. That which has no time, is eternal. That which is eternal, cannot be bought because it merely is.

Do not misunderstand, I do not mean to suggest that a copy of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will forever exist. Certainly, I recognize the possibility that every instance, every copy of a certain piece of music may one day no longer exist. The eternity of music lies in the concept of music as an artistic expression. This concept is outside the boundaries of time and space because it is not dependant or affected by those boundaries. Yes, it is an arrangement of sound waves in each instance, but looking deeper, it is simply a form of expression.

If you choose not to purchase that plastic disk in the record store that does not mean that the music does not exist.

If the record store sells you that plastic disk that does not mean you own the music. You have merely purchased the right to listen to that music stored on that plastic disk – but more directly, you’ve purchased a plastic disk, some paper on which you may find some cover art, and perhaps some lyrics.

Allegedly, the profit (profit, in this case, meaning money after the cost of the actual materials of plastic and paper; what it took to manufacture those; and the record stores’ cut, etc.) goes to the record label, who then takes a portion for its’ trouble (promoting, popularizing, funding, etc.), and finally, to the artist who formed his or her artistic expression with that music. Now, there you have a crude description of the general idea surrounding the breakdown of the money involved with selling CDs.

The problem begins in us, when we, assuming we understand what we pay for, then begin to have this perspective that music is a physical product for which we can pay and then own. This folly in thinking cheapens our perspective on music, the art. This multi-billion dollar industry built around an intangible, eternal form of artistic expression becomes the very thing that devalues this expression by forcing music lovers to become consumers who purchase a physical product.

Now, the record labels realize that we do not purchase the music when we purchase those plastic disks. I would venture to say that in most cases, the record company believes that it owns the music. Here, further flawed thinking results in confusing copyright with possession. Even the copyright holders cannot own music. Copyright law say that an individual or company can own the right to a particular arrangement of music and collect money when another individual listens to that arrangement of music. When we pay to listen, we pay to listen – we do not pay to own the music itself. Copyright law attempts to provide artists with incentive to create – and that is good. However, when copyright law crosses that boundary and begins to allow companies to collect money from an artist’s creative expression without paying the artist, then copyright law becomes unethical. And when copyright law begins to become obsolete due to technological advances, then it needs to get revised.

Stealing Music?

It frustrates me when I read headlines like, “Music Industry Estimates Losses Due To Music Theft.” The very notion of someone stealing music astounds me. Yes, if I walk into Virgin Records and take a plastic disk and walk out without paying, that is shoplifting. Yes, when I download a copyrighted music file from the Internet without permission and without paying, I have infringed on the copyright holders rights. But in each of these cases, the music is not stolen. The supply has not decreased, in fact it has increased, and so has the demand.

The truth is, music lovers everywhere become more frustrated as time goes on and as the music industry moguls, the RIAA, the record labels, continue to try and force music to be perceived as a product. The moguls want music to continue to be perceived as a product because this product, these plastic disks, largely remain what grows the billion-dollar a year industry.

The problem with the music industry and the current model is a subject widely talked about in our day of technological advances. Steve Albini perhaps wrote one of the most widely circulated articles. You should also read the article by Negativ Land about the price of CDs.

The Good News

The good news is that technology (perhaps inadvertently) has created (and continues to create) an opportunity for us to regain a right perspective on what music really is.

You cannot buy music. Hopefully, the record industry will wake up, smell the frustration of all the music lovers, and begin to offer us the option to pay for the delivery of digital music through subscription models where the music feels free but the artist prospers.

It should seem blatantly obvious that, at this point, people become more and more accustomed to getting music for free on the Internet, and the longer the industry waits, the more difficult they will find it to get people to pay for Napster-like services. Furthermore, suing Napster and others out of existence helps no one. In fact, it only hurts the labels and pisses off the music lovers.

Record labels, RIAA, government: We will become the generation to bring value to music as an art. We will end the exploitation of artists as mere pawns in a bigger, moneymaking scheme. Technology becomes our weapon and nothing can stop us.

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