Science, Music & Money

The Stewart Brand quote often gets bandied about by those who say it with a tone of righteousness, a tone not born of authenticity as much as unsubstantiated entitlement: “Information wants to be free.” This, of course, is what is presumed to be some sort of blows against the empire, an attack on things like paywalls that have it that someone actually provide remuneration for whatever value they receive from that information.

But as is oft the case, the quote is truncated for convenience. Brand actually wrote:

“Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to measure. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient.”

Yes, that whole expensive part gets conveniently left out of the sloganeering.

What seems to be conveniently overlooked is that there is data, raw unorganized points, and then there is information: that data put into context.

This is the case whether that data takes the form of an array of words organized into something with meaning (little, had, Mary, a, lamb) or musical notes into a song (think of Beethoven’s Fifth: “duh-duh-duh-duuuh” and put the last note anywhere else).

Back in the 19th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell came up with an idea that he maintained would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Newton law that Thomas Pynchon* wrote about, the one that deals with the amount of entropy. Maxwell argued that were there two boxes attached containing a mix of hot and cold molecules, a tiny demon could operate a door between the two boxes and let the cold molecules migrate to one box and the hot ones to the other, thereby decreasing the amount of entropy without applying any work.

A flaw in this is simply that the little demon, imaginary though it may be, was actually doing work.

And that’s the thing about the creation of information: There is work involved. And those who perform the work really need to be rewarded for their efforts. Proponents of the “want to be free” approach seem not to take that into account.

Putting words and sounds into order requires work. Musicians are workers. And in order for musicians to continue to be musicians, they need to be paid for their work. (Yes, they can give it away, perform for free, but at some point they are going to have to do something in order to make money. But let’s just consider those for whom making, recording and performing music is the means by which they generate income without having to drive an Uber.)

I recently came upon the Music Workers Alliance (MWA), which was established, by independent musicians and DJs, under the umbrella of the NYC Artists Coalition, in June 2019, and which has since become an independent organization. The MWA was established to achieve economic justice for its members, something that became all the more important in March 2020, when COVID caused the shutting of live music venues.

One of the priorities that the MWA is working to address is in the digital domain. Yes, including the space of streaming.

As it explains the situation: “Streaming rates suck. We all know it. It’s the #1 complaint of music workers today. Spotify’s average $0.0038/stream is a starvation wage — this is not sustainable. It would take on average 470,000 streams per month to make minimum wage. We can’t support our families and build our careers.”

What’s interesting is what the MWA identifies as the major cause for why the music workers aren’t getting their due, and it is not the villain that you might think it is. No, not Spotify. It’s, they argue, YouTube: “Virtually all recorded music is available for free on YouTube. 2 billion people (six times Spotify’s ~365 million users) stream their music for free on YouTube. If Spotify raised their price, they’d simply lose users to YouTube. Nobody can sell what anybody can get for free.

To address this, the MWA wants the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to be adjusted and enforced such that platforms (e.g., YouTube) do not have safe harbor status, which protects them from legal liability when sharing copyrighted material.

Let’s face it: changing a law, especially one that’s been around for a while (DMCA was established in 1998), is difficult (except in places like Texas and Florida).

But there is something that can happen much more quickly:

Now that things are opening up and the masks are being removed, if you see there is a performance by one of your favorite musicians, go and see that performer. If they are selling their discs, buy them. If you see that a band you like is offering music in a physical medium, then buy it.

This is not to say that the musicians are necessarily going to be able to make a sustainable amount of money by doing so, but odds are the proceeds will be higher than $0.0038 per stream or, most certainly, free.

*In the novels he wrote that you can hurt your foot with should you drop one on it, Pynchon sometimes wrote song lyrics. A band that had a brief existence in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, The Insect Trust, made a magnificent recording of one, “Eyes of a New York Woman,” on its second of two albums, Hoboken Saturday Night. I had happened to find a cutout version of that album in a drug store in an anemic strip mall in Aiea, Hawaii in 1972, and of the hundreds of discs I have owned over the years, I miss the disappearance of that one along the way. Which brings me to another topic related to that main section above: The now-gone enjoyment of searching for music. Consider: I had gone into the aforementioned drug store to buy a bottle of aspirin, but there was a display with rows of albums with little notches cut out of their jackets (which gave rise to the term “cut out”: the notches prevented them as being sold as original), which I flipped through, hangover notwithstanding. Places like that didn’t have new releases, but any department store had a full department dedicated to music, aisles and aisles of discs separated into genres than subcategorized by artist name. Then there were, wonder of wonders, full stores dedicated to music: Record Stores.** These were places that you could lose lots of time in, flipping through the thousands of records that were even in the small stores. Go to a place like Tower Music and plan on losing hours. Not only would you discover music from performers that you knew but were, able to find music you were unaware existed (imagine a time prior to search engines), discs that, for whatever reason—whether it was seeing the writers of a particular cut or the name of the cut or the participation of a performer you liked or simply cover art—that you had to have. This discovery has gone from being something that you were tangibly involved with to an algorithm. I am highly confident that there would be no “suggestion” that I listen to something from The Insect Trust. And my listening life would be somewhat beggared for the loss.

**Record stores still exist. But there are far fewer than there once were. More’s the pity. If you can find one, support it. Buy stuff.

One thought on “Science, Music & Money”

  1. Stephen’s point about record stores is why I avoid streaming services in favor of interesting public and independent radio stations. In music, eclectic beats “curated” every time.

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