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Billy Bragg: Let us decide how to exploit our own music

The songwriter and author issues a smackdown to Bebo and other social networks profiting off the toil of independent artists.

Sometimes there are words that really reverberate with people. What Thomas Jefferson wrote in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution is one. I think Barack Obama's disquisition on race in America is another. I'm curious to know how the smackdown Billy Bragg delivered to the social-networking moguls is going to be received.

If history's any guide, his New York Times op-ed on Saturday called "The Royalty Scam" will fall on deaf ears. Still, it's worth a serious hearing.

Best as I can tell, Bragg isn't a technophobe trying to turn back the clock. Rather, he's concerned about the livelihood of his profession and he wants to know how musicians will make a living in the cyberage.

"The musicians who posted their work on Bebo.com are no different from investors in a start-up enterprise. Their investment is the content provided for free while the site has no liquid assets. Now that the business has reaped huge benefits, surely they deserve a dividend.

What's at stake here is more than just the morality of the market. The huge social networking sites that seek to use music as free content are as much to blame for the malaise currently affecting the industry as the music lover who downloads songs for free. Both the corporations and the kids, it seems, want the use of our music without having to pay for it.

The claim that sites such as MySpace and Bebo are doing us a favor by promoting our work is disingenuous. Radio stations also promote our work, but they pay us a royalty that recognizes our contribution to their business. Why should that not apply to the Internet, too?"

He doesn't answer the questions he raises. But Bragg does recommend the creation of rules of the road to let artists "decide how our music is exploited and by whom." Rules? Consensus? Hoo boy, I can already hear the outrage, punctuated by dismissive peals of laughter. Too bad. He deserves a serious hearing. Now it's your turn.

Update 12:50 p.m. PDT: Over at Rough Type, Nick Carr has a good take on the topic that's worth reading. Especially this zinger toward the end:

"Exploitation is exploitation, no matter how lovingly it's wrapped in neo-hippie technobabble about virtual communities, social production, and the gift economy."