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Piracy: Same as it ever was in the music industry

The music industry has long battled piracy, but the difference now is that there's far more money at stake.

For those struggling musicians worried by rampant piracy and the subsequent difficulties in earning a living, Tim Blanning has news for you: it was ever thus.

Writing in The New Statesman, Blanning traces the history of the music industry, finding "Modern musicians' lot compares very well to that of their predecessors." Indeed, Blanning points out the very bane of modern musicians' existence - the ability to record (and, hence, copy and distribute) music - is also the very reason that musicians have an opportunity to generate outsized returns on their musical investments.

Until music could be recorded, the only revenue available to the musician was from performances of that music. "Not even as great a virtuoso as Paganini or Liszt had a back catalogue."

The result? Today, good-but-not great bands like Coldplay can make tens of millions while the great composer Richard Wagner died a comparative pauper. With all the flaws of the modern system from pirates and ensuing economic uncertainties, we should be cheering the modern system and its digitization of musical content, even when some profit is lost to piracy.

For composers...copyright protection is very much a creation of modern times. Until deep into the 19th century, piracy of the most flagrant kind was the norm....In the course of the 19th century, ever-growing markets, bigger spaces for music and better communications allowed many more performers to make much more money....

...[Even so] for every Bono and his countless millions, there is a host of modestly paid session players, 90 per cent of whom earn less than [$22,500] a year....It will come as no consolation to them to know, if they do not know it already, that it was ever so.

Ever since musicians emerged from the servile but cosy world of aristocratic patronage into the harsh daylight of the public sphere, the musical profession has been a pyramid with a broad base and a sharp top. The new opportunities brought by every major technological shift have also left many casualties among musicians unable or unwilling to adapt.

There are no easy answers for the music industry, but in its quest to capture all possible digital revenue, let's not forget that digitization has introduced dramatically more available revenue than ever before. A little "leakage" hurts, but not nearly as much as it would to go back in time and earn one's keep by performance alone.