Musicians make shift to survive piracy

Friday, April 27, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In a world of reduced copyright protection — think music piracy made easy by technology — how will songwriters and musicians make enough money to survive?

The answer, according to several panelists yesterday at the First Amendment Center, is by getting their work into as many commercial and promotional avenues as possible.

In the 1790s the copyright clause and the speech and press freedoms in the Bill of Rights turned the United States into an engine of creativity, said First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson. “This nation quickly became a haven for the artistic, the creative, the inventive.”

But theft of material protected by copyright has damaged the livelihoods of artists since the illegal copying of sheet music in the early days of the republic. Through the years, piracy concerns were heightened by radio, cassettes, bootleg tapes and theft through Napster and other online services.

“We’ve never been without music” throughout history, said Vanderbilt Law School professor Daniel J. Gervais, but a healthy music culture “can only happen if songwriters and musicians get paid.”

Musicians and music companies have had to adjust to the new tech world of downloads and streaming. Panelists expressed hope that even amid the welter of high-tech ways to obtain music without paying for it, the music world is indeed adjusting, if not without pain.

“We’re meeting the consumers where they live and making it easier not to steal,” said Angela R. Magill, vice president for legal and business affairs at Sony Music in Nashville.

After years of declining revenues in the music business, sales are up and piracy is down, said Jay Frank, CEO of DigSin, a new Nashville digital music company.

“We have now trained a generation to buy singles,” he said. “People are paying for music.”

Nashville singer-songwriter Craig Carothers agreed that music-lovers’ ability to buy individual songs as opposed to entire CD albums was a key factor in stabilizing the music industry. Singles can spur additional sales, as did the cheap 45-rpm singles of the 1950s and ’60s.

The trouble for musicians is that it’s harder for most to make a living now.

“We have luminary songwriters who are out of work,” Carothers said. “Lots of people are making a little bit of money in music.”

“There’s less money but more avenues” for music, he added. His touring and songwriting royalties don’t bring in a large income, he said, but enough for him to survive along with teaching.

Carothers disagreed with Gervais on the value of Spotify and other streaming services in helping musicians get paid for their work. Streaming services aren’t doing that well themselves financially and provide paltry earnings to songwriters and performers, Gervais said. To Carothers, streaming services are promotional tools that drive listeners to live shows.

After Frank mentioned that the largest music service was YouTube, the discussion wound around to the question of the use of copyrighted material by users posting their own videos — set to music they don’t own.

Gervais said the case law on what constitutes “fair use” of copyrighted matter in settings such as YouTube was too scarce to provide much guidance on what’s allowable. Traditionally fair use has been taken to mean presenting a small portion of a work, such as a quotation in a book review, or the use of copyrighted material for purely educational purposes.

The panel was organized with members of the U.S. Copyright Office as part of a daylong discussion of the state of copyright law and the activities of the Copyright Office. The program was sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the Federal Bar Association-Nashville Chapter.

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