Paying for music

Can we pay for music on a voluntary basis?

Mike O’Hare’s idea about how to pay for the creation, performance, and production of music in recorded form — allocate a lump of tax money (about $100 per family) for the recorded-music industry, give everyone unlimited access to the music, and divide the money among the various products on some measure of listenership — seems to me a sound, and important, one. But it’s not going to be easy to get there from here.

My friend Bob Jesse has a different (albeit compatible) thought. Instead of making people pay for access to music before they hear it, why not make it easy — push-one-button easy — for someone who has just heard recorded music he likes to send some amount of money to whoever owns the rights to that track? Would it work? That is, would enough people give enough money to support the activity? Beats me. (The answer for classical or folk music might be different from the answer for hip-hop and bubblegum rock.) The impulse to applaud is strong, and might easily turn out to be stronger than the impulse to free-ride.

Here’s an idea that’s halfway between a purely voluntary system and the current system. Give the people who pay 99 cents a track to download from the I-Tunes store and its competitors the option to reallocate the money they spend among the tracks they download. That is, once they’ve heard the music, let them “vote” with money for which part of the music they’ve downloaded they’d like to hear more of.

Either the purely voluntary system or the compromise would generate very valuable information about what music people actually like, as opposed to what music they buy access to. That would help solve the problem of connecting listeners to music they would like but haven’t heard, or heard about.

The benefit to me of knowing what music that I haven’t yet heard really appeals to the people who like the same music I do — as revealed by similar donation profiles — would be great enough to keep me active.

The Internet has the capacity to “disintermediate” the flow of creative product from produces to consumers, replacing the filtering function now served by producers, publishers, and retailers. Whether that capacity gets realized is unpredictable, and it matters. I’d hate to bet any substantial amount of money on the capacity of the current polarized, ideological, fact-free, money-dominated political process to handle this question well.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: