The digital age has caused a lot of upset in the music business.

In 2001, major record labels won a lawsuit agains Napster, arguing rightly that the music file-sharing service had infringed on the rights of artists by allowing fans to download music for free without license. It was an awkward moment, as all sorts of tactics were experimented with to stop fans from copying music. Enter: Apple’s iTunes store and iPod. The Apple solution provided a system that could adapt to new consumer demands and still reward artists and labels. Though the industry resisted initially, it became the new business model within a few years.

Today, the emergence of streaming services is once again challenging the existing model, making music even more accessible, and paying artists less. Again, consumers love it, but major players in the industry are dubious. In the case of artists like Taylor Swift, they are flat out resisting.

Back in July, Swift lamented that artists are not given their due worth under this model, asking with trepidation, “Where will the music industry be in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years?” On the recent release of her new album 1989, she put words into action and pulled the album from all streaming services, including streaming giant Spotify.

There are those who join Swift in making the case that buying full albums provides both a better experience and a more fair valuation on an artist’s work. Mark Hemingway at Acculturated argues that “if you care about music, ultimately you have to care about musicians, and musicians have value.” 

But what exactly determines the value of music?

Are we talking about some vague notion of collective value to humanity? That would be hard to pin down. As I interpret Hemingway, he is referring to the value added to a person’s life. But if you could quantify the value one person gets from a Taylor Swift album compared to what any other random person gets, you’d find very different numbers. And it would vary for different artists, of course.

Actually, we do have a quantifiable measure that, while imperfect, estimates this pretty well—that rather simple instrument we call price.

Prices are the result of balancing costs and benefits. A brief dive into economic theory here. The more something benefits someone, the more they are willing to pay for it. Since civilization moved beyond the barter system long ago, a typical exchange involves one person trading money for something they want more (a product/service) and the other person trading their product/service for something they want more (money). Both have something to gain and lose in the deal, so the price ends up reflecting the specific point at which they both win.

Of course, companies like Spotify aren’t going to let every user or artist determine their price, so they do their own calculations to estimate what something is worth for the average target customer, and those who agree can opt-in, while others can continue using another service. Getting this number right is critical to the success of the company.

Now, it might be true that Spotify underpays its catalogue of artists and labels, and we will see how that pans out in time. But a couple of things need to be taken into consideration.

1. When you buy a song, you’re paying a premium for unlimited ownership rights, versus essentially leasing the music for a few minutes at a time. Given the benefits, or lack thereof, the costs should be very different.

2. Because fans can explore new music at no additional cost, Spotify gives both fans and upcoming artists unprecedented access to one another. In other words, the barriers have never been lower, and that’s awesome. From the artists’ perspective, this access comes at a cost…. but most would say it’s worth it.

If access to millions of listeners is worth it, why are artists like Taylor Swift and Radiohead’s Thom York speaking out against Spotify? Let me put the question another way: if you already had millions of loyal fans who are prepared to buy whatever you release, would you rather they purchase your album at full-price or stream it for pennies?

I have to agree with Tom Barnes at Mic.com:

“Swift’s 1989 — with all the records it’s set to break — is going to look like a victory for the industry’s old model. But it’s really not. It’s only proof that the old model is unfeasible for anyone but music’s 1%.”

Spotify isn’t for the well-established artists; it’s for up-and-coming talent that is begging for exposure, hoping that if just a small piece of the massive Spotify audience catches onto their music they can fill larger venues, sell more merchandise, and build a large enough following to land bigger deals.

I would not be surprised if Spotify alters their business model in the near future to increase payouts to popular artists. If they lose brand name stars, they lose their audiences. But I also won’t be surprised to hear a whole new chorus of complaints emerge about the unjust practice of paying struggling artists less than those who are already making millions. At the end of the day, it’s all about how people leverage what they need versus what they can provide, and it really is a win-win.

Streaming, or subscription-based content, is quickly becoming the norm, even with things like cars and bicycles. People are realizing that you don’t have to own everything. Sometimes it just makes more sense to enjoy something as you need it, then move on. That’s how you maximize value.

Perhaps we haven’t nailed down exactly how to make this model work best, but that’s no reason to throw it out. Instead, we should embrace it, and see where it leads, because it will likely bring new innovation that no one can even imagine right now. Those who fought against the digital age in 2001 could not see what has been made possible in the 14 years since—iPods, cheap music, and a total independence from Radio. And indeed, the “big four” record labels no longer enjoy their dominant status as gatekeepers in the industry as they did when I started making music. Thankfully, it is a far more democratic industry now.

So yes, Taylor, the music industry will be alive and well in 50 years—it just may not look exactly like it does today, and that’s exciting.

 

Back in April, the Houston Independent School District unveiled four new high school mascots after their previous names were deemed too “culturally insensitive.” The offending mascots included the Indians, the Redskins, the Warriors and the Rebels.

The argument that these names are somehow discriminatory is absurd. School mascots are chosen because they’re awesome—something to emulate and admire. Students take the identity of the mascot upon themselves: “we’re the Indians!”

But there are plenty of people for whom protesting is a cause unto itself, and it’s just enough to make everyone’s day miserable. That means that even such awesome and innocuous names as warriors and rebels were marked for banishment.

Someone decided all this was worth the $250,000 required to change the mascots. Your tax dollars at work, folks.

Jump ahead a few months and it looks like the names of some schools are also up for the chopping block. In particular, schools named after Confederate-era figures. After all, why should we make heroes of people who were obviously on the wrong side of history?

I suppose, while we’re at it, we should look through our history books and national monuments and eliminate those individuals whose views might be out of step with today’s enlightened perspective.

The Washington and Jefferson memorials should be razed at once, since they participated in slavery. And even though Abraham Lincoln fought to end slavery, he still held racist views, and for that he was a necessary evil at best. Pretty much every president up until, well, halfway through Obama’s term, believed same-sex marriage to me immoral, or at least unwise. Perhaps we should just teach children that no prior president, including first-term Barack, really deserves our respect.

That’s ridiculous, of course. The point is that society evolves and our definition of what is acceptable today may not be tomorrow. If we get into the habit of shaming everyone who preceded us and fails to match our ever-shifting—but always superior—cultural norms, you may be the one your grandchildren refer to as “that ignorant bigot.”

There are a lot of bad ideas in books. We don’t burn them. There are a lot of historical figures who made bad decisions. We don’t shame them. We let them live, and continue to debate them, because the only guarantee of a wise and virtuous people is the freedom to engage with all ideas, to understand the evil we’ve overcome, and  to learn that even being wrong has a role to play in helping us all get it right.

Within one month, the nation saw the ousting of two public figures for their stances on religion and race. Those behind the ousting claim they are championing the cause of civil rights in the 21st century. But something is amiss, and it is profoundly disturbing.

Way back in 2008, Mozilla Founder/CEO and JavaScript creator Brendan Eich made what was apparently a horrible, life-changing mistake: he financially supported an initiative (Proposition 8) to protect traditional marriage in California. For perspective, recall that even presidential candidate Barack Obama’s position on Prop 8 was squishy back in those days.  The Twitterverse originally discovered the publicly-recorded contribution in 2012, but it resurfaced upon Eich’s appointment as CEO and led ultimately to his resignation surrounded by controversy and protest.

Another public figure, another sin: In 2013, San Diego Clippers owner Donald Sterling expressed his dislike of African Americans to a female friend. Thanks to a recording that was released to TMZ, those remarks have become public. As a result, Sterling is banned for life from NBA games and Clippers facilities, and has been fined $2.5 million.

Both scenarios present actions that are directly offensive to certain groups in society, and for that reason both individuals faced dire consequences. I agree with Nick Gillespie’s characterization of these events as simply the action and reaction of market forces. When users boycott a product or advertisers pull their support, we are witnessing a company kept in check by the people. If a leader cannot lead effectively because s/he has damaged the brand and severed trust of employees or customers, that person must go. And as far as that point can take us, I have no problem with what happened to these men. But that doesn’t get to the real problem.

Denny Burk argues that the difference between these two events is that Eich did not actively discriminate against gay people, while Sterling was clearly revealed to be—quoting Andrew Sullivan’s words—“a crude, foul bigot.” The rationale here seems to be that the public should be understanding toward offensive actions as long as the offender is not blatant about it. The distinction is perhaps too subtle for my taste.

Nearly everyone finds Sterling’s actions repulsive, while the controversy at Mozilla was merely ideological, but there is more to these stories than the number of protesters. The particular size of the mob bears no moral significance. Even though I regretted what happened to Eich and I enjoy the thought of someone like Sterling getting what was surely coming to him, at some level both events are equally disturbing.

Both of these men have been publicly condemned and punished because they hold unpopular opinions. One believes the state should only recognize marriage between a man and a woman, and the other takes issue with people of a certain skin color. We all acknowledge that these individuals have a right to their opinions. Yet, just because one has a right does not mean the expression of it is appropriate in all times and places. A negative post about one’s boss on Facebook is reasonable grounds for being fired, even if it isn’t outlined in company policy—at some point, common sense must enter the picture. It is naïve to think that one should not have to balance their personal and professional life.

What is most disturbing in both cases is that these men kept their unpopular opinions to themselves—it was others who brought them into public view with the intention to destroy them.

“these men kept their unpopular opinions to themselves—it was others who brought them into public view with the intention to destroy them.”

What should they have done? In order to avoid public lashing, should Eich have refrained from any kind of support or expression in an important political debate, or should Sterling have avoided speaking with friends about his ridiculous views? Perhaps, but that starts to hamper the whole idea behind freedom of expression.

Freedom of Speech in the U.S. has two meanings. From a constitutional perspective, the First Amendment says the Federal government has no power to limit free expression. Since neither of these cases involve a Federal prosecution, the Constitution does not apply, and it may be fully within the right of the public to silence an offender. But the other interpretation of Freedom of Speech suggests that it is a fundamental right, to be not only protected from government, but by government, as part of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This view holds that individuals should not be shut out of the public dialogue because of unpopular ideas.

“Unpopular” should be distinguished from “dangerous.” An early Supreme Court case concluded that Freedom of Speech does not give one the right to falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater because it can threaten public safety. Sometimes, one man’s liberty is another man’s tyranny, so a balance must be struck in the protection of rights.

Who is the victim here, and whose rights should be protected? To the news media and most of the public, the victims are the offended masses. But the men themselves are also victims of self-appointed wistleblowers and a culture that has zero tolerance for the appearance of intolerance.

It is not a crime to be racist, or to be against same-sex marriage, and in a free country that should remain the case. If anything, the government may be used by these individuals to sue for slander. But the court of public opinion obeys no law but its own.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln—then an up-start attorney and Illinois representative— addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, urging his audience to steer clear of the mob mentality:

“When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded. But all this even, is not the full extent of the evil.–By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.”

By these words, Lincoln pressed upon his audience that the preservation of a nation of laws, not men, must depend on a respect for reason and order. The hangings and witch trials of today are highly commercialized, driven by a combination of leftist intolerance and media sensationalism.

“The hangings and witch trials of today are highly commercialized, driven by a combination of leftist intolerance and media sensationalism.”

In another example, the narrative built around the Trayvon Martin story within the first 48 hours destroyed the reputation of George Zimmerman, irrespective of his guilt or all evidence to the contrary. NBC went so far as to edit recordings of Zimmerman to hyperbolize the story in order to characterize Zimmerman as a racist, and is now under suit for doing so. What matters here is not whether he was innocent, but whether due process was allowed to operate before the media cast their verdict.

There was once a reining idea among liberals that people should be able to not only hold, but loudly express unpopular, countercultural opinions. From Westphalia to the U.S. Founding, the onward march of humanity had sought not only democratic equality, but freedom of conscience, protected by government—one of its few legitimate roles. We are now seeing these rights challenged by a mob-like intolerance. Without a respect for privacy, personal opinion and due process, we are indeed no longer a free country.