Depending on where a musician sits in the music industry value chain, a top-10 list of what’s most important to an unsigned artist will differ greatly to one compiled by a million-album seller. Scratching a living out of music is something tens of thousands of musicians do every day. Although the Internet has opened up the promotion and distribution of music to anyone with a computer, it has also made selling music a lot more difficult as almost every single release in a digital-music store is available for free somewhere online.
Copyright is a complex business and the debate over the rights and wrongs of making music available without permission is something that evokes very different opinions. Some countries have come down hard on Internet users making music available without permission, whereas others have taken a less tough approach. Either way, the copyrights contained in a piece of music are the same worldwide.
This week has seen massive publicity over the success of US singer Justin Timberlake’s new album The 20/20 Experience, which sold close to one million copies in its debut release week. President of the US National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM), Jim Donio, said on the sales feat that Timberlake “is giving the industry quite a bit to be excited about.” Donio added that it was “great to have him back.”
The NARM president is not alone in his praise of Timberlake and no doubt plaudits for the artist will continue unabated as the album tops charts around the world and his world tour takes to the road later this year. However, rewind a couple of months and the self same singer was being accused of promoting an online music service that exploited artists and used their music without permission.
In 2011, media giant News Corp sold the social networking site Myspace to the online advertising firm Specific Media. Part of the deal saw Specific Media give an unspecified equity stake to Justin Timberlake who is now the figurehead of the service and is working to promote the site. At the time the sale was announced, Timberlake said he was “excited to help revitalize Myspace by using its social media platform to bring artists and fans together in one community.”
In January a number of reports picked up on concerns expressed by the independent artist community over the unauthorized use of their music on MySpace. Independent rights agency Merlin said tracks by more than 100 Merlin member companies were available to stream on the site without permission. Merlin had an agreement with MySpace before it was bought by Specific Media, but that deal has expired. According to a report in The New York Times, MySpace decided not to renew the licensing deal with Merlin, and therefore if any Merlin-member tracks appear on the site they will have been uploaded by MySpace users. MySpace confirmed that the tracks would be removed, but only after the receipt of a take-down notice from the owner label.
Although Timberlake will most likely be unaware of the licensing problems with Merlin, the widespread publicity surrounding his first week album success must rankle with the artists that see their music available on MySpace without permission. Also, the fact that MySpace will not remove their music unless asked to do so smacks of corporate exploitation. Specific Media will certainly welcome the publicity surrounding Timberlake and his link to MySpace, but ignoring small artists that simply do not have the wherewithal to defend themselves is wrong, regardless of whether Specific Media is legally required to do so or not.
In a statement after Specific Media bought MySpace, Timberlake said “there’s a need for a place where fans can go to interact with their favorite entertainers, listen to music, watch videos, share and discover cool stuff and just connect. Myspace has the potential to be that place.” Timberlake added that “art is inspired by people and vice versa, so there’s a natural social component to entertainment.”
Timberlake will be rewarded handsomely for his role in MySpace. Selling one million albums in a week will also have boosted his coffers. But actively drawing fans to an online site that does not reward every single artist on show makes Timberlake party to Specific Media’s exploitation. Ignorance to the exploitation is no defense. Has his links with MySpace affected his album sales? Of course not. But does that mean he should turn a blind eye to the wrongdoing? Timberlake may well be right to suggest that art is inspired by people, but the music industry will only survive if artists of all sizes are rewarded for that inspiration.
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