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Music Industry Under Sway of Digital Revolution

  • Lisa Schlein

A photo illustration shows a digital music player held in London.

A photo illustration shows a digital music player held in London.

The global reach of music is almost limitless thanks to the digital revolution. Millions of people in every corner of the Earth now can enjoy a vast variety and quantity of music in a way that has never before been possible. This creates both opportunities and problems for professionals in the music industry. Questions about the future of the music industry in this digital age are on the minds of many as they celebrate World Intellectual Property Day.

Jimmie Moore, known professionally as JMetro, is a singer, songwriter and poet from Houston, Texas in the southern U.S. He introduces a new song he has composed, called Midnight Dreams, which will not be released until August or September.

“Because it is copyrighted, I know that you all can hear it and record it, put it on YouTube or whatever," said JMetro. "It does not matter. Just spread it all throughout the world and I feel completely confident knowing that no one else is going to take the music that I have worked so hard to create.”

JMetro was a contender for the 57th Grammy awards for his single Frosty. He was a victim of infringement by a better-known artist and has become a strong advocate of the copyright system. He tells VOA he appreciates the opportunities the new technologies afford him and other independent artists to distribute their work widely throughout the world.

“However, at the same time, I saw that under the current system artists are not being fairly compensated," said JMetro. "So, it makes it difficult to continue to be able to fund our creativity. But, ultimately, it is great to have the exposure.”

Director of the copyright division of the World Intellectual Property Organization, Michelle Woods, says the international copyright law treaties have been updated for the digital era. She says it should be possible for artists in the music industry to continue to earn a living under the new digital system.

But, she recognizes legitimate concerns, principally those of piracy, have increased under the current system.

“But, then secondly, there can be concerns about business models where the payments say per stream or per play of a particular title is a tiny fraction of what would have been paid, say, under the terrestrial radio system," said Woods. "

Woods says these areas are being worked out. But, results are uncertain given the endless possibilities for streaming and downloading music on the Internet for free.

Alexandre Lombard, a young consumer advocate, puts his finger on the problem.

“We have the opportunity to access almost every piece of music that ever existed…For my generation, music has always been available for free," said Lombard. "Some way or another you could access free music on the Internet.”

Despite the availability of free downloads, digital music sales are accelerating. The industry reports global digital revenues grew nearly seven percent to $6.85 billion last year. For the first time, digital and physical accounted for the same proportion of industry revenues, with both equaling 46 percent.

Chris Ancliff is General Counsel International of Warner Music Group, one of the world’s largest record companies. He says the music business has been written off many times yet still exists.

“The recording music business has invested something like $20 billion in new artists over the last five years alone," said Ancliff. "So, we still think of ourselves as being a strong and healthy business. Now clearly we are not as strong and as big as perhaps we were 10 years ago…The easy availability of free illegal music on the Internet has played a very big part in that.”

Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi is a passionate advocate of musicians’ rights. He says the digital revolution opens up many opportunities for African musicians and composers. He says it is easy for artists to promote their works and get it heard by a worldwide audience. But, he notes African artists lack control over their work and they lose money because of free downloads on the Internet.

Speaking through an interpreter, Awadi says African governments must put in place legal structures that will protect artists’ rights.

“And so, what we want to do is see to it that all of our countries we can strike deals that are fair, that are equitable…We’re connected to the world. Let us make sure that the legal framework is there so that we can lead a decent life from our creations, as is the case elsewhere in the world,” said Awadi.

The digital revolution is opening up unprecedented opportunities for musicians to disseminate their work and for consumers to expand their musical horizons. The potential for commercial growth is immense. The burgeoning creativity exploding on the Internet will continue to thrive-but, only if the artists are remunerated for their talent and output. Consumers throughout the world have a stake in putting a brake on the slippery digital system so the rights of musicians are protected and rewarded.