Reihan Salam has an article up at Slate now on a scheme proposed by Warner Music Group to “tax” internet subscribers $5 each, right on the monthly ISP bill, to pay for unlimited music downloading privileges/forgiveness. Salam recognizes that some characterize this as “the music industry’s extortion scheme,” but suggests that “it’s not as horrible as it sounds.”
As Michael Arrington of TechCrunch argues, the inevitable downside to such an arrangement is likely that it would put the music industry into an even more powerful position to fix prices—why settle on a $5 “blanket licensing agreement” when that could be $7.50? Moreover, why should those who don’t buy or download music subsidize others’ media consumption habits?
Nevertheless, Salam reasons that “something like the music tax simply has to happen” because “piracy can’t be stopped”; it’s just too tempting, too much easier than going out of your way to pay for music. But a system that could “eliminate middlemen” would put more money in artists’ pockets than the current system, which makes piracy too easy to resist.
Two major forms of this proposed to date—Warner’s blanket licensing agreement and Apple’s recent suggestion for “all-you-can-eat iTunes”—still serve corporate interests better than consumers’. Salam suggests, with apologies to libertarians, that a superior alternative would be a government-mandated music tax (presumably like the blank media levy in Canada).
“What’s not to like?” Salam asks. Apparently, plenty. Readers commenting on the article seem overwhelmingly baffled or annoyed by this proposal. What’s the guarantee this money would actually go to artists? Why not a $5 internet news subsidy instead? And, again, what about those who don’t listen to music?
I will leave aside most of my quibbles with the details of Salam’s reasoning. (After all, hasn’t Apple proved that plenty of people are more willing to pay a buck a song than to go through the trouble of pirating?) The greatest remaining question to my mind, however, is: Why music?
Media sharing over the internet—legal and illegal alike—consists of more than just music downloads. A huge amount of torrent traffic is dedicated to downloading television shows, for example, not to mention feature-length films, computer games, and pirated software packages. The music industry has simply been the most vocal and aggressive of all these industries in insisting that it be compensated for revenue presumably lost to piracy.
Part of me suspects that Warner’s proposal will never go anywhere because of those who aren’t interested in subsidizing the download habits of others, if nothing else. (Being one who spends very little on music each year myself, and mostly buys directly from artists, it kind of rubs me the wrong way.) But then again, we certainly have plenty of extra fees and such tacked onto our broadband bills that most subscribers never think to question, so perhaps that would just be one more.
Moreover, the whole “music tax” approach is already more or less under effect at universities across the U.S. that have bought into blanket download services for students. I’m surprised that other content industries haven’t thought to ride such successes themselves, tacking an internet television fee onto tuition bills, but perhaps it’s just a matter of time—or perhaps everyone else is waiting to see how badly the music industry suffers in the long run under its own mismanaged public image.