How private equity has used copyright to cannibalise the past at the expense of the future

Walled Culture has been warning about the financialisation and securitisation of music for two years now. Those obscure but important developments mean that the owners of copyrights are increasingly detached from the creative production process. They regard music as just another asset, like gold, petroleum or property, to be exploited to the maximum. A Guest Essay in the New York Times points out one of the many bad consequences of this trend:

Does that song on your phone or on the radio or in the movie theater sound familiar? Private equity — the industry responsible for bankrupting companies, slashing jobs and raising the mortality rates at the nursing homes it acquires — is making money by gobbling up the rights to old hits and pumping them back into our present. The result is a markedly blander music scene, as financiers cannibalize the past at the expense of the future and make it even harder for us to build those new artists whose contributions will enrich our entire culture.

As well as impoverishing our culture, the financialisation and securitisation of music is making life even harder for the musicians it depends on:

In the 1990s, as the musician and indie label founder Jenny Toomey wrote recently in Fast Company, a band could sell 10,000 copies of an album and bring in about $50,000 in revenue. To earn the same amount in 2024, the band’s whole album would need to rack up a million streams — roughly enough to put each song among Spotify’s top 1 percent of tracks. The music industry’s revenues recently hit a new high, with major labels raking in record earnings, while the streaming platforms’ models mean that the fractions of pennies that trickle through to artists are skewed toward megastars.

Part of the problem is the extremely low rates paid by streaming services. But the larger issue is the power imbalance within all the industries based on copyright. The people who actually create books, music, films and the rest are forced to accept bad deals with the distribution companies. Walled Culture the book (free ebook versions) details the painfully low income the vast majority of artists derive from their creativity, and how most are forced to take side jobs to survive. This daily struggle is so widespread that it is no longer remarked upon. It is one of the copyright world’s greatest successes that the public and many creators now regard this state of affairs as a sad but unavoidable fact of life. It isn’t.

The New York Times opinion piece points out that there are signs private equity is already moving on to its next market/victim, having made its killing in the music industry. But one thing is for sure. New ways of financing today’s exploited artists are needed, and not ones cooked up by Wall Street. Until musicians and creators in general take back control of their works, rather than acquiescing in the hugely unfair deal that is copyright, it will always be someone else who makes most of the money from their unique gifts.

Featured image by GoginkLobabi.

Follow me @glynmoody on Mastodon and on Bluesky.

Cookie Consent with Real Cookie Banner