This is a story that does not have a happy ending. Once upon a time, the internet made it possible for people to publish things they were interested in, to other people that were interested in the same things, at very little monetary cost, save the time it took to create their content and publish it. One of the biggest communities of people with a common interest is musicians.
Musicians are resourceful people. If there is one thing about musicians that characterises pretty much all of them, it’s that they believe in life-long, continuous learning. They never stop learning. They devour learning materials. What they don’t have, however, is a lot of money. They’re musicians, not bankers. Duh!
One day, long ago, a few interesting web sites appeared. There arrived a little web site called the On Line Guitar Archive, or OLGA for short. On this web site, people could publish MIDI files and tablature – learning materials that would permit musicians to share what they know and enable newer musicians to learn their art from more accomplished players. Of course, OLGA and other tablature and MIDI file sharing sites had nothing on them, when they opened. They were initially empty.
MIDI is a file format that lets people electronically exchange the musical instructions to play a tune with a sequencer and synthesiser. If you have a MIDI file, it’s like sheet music, only a machine (i.e. a computer) can play it. Similarly, tablature tells guitar players not only how to read the notes and rhythms of a song, but also where to put their fingers on the guitar fingerboard to be able to play many of the tunes at all.
Another thing that unites musicians, as a community, is their appreciation of other musicians. Pretty soon, musicians began to create MIDI files and tablature files, using free software tools, transcribing their favourite tunes and guitar solos into educational files that anybody could freely share. Suddenly, musicians all around the world had access to a resource that would enable them to think of just about any song, by any artist and chances were that somebody else had already worked out how to play the song and written down the instructions in a MIDI file or tablature file, often in glorious detail.
Now, you could load the MIDI file into any music production software and understand what was going on inside the individual parts. It all relied upon the accuracy of the transcription and how hard the musician that made the file was willing to work to get it just right, but musicians are prepared to work that hard for something they love passionately. Consequently, many of the transcriptions were of extremely high quality indeed. You could learn a lot about how to play or compose like your favourite artists, given a few hours and some good MIDI files to play along with, or some tablature to tell you exactly how to fret the notes.
Musicians were very happy. The best musicians were teaching the rest how to play and compose just like the musicians everybody universally loved and admired. Bliss.
Then the lawyers and the greedy publishers got involved. They pointed to laws that stated that they, alone, were entitled to benefit financially from publication of sheet music and mechanical reproductions of the songs of the artists they had contracts to represent. They were not content that nobody was making any real money from these transcriptions. It was their argument that the existence of these free resources was taking money from their own pockets, because people would never pay money for their commercially produced sheet music, tablature and mechanical reproductions of the music (i.e. MIDI files) while they could get these things for free, from the internet. So their lawyers sent heavy, threatening “cease and desist” letters to all of the hosts of these MIDI files and tablature files. The people who owned these sites had to take them down immediately, or face the full force of the law. Clearly, not a single one of them was making enough money from the enterprise to be able to afford the lawyers needed to contest this action, so they all meekly complied.
Seemingly overnight, the rich online library of free MIDI files and tablature transcriptions, contributed by thousands of musicians who had worked hard, collectively dedicating thousands or even millions of man hours to diligently produce these learning materials, all but vanished. What remained was a shadow of its former self. The music publishers and their lawyers had won.
Musicians don’t like to take money from other musicians and are generally the least likely to engage in piracy of their brethren’s work. They want to get paid themselves too, one fine day. So musicians went to the music publishers and asked where they could buy MIDI files and tablature legitimately. What the music publishers offered in return was a limited catalogue of carelessly transcribed pieces of sheet music, often without tablature and seldom with MIDI files. Clearly, the might of a music publisher to pay for millions of man hours of transcription, by some of the finest musicians on the planet, with their golden ears and empathic understanding of instrument technique, just wasn’t there. No, they had no product of comparable breadth or quality. They couldn’t afford to produce it. They certainly couldn’t afford to cover the range of tunes previously available as user generated content. Having burnt the online musical equivalent of the library at Alexandria, what they offered for sale in its staid were a handful of lesser-quality products, unsatisfactory to serious musicians.
Musicians are, by and large, gentle, peaceful creatures and it’s a fortunate thing. If they weren’t, there would have been revolution at being denied such a vital and necessary resource, to assuage the greed and contractual positions of people who have no intention of providing a reasonable, legitimate, paid-for alternative. The publishers know that their business model doesn’t work for long tail offerings. Yet, they had the audacity to deny an entire community the right to become better at their passion, through sharing knowledge and transcriptions that they themselves had donated time and effort to produce.
Nobody ever made much money from these MIDI files and transcriptions and because of the sheer volume and variety of songs demanded, it’s unlikely anybody ever will. Unless the transcriptions are made for free, there aren’t enough customers for any one song to make the process of transcription commercially viable.
Ironically, the publishers turned their noses up at revenue sharing with the file hosting web sites, because they didn’t think the money generated by those community sites would ever amount to enough. Digital files could be perfectly copied at virtually no cost, so providing one file to the market would simply result in that file being infinitely copied for free. Exactly. That’s why the only model that could work is one based on selfless donation of time.
When considering revenue sharing, the publishers also knew that musicians, generally speaking, have very little money. But those with the power to say so prevented the rest of us from sharing something we made, because they had pieces of paper that entitled them to blanket ownership over the musicians’ publishing rights. Any method of publishing anything that could reasonably reproduce a piece of music they had under contract was their cash cow, whether or not they made the published works available. They own the monopoly. They won’t provide the product, yet they prohibit you from providing it instead.
Now there’s a vacuum.
Nature abhors a vacuum and ownership is a funny thing. It’s something that must be asserted with violence or sheer numbers of enforcers. How long will it really be before their bluff is called? They cannot command sufficient violent agents or thuggish enforcers forever. There’s not enough money in what they do for a business. One of these days, I predict, this dam is going to burst.
In the mean time, musicians are doing what they always did, before the internet made it possible to share. They’re learning to transcribe the songs they love all by themselves. All that has been prevented is the altruistic sharing. Not a single publisher has made any significant net incremental sales by banning the MIDI and tablature file sharing sites. They played big boy thug, but it got them nowhere. All it did was alienate musicians, who are, after all, their only customers.
Ultimately, I think it will be proven that you cannot force a free product off the market and replace it with nothing. Demand doesn’t just go away. This time bomb is still ticking.