Old albums are now outselling new ones. Do we need protectionism against the past?

Long copyright terms may not reward the artist, but they make sure that people buy works by new musicians


The NME (remember the NME?):

Sales of "old albums" have overtaken sales of "new albums" for the first time over the last six months in the US.

Sales of "old albums", which are classified as LPs that have been on sale for longer than 18 months, numbered at 76.6 million over the last six months, with sales of "new albums" numbering at 73.9 million, reports OC Weekly

Copyright laws are transparently no longer about rewarding artists or incentivising creation. The idea that there is, or ever has been, a musician who sat down to record and then thought "you know what? I would create this art, but my descendants will only get to reap the rewards for fifty years after I die, rather than my preferred seventy," is ridiculous.

What this news shows, though, is one very real reason why long copyright terms might be important: protectionism against the past.

Even with a copyright system which keeps pretty much every song recorded since World War II - and a number recorded before - out of the public domain, "old" albums are still outselling new ones in the US. "Old" is, in this case, defined pretty loosely, but it is hard to imagine what the music market would look like if copyright terms were reduced, even if just to the life of the artist.

Imagine being able to get every song ever recorded by Elvis, Jim Morrison, Elliott Smith or Notorious B.I.G. for free, legally. Would you spend as much on new artists? Would you, in fact, spend anything on new artists?

It's obviously not the case that these long terms directly help up-and-coming musicians. Almost all of the money on every Tupac album sold goes to Universal Music Group, and most of the rest goes to his heirs. While there is the argument that any extra income to record labels helps them take greater risks on new talent, it seems unlikely that that actually translates into them getting a cut of the sales.

But where it might help them is by boosting demand. If you are ambivalent between a Beatles and a Battles album, you are that much more likely to buy the latter if it doesn't cost a thousand times more.

Protectionism against the past, then: artificially raising the price of something you don't want to sell in order to make the thing you want to promote look better.

Of course, there's no guarantee that that actually works. All of the above assumes that people begin with a fixed amount of music that they want to consume, and that every "old" album they listen to is a "new" one they won't. But it is equally as likely that, under the current situation at least, people have a fixed amount of money they want to spend on music, and that making older albums free would increase, rather than decrease, what they spend on new artists.

How to tell the difference? All-you-can-eat subscriptions might provide the answer. Someone who pays £10 a month for Spotify has access to more music than they could reasonably listen to in their lifetime. If all they want is a fixed quantity of music, then they won't spend anything else. If they want to spend a certain amount of money, then they'll start spending more on albums and bands not on the service. Sadly, no-one seems to have done that study, though if anyone does know the answer, I'd be fascinated to see it.

This is all economist noodling, though. As ever, the model has been simplified, and in the real world people don't actually think of "music" as a vast homogenous mass which they purchase. A Radiohead fan won't stop buying their albums just because they could get Elvis for free, and someone who thinks hair metal is the pinnacle of generic perfection is unlikey to buy music from past 1979 no matter how much it costs. But I certainly would like some free Marvin Gaye.

Marvin Gaye performs in the Royal Albert Hall in 1976. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research