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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.