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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.