An article by Todd Anderson called "Punk Rock = Capitalism" from Popshot is making the rounds. There’s a glimmer of a point in it. Indie rock has created a thousand small businessmen and businesswomen; every kid in a garage who has ever pressed a single and then tried to recoup the money selling it at shows is a capitalist. But ignoring the ludicrousness of his examples (how many people in all the world ever think to themselves that they would like to start a peanut farm?), ignoring the only tangential relationship of his arguments to punk rock (it could be about starting a muffin shop, and then it could be titled "Muffins = Capitalism" or "Capitalism: Muffin as Fuck"), ignoring the well-known diddling that major labels deal out to the vast majority of artists who sign with them, ignoring the fact that every single person I’ve ever met involved in DIY music, even on the business end of things, is doing it for love and not money, Anderson is just not thinking things out. A record label is making its money off something entirely different from a record store. A right-libertarian attack on state interference is fine; the assertion that punk rock’s DIY ethos is entrepreneurial is fine; but putting them together makes for an uneasy marriage. The way I see it, copyright on publically disseminated works — a band’s ownership of their songs, say — inherently requires state intervention. There’s a natural meaning to ownership of a taco or a shoe or an Austin Mini, but "intellectual property" is a fictional, created idea. You can sense it in the phrase or in the fact that if I take your taco or shoe or car, I’ve deprived you of a thing, whereas if I take your book or your movie or your idea, I’ve deprived you only of your right to be compensated. Smart people — even some not named Lawrence Lessig (whose challenge to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act is, surprisingly, making its way to the Supreme Court) — are spending time thinking about IP in an increasingly IP-oriented world.
I’ve mentioned them before, but the Future of Music Coalition is a thinktank started by former Simple Machines honchos Jenny Toomey and Kristen Thompson. It’s dedicated to trying to answer a simple question: if you are a musician, even assuming that you distrust the RIAA and its shenanigans, even assuming that you recognize the Mickey Mouse Act for the corporate attack on the very idea of public domain that it is, how do you make money in a post-Napster world? They’re dedicated to creating "middle-class musicians" who can make some money from their work. I happened to meet one of the members of the FoMC board this weekend, and we chatted about these issues; he gave me some book recommendations (which I neglected to write down and have shamefully forgotten, although I believe Jessica Litman‘s name came up), and I mentioned that I’ve been enjoying Winterspeak, a weblog by a Chicago MBA student largely devoted to musings on intellectual property and network effects. If Todd Anderson can think of a way of enforcing an artificial monopoly on songs with zero duplication costs that doesn’t involve the oppresive hand of the state, I’d love to hear it, and these people would too. (The record industry might not, as its solution, like that of the motion picture industry, seems to be to sue until everyone gets bored and forgets about digital media, but one can’t have everything, can one?)
And to me, the really interesting thing about the small businesses that have sprung up out of indie rock is how focused they are on their communities, even those like Lookout that make real money. Dischord has Fugazi’s back catalog to bring in money which it can then plow into things like health insurance for its musicians (can BMG or Island say the same?); Touch and Go pays out royalties (if I recall correctly from an old, old Punk Planet interview) of 50% after recouping expenses. These labels are money-making businesses, but maximizing profit is not the end-all and be-all; it may not even be a principal goal. Say what you will, but it’s a hell of a way to run a peanut farm.