Art, Commerce, and Metallica

Metallica announced they’ll make individual songs from their catalog available from Apple’s iTunes Music Store. (Previously, Metallica only offered complete albums for on-line purchase.) Music fans remember Metallica’s famous anti-Napster stance, but worries about piracy don’t apply here: Apple’s FairPlay DRM prevents that.

This decision fascinates me, because it highlights an important tension in copyright law. There are several different justifications for giving creators exclusive control over their expression; the most well-known is based on incentives. By providing a (temporary) monopoly over these works, copyright enables creators to earn a profit on their art and thereby incents production of it. In short, even artists need to pay the rent, and helping them do so from their creativity prods them to supply it. (But, does this actually hold true?)
A second rationale for copyright is to arm artists with the power to control how their works are used: since creative expression is linked to our individual personalities and experiences, we want to ensure that expression isn’t used in ways that are repugnant to us. (Of course, this doesn’t keep critics from reviewing our work under fair use.)

Metallica’s equivocation points out the possible tension between these justifications. Selling only albums on-line lets Metallica push users to experience their songs as the band intended, in a given order and grouping. However, if you love “Enter Sandman” but never want to hear “Sad But True” again, you might be willing to buy the single but not the entire album. If the first justification for copyright holds sway, Metallica ought to offer to sell us any set or subset of songs that we’ll pay for. If the second is more powerful, Metallica should preserve their creative vision even if it costs them a bit of foregone profit. It appears that money has triumphed over art in this shift by the band – a case study for copyright policy? We’ll see.

3 Responses to “Art, Commerce, and Metallica”

  1. Selling only albums on-line lets Metallica push users to experience their songs as the band intended, in a given order and grouping.

    Except it really doesn’t push them to do anything of the sort. Even on a CD, I can start the music at any track boundary and stop it wherever I want. I can hit ‘shuffle’, and ruin their carefully-crafted artistic vision. If they really wanted listeners to “experience their songs as the band intended”, they should have constructed the album as one long track on CD, and sold it as a single long track on iTMS.

  2. Just a few comments here:

    - Offering individual songs and full albums versus offering only full albums does not necessarily mean that there will be more profit. If you have 10 individuals who want Enter Sandman, and all 10 buy the $.99 mp3, the sale prices makes $9.91. However, if only the full albums are offered and even 1 of those 10 likes Enter Sandman enough to purchase the entire album, the sale prices is $9.99 (presumably — I haven’t checked to see the exact prices for the Metallica albums on iTMS). And if 2 of those 10 like it enough to purchase the entire album, then that’s more double the sale price (and presumably double the profit).

    Different artists & different albums may change this dynamic (some artists may only sell albums even if they offer individual songs, some artists may only sell individual songs) because of a mixture of factors, but I don’t think you can assume that offering both individual songs and full albums will be the most profitable venture for Metallica.

    - Additionally, you seem to not be acknowledging any wiggle room in the balance between the financial incentive and moral rights policies. Just because we might find that the financial incentive policy holds more sway doesn’t mean that we must find that the moral rights side has no sway. It’s feasible for someone to argue that the first justification should be weighed more heavily than the second, so Metallica should sell their creative output rather than not sell it at all, but that the second justification is strong enough that Metallica doesn’t have to sell their creative output in the smallest discrete packages that are reasonable under the circumstances (here, arguably individual songs).

  3. Great comments! A couple quick responses:
    1. John is right: fast-forward and rewind have let users create their own listening experience for a long time. However, the power of defaults applies: at least for the first run, listeners are very likely to progress through the album in the order the band intended, and the default setting for the player equipment is to present the songs that way. It would indeed work for Metallica to create a single, album-length song – I suspect this presents exactly the same quandary I outlined in the post, since it’s potential profit versus complete integrity of an artistic work…
    2. Brandon points to an important question: this is really about price discrimination, and price discrimination depends on how elastic consumer demand is. If there are many people who like Enter Sandman so much that they’ll eat the cost of the rest of the album just to get it, then offering individual songs doesn’t make sense. The advantage to offering songs individually, of course, is that it lets the band grab all of the people who like each song (or, only one song) enough to buy it, but who won’t pay more than for that song. While ultimately this is an empirical question (and hence amenable to testing), my conjecture is that price discrimination works reasonably well here. (Note that this isn’t pure price discrimination, since the “good” varies between a full album and a song – perhaps “market segmentation” is a better term?)
    3. Brandon makes a good point: both moral rights and financial incentives underlie copyright. My interest is when they point in different directions. Moral rights don’t have much formal grip in the U.S. – only the Visual Artists Rights Act has really formalized them – but many artists have at least rhetorical recourse to these concerns, as the case of the movie directors against ClearPlay shows…