Thoughts on Beatles Rock Band and the Economics of IP

“The Beatles: Rock Band” is due for release a week from today, together with a newly remastered set of  CDs of the Beatles’ albums.   That’s news to just about no one in the entertainment field, whether on the consumer side, the producer side, or the observer side.

The game and the remastered CDs arrive at a fascinating moment in the evolution of the economics of entertainment, which is to say, at a fascinating moment in the evolution of the rhetoric of intellectual property.

Take two recent feature articles about videogames and the music business, and compare them:

In this corner, in early August The New Yorker magazine published a long piece on Live Nation and the future of the music industry, focusing largely on how live performances have become the principal the economic engine of popular music.  The New Yorker piece described the tugs of war concert promoters and their efforts to build integrated entertainment empires; some artists, notably Bruce Springsteen, who resist the trend to further industrialize the music industry; and ticket resellers/brokers/scalpers, who find and exploit opportunities for arbitrage between those two positions.  What really caught my eye was the fact that Springsteen genuinely views his concerts as anchoring a gift economy of sorts:  He wants to price concert tickets at below their “fair market value,” and he tries to preempt efforts to resell them in the secondary market.  The point of music — even commercialized music — is to share it with fans.  To leave value on the table, in a manner of speaking, that fans can consume, reuse, and enjoy.  Music is meant to be given away, and the return of live performance is a return to music’s pre-20th century cultural roots.  Springsteen is a kind of modern Sousa, ranting about a new sort of “infernal machine,” one that clicks through economic gears, not mechanical ones.

In this other corner, a short while ago The New York Times Magazine published a long piece on The Beatles: Rock Band that takes precisely the opposite econo-rhetorical tack.  (This is somewhat ironic in many senses, not the least of which is the fact that the Beatles achieved their major commercial success in the era of peace, love, and brotherhood, and Springsteen achieved his breakthrough commercial success in the era of junk bonds and Bonfire of the Vanities.)   The surviving Beatles and the widows (collectively, “the shareholders,” and doesn’t that term speak volumes?) talk largely in terms of “ownership,” that is, of porting the economic and rhetorical framework of the late 20th century music business to the 21st century videogame business.  Working with the game developers, Yoko Ono told them that “John,” in the game, “needs to own the performance, he needs to own the room.”   Paul McCartney:  “‘You want people to get engaged.’ McCartney sees the game as ‘a natural, modern extension’ of what the Beatles did in the ’60s, only now people can feel as if ‘they possess or own the song, that they’ve been in it.'”  All that talk of ownership is both entirely plausible and a little creepy:  The performer wants to own the audience; the audience should want to own the music.  As I read the Times piece, the gang that is producing The Beatles: Rock Band believes that commercial success requires that the game enable both.  Don’t leave anything on the table.

My point is that everyone in the music business now seems to get the point that the music business of the last 40 or 50 years — commodifying and selling “things” with music on them — is just about over and done with.  I take both “the shareholders” and Springsteen at their respective words, though of course there’s more to their stories, and critics of both lie in wait.   Even allowing for some complexity on both sides, and assuming that some parts of the entertainment industry are starting to grasp the material phenomenon that comes next — participatory, interactive, audience-engaged audio/visual experiences — there is still a major conflict beneath the surface.  The conflict isn’t (just) between the music industry and the videogame industry, with motion pictures and television playing third and fourth roles.  It is (also) between those who would carry forward the ownership-based, control-oriented foundations of intellectual property law and culture, and those who would carry forward the gift-based, if you-love-somebody-set-them-free foundations of intellectual property law and culture.  The conflict is partly about the economics of entertainment; it is partly about the rhetoric of intellectual property.  Or the rhetoric of entertainment and the economics of intellectual property.

However you slice it, the two themes are inseparable.

One thought on “Thoughts on Beatles Rock Band and the Economics of IP

  1. This modern era does not ‘return music to it’s pre-20th century roots’. Quite the opposite, actually.

    What’s the difference?

    Pre-20th century, if you wanted to hear music, you had to put forth some effort. Either go somewhere to hear it or learn how to play it.

    Post-20th century, if you want to hear music, push a button.

    What happens when something is so easy to attain and given away for free in unlimited quantities? It holds no value. And value means more than monetary cost.

    The biggest problem with post-20th century musical entertainment is that the youngest generations see less and less inherent value in the art because it is so plentiful and costs nothing.

    Why do youngsters pay to get into concerts, then? To see and be seen. It is a social gathering that could be replaced by just about anything else that is a trendy hang-out.

    Sure, there are fads. And some bands may find themselves experiencing some economic success as a result of becoming a fad. But it is quite a different plane than in previous decades.

    The Beatles catalog has always been treated as highly valuable. And that is why it will always be thought of as such.

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