DRM in an earlier age • 25 November 2006 • The SnowBlog

DRM in an earlier age

Here's a thing to ponder on: it's the early days of the twentieth century and you're a sheet music supplier. You're vaguely aware that the U.S. Supreme Court has cancelled Tesla's patent and awarded it to Marconi. Though the exact culprit may be in doubt, someone has clearly invented radio. Now you hear that an inventor called Lee DeForest has used radio to spread early election results through New York as Woodrow Wilson squeaks past Charles Hughes to take a second term as president. And in between the election results, it appears that DeForest has been broadcasting songs - old patriotic favourites for the most part but still, it sets you thinking. It could just as easily have been something from Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern. Currently, "It's a long way to Tipperary" is flying off your shelves, at sixpence a time, thank you very much. It seems that DeForest was broadcasting his music to around 7000 listeners. If he'd sold them the music instead, that would be £175 - a year's sales in four minutes for one song! And DeForest played at least half a dozen tunes. Now granted, hearing the song once isn't the same as owning the sheet music, but on the other hand, on the radio you could hear it performed by Florrie Forde herself, backed by the real live Connaught Rangers. So let's split the difference and imagine charging the radio listeners a penny a song. In a few years, the nation could tune in and you'd be bringing in some pretty useful money - there are 42 million Brits according to the 1911 census and most of them like music. Call it a shilling a day from five million households. Hmm, on the other hand not many could afford that. On the other other hand, give all that music away for free and you not only miss out on an exchequer full of money, but you crush the sheet music industry flat and no one gets rich. After all, who's going to buy music if they can hear it on the radio whenever they wish for free? So enough imagining. The fun question is, who would have thought that giving away free performances of the most popular tunes played by the original artists themselves to anyone who was listening all FOR FREE, would somehow result in a massive market for selling those same recordings? Not me. The music industry boomed as a result of broadcasting tunes for free every day, and not in spite of it - partly because music wasn't quite free enough: you couldn't choose when a song would come on, and you couldn't play it ten times in a row with a radio. And maybe it gave fashion a chance to take hold, where a song could get old in weeks instead of years. Mainly it just seemed to turn music into such a gigantic phenomenon that everyone had a fair chance of getting rich - even the sheet music vendors (for a while).

What worries me is that I would have been on the wrong side. I would have been trying to prevent radio stations giving away what I was trying to sell. I would have seen the size of their audience and been unhappy with the relative pittance I was paid each time they played a song I owned. But how unusual were the conditions that lead to radio's impact on music? Showing movies on TV - even when they can be recorded - seems as much like an advert for buying the DVD as it is a replacement for it.

When the same thing comes up in the book world, it's also difficult to know which way to jump. How wise is it to charge for paper books but give away the electronic versions? What counts as free publicity and what's simply lost revenue? Maybe we should give away film, TV and serialisation rights instead of charging for them, reasoning that overall takings will be higher. It's easy to squeeze a market too tightly, trying to control it rather than letting it grow and trusting that in the chaotic expansion there'll be a lucrative niche for us. In fact most of the money in the music industry, and I suspect around 50% of the money in the film industry goes not into bringing us new talent and new 'product' but in trying to influence which products we spend our money on. A small number of big blockbusters allows for far greater control - and thus greater money-making opportunities - than a large number of low-profile works, any one of which might suddenly capture the public's affections. And if these things are left to the public, then how are we to have the Burger King tie-in ready to go at the right moment? And the lead times on merchandising don't allow for unplanned successes.

The history of music, film and to a lesser extent books has been a struggle for control. But in the world of music a good garage band can now record, mix, master and mass produce an album without outside help and for very manageable sums of money. And hi-def video cameras are edging down towards the thousand pound mark. Shoot your own footage and everything else can be done on high-end PCs and Macs - editing, color-timing, ADR, scoring, chromakey, rendering, DVD mastering - and by 'high-end' I mean the sort of thing touted for yuppies to play Half Life 2 on.

It's fun to imagine a world where the 'authors' of music and film 'disintermediate' the traditional industries and go direct to their audience. More choice, lower costs all round, fewer boy bands and bad summer blockbusters. To stay in the game the big players would really have to deliver. I've already posted about how publishers could become the ox bow lakes of the book world, when the course of the written word simply jumps its banks and goes on without us.

I'm sure the sheet music industry still exists in the 21st century, but it's not an area I imagine new investment being drawn to. iPod clones, on the other hand, will do well this Christmas. What I'm trying to work out is how all this applies to the future history of books. 


The SnowBlog is one of the oldest publishing blogs, started in 2003, and it's been through various content management systems over the years. A 2005 techno-blunder meant we lost the early years, but the archives you're reading now go all the way back to 2005.

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