Record companies are for it? Then I’m against it.

What is the biggest impediment to a digital read-write folk culture in music today? Draconian intellectual property law, of course, that resists the application of fair use, presumes bad faith, and seeks to intimidate. What accounts for the continued existence of draconian IP in music, and for the over zealous attempts to enforce it? The record companies, obviously.

So what should we say to the fact that Spotify is a darling of the recording industry? Should we rejoice that we finally have a free streaming service that’s immune from legal hassles? No. We should count it as a minus. The worst thing about the otherwise excellent Spotify is that the record companies support it.

Now you might argue that Spotify represents the capitulation of the record companies, as they have finally agreed to make their catalogues freely available under relatively minor restrictions (the free version is interrupted by a good number of ads.) I don’t buy it. The industry didn’t wake up one day and decide it hated making money. So either 1) it sees Spotify as a way to get consumers to start buying music again or 2) it thinks ad revenue is the way to go.

The problem with #1 is that there’s not really any reason why we should have to pay for music now that the cost of delivery is zero. And while I have less of an issue with #2, I’ll believe it when I see it. (See: newspapers.)

Moreover, even to the extent that the recording industry can wring money out of a Spotify model, that represents an impediment to a return to folk culture of the kind that Lessig and others have described. If the recording industry uses Spotify to endlessly advertise their “stars”, any progress they make will come at the expense of unknown artists that might otherwise thrive under the folk model.

I realize I’m working off of a number of assumptions that I’ve not previously blogged, but I just can’t see a digital folk culture for music so long as the record companies are a significant piece of the puzzle. So when you are shopping for a digital music solution, ask “do the record companies like it?” If the answer is Yes, that counts as a negative.