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Music biz should shift to flat-fee, P2P model – exec

Actuarial copyright, anyone? asks Jim Griffin

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Opinion Jim Griffin, the ex-Geffen Records new media boss described by CNN as "one of the sharpest minds in digital music", today heads Cherry Lane Digital, a company focused on the digital delivery of art, meaning music, movies, books and other means of creative expression. Here, Jim explains why the online music business needs a radical rethink.

It is a simple concept: replace pay-as-you-go or pay-by-the-piece pricing models with flat fees, one price for roughly all you can eat. Essentially the route travelled by theme parks that once charged by the ride and now sell one entry fee at the door.

Simple, yes, but it can sound complicated: actuarial accounting replaces actual counting. Relative revenue splits replace per unit margins. Percentages rule where boxes were king. In the process, profound societal change accompanies a move from granularity. That which is not free can feel free, at least at the moment of use. Aggregated buying power can produce win-win results that replace battles between customers and sellers.

Arthur C Clarke predicted this in 1988, when he wrote 2061: Odyssey Three: "With the historic abolition of long-distance charges on 31 December 2000, every telephone call became a local one, and the human race greeted the new millennium by transforming itself into one huge, gossiping family."

With flat-fee access to digits now the norm in much of the world, can flat-fee access to knowledge, art and creativity in the forms of music, movies, books, text and graphics be far behind? Aren't we already seeing the zero marginal cost nature of digital delivery set the price of digits and the content they deliver? John Perry Barlow is only partly correct: information may inherently want to be free, to find the shortest path, to interpret payment as damage and route around it, but if it were truly free there wouldn't be much more of it. If it is all about wine and not about the bottle then we'd be sipping from puddles, not savouring the benefit of time applied to grape.

So where does this leave us, digital delivery ahead, carbon and friction behind, brackish combinations surrounding our Tarzan-like transition from one vine to the next? It leaves us in a better place, one where access to art and knowledge are not conditioned on the size of your wallet, or worse still, the size of your parents' wallet. A world where the collective flat fees outweigh per capita average spending, where ideas can flourish with reward and without friction, a world Eleanor Roosevelt and Cicero would adore.

To act otherwise, to create digital tethers to creativity and information, would condemn much of the world's population to darkness, to outdated textbooks and third-hand inspiration. What's worse, it's the haves who will suffer alongside the have-nots, the former deprived of the creativity of the latter. Flat fees and feels free go hand-in-hand, creating a world of compensation and collaboration. We hold much more in our open hands than we ever could in the closed-fist of so-called intellectual property. Finding the balance is the key and pricing should be our focus.

These issues are too important to leave to lawyers and technologists - we can't expect enforcing the economics of the past to enable the technology of our present and future. It's time we took a macro perspective on what is sometimes mistaken for the micro issues of locks and keys.

Jim Griffin will be the keynote speaker at The MusicAlly Seminar on Thursday, 16 October in London. Entry is free - see MusicAlly.com for more details.

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