Software and Music

As you may know, I’m a supporter of open source software. This means that I am glad when the authors of computer software release their source code to the public under a license that allows for modifications (usually with some sort of disclaimer about how these modifications may be used and/or re-released). This morning I was thinking about how this might apply to music artists. The analogy between source code and sheet music immediately springs to mind and seems to be a valid one. This post explores this analogy and uses it to propose a fresh way of making money off of software and music.

First of all, I will argue for the validity of the software/music analogy. Here is a table containing an overview of the analogy:

Software/Music Analogy

The first four rows of the table are observations, and the final row is my proposal.

First of all, the processes are similar in that they require a skilled producer. This skill can be learned, although many great producers (Linus Torvalds, Beethoven) seem to be innately gifted. There are certainly other parties involved for both inspiration and support, but I think it’s fairly self-evident that a skilled creator is required to produce good software or good music (at least, this should be evident to anyone who has attempted either).

Second, both software and music have forms that could be considered “source.” This source is a precise and formal encoding of the desired product or result. This is provided in software by source code and its accompanying resources, and in music by sheet music and optional accompaniment. Taken together, these encodings generally represent the producer’s inspiration and serve as a guide to reproducing the final product.

Third, there is a conversion process that takes place after the work has been encoded in source form. This conversion is performed by a skilled producer, perhaps with some assistance by automated tools or other skilled producers. For software, this is usually accomplished with a tool called a “compiler,” that converts a computer program from the source code to executable program. For music, this is usually accomplished by various physical actions performed on a tool called an “instrument,” that converts a song from the sheet music to sound.

Fourth, there is a final product that is desired by the general consumer. For software, this is the final executable. For music, this is a performance or recording. More precisely, the software conversion process produces binary or intermediate code, which can then be recorded on a hard disk or CD. Analogously, the music conversion process produces sound waves, which can then be recorded on a hard disk or CD.

The key here is that ANY skilled producer in the given domain (software or music) can perform the conversion process, even if they were not the original source producer. Skilled C programmers know how to compile C programs, even those not written by themselves. Skilled piano players know how to perform piano music, even that not written by themselves. Sometimes there is a period of uncertainty or trial-and-error as the programmer learns the nuances of compiling a specific piece of software, or as the musician becomes familiar with a particular piece of music, but in general, the proposition holds. Any skilled producer in the domain can accomplish the conversion process.

The corollary to this is that a person who is not skilled in the given domain CANNOT accomplish the conversion process, at least not without assistance. The average computer user cannot compile C programs. The average music listener cannot perform music. Of course, there are ways of helping these people along, with tools like “make” for software compilation and keyboards that perform automatic musical accompaniment.

Putting this all together, I observe that in traditional software development and music creation, we have denied the public access to the source (the second row), and taxed them on the acquisition of the final product (the fourth row). The heart of the open source movement lies in enabling public access to the source. Programmers, release your code to the public. Musicians, release your sheet music to the public. The only condition you should place on the use of the source is that it cannot be changed without re-releasing the changes, and (optionally) it must always acknowledge your name. I know this sounds like a drastic step to those who are not familiar with open source, but I’m not quite finished yet.

The fifth row of the table contains what I’ve called the “incentive.” I believe that skilled producers can earn more revenue by opening their source so that any other skilled producer can reproduce their final product, while providing the consumer with an “incentive” to purchase the original producer’s “version” of the final product. For software, this might include the quality of the final executable or of its accompanying resources. For music, this might include the recording quality or the accompanying instruments and/or vocals.

What might this look like in reality? Assume a programmer named Joe writes a piece of software. He releases the source code for free, but keeps closed the high-quality user interface elements that he has created, as well as his specific compiler settings for the best optimization of his program. Thus, any other programmer can recompile his program and it will work, although it will run slower and look considerably worse than Joe’s version. Joe can now charge money for his version. Alternately, assume a musician named Sally writes a song. She releases her music for free, but creates her own recording of it at a studio with her band. Thus, any other musician can perform her music and it will sound similar, but only Sally’s version will have the same feeling and unique sound that her fans enjoy. Sally can now charge money for her version.

One valid concern to consider is whether the original artists will actually benefit from the widespread dispersal of poor quality replications of their work. I feel that once the public gets used to this concept, it will definitely work in the original artists’ favor. The artist will gain name recognition since their work is more available, primarily on peer-to-peer (P2P) services. People generally enjoy quality work, and there will always be a significant portion of a consumer base that will pay for the quality. Others will follow in order to not be viewed as socially inferior (“keeping up with the Joneses”).

There will also always be a significant portion of a consumer base that will not pay for quality, and this portion of the population is currently keeping the pirate P2P sites running. Their actions are currently illegal but (I feel) do not significantly impact the artists’ bottom line, since they would not be willing to pay for quality even if they had the means. This proposal de-criminalizes their actions, while relegating them to the “unpopular” social position of using inferior goods. My hope is that after legal sites are created to disperse the low-quality versions of popular artists, the pirate scene will partially collapse due to the lack of interest in taking the legal risk to pirate something that is already available legally.

Of course, there will always be those who break the law for the thrill of it, but legal restraints will by definition be ineffective in dealing with this population. The change must come from within society, in the form of a more open approach to intellectual property, an appreciation of quality, and the willingness to compensate the artist for the delivery of quality.

Now comes the “fresh” part of this proposal: music artists could even release the recording of THEIR performance for free, at a low quality (say, 24 or 48kbps). In this way, music fans can listen to their music completely free and legally via the Internet. The more casual or miserly fans will be satisfied with the poor recording, but at least the artist now has name recognition from those folks, who previously may have never heard of the artist.

The true audiophiles, however, will be unsatisfied with the low-quality version, and will pay for the 192kbps or 256kbps version, and perhaps even splurge for the CD or DVD containing the entire uncompressed audio with separated tracks for different instruments, alternate harmonies, live performances, and the artist’s discussion of the song’s inspiration.

Correspondingly, programmers could release the binaries of THEIR version of the software, compiled with special switches (think “-O-1”) to CRIPPLE the resulting software, in terms of speed and/or memory usage. This is going to be a controversial proposal, and I’m not entirely sure it’s a good idea, but it’s a interesting one that I don’t think I’ve seen implemented before.

Imagine a programmer compiling their code into two versions: 1) the free, crippled version, and 2) the for-fee, non-crippled version. Those who use the software on a passing basis may be satisfied with the crippled version, but regular users will soon tire of waiting for the software and either 1) buy the full version or 2) switch to another piece of software. If the quality of the software is good (aside from the speed handicap), they will choose option (1) because of the cost of learning a new piece of software will exceed the cost of buying the familiar software.

I realize this sounds awfully similar to the now-fading concept of “shareware,” but that concept was usually based on “30-day-trials” or similar gimmicks and since the source was not available, the software could not be considered truly open.

To conclude:

  • Programmers should consider releasing their source code publicly and charging for their high-quality version of the final executable program.
  • Musicians should consider releasing their sheet music publicly and charging for their high-quality version of the final performance.
  • Musicians should also consider releasing low-quality versions of their own recordings for free, and charging for high-quality versions with exclusive extras
  • Programmers should also consider releasing deliberately crippled versions of their own programs for free, and charging for high-quality versions with full optimizations

To be true, these proposals are largely na├»ve and unrealistic, due in no small part to the monopolies of software giants like Microsoft, Apple and Adobe, as well as the domination of recording companies in the music industry. I feel that any changes to these situations must start with the skilled producers. They are the creators, and they are the ones who should dictate how their creations are distributed. Yes, it would take an enormous amount of artists (including big-name ones) to change the current situation, but I feel that it’s possible over time to reverse the closed source traditions of the software and music industries.

As evidence of this, observe the current state of open source software. It’s not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, but products like the Linux operating system and the Apache web server have gained world-wide recognition and use due to their openness and quality. Many companies are currently turning a profit by deploying and improving these systems. As others join the movement, I hope some of this trend will spill over into the music industry and that artists will be inspired by the actions of their software-creating counterparts. I believe the implementation of these ideas will lead to a society with more freedom and better relationships between producers and consumers.

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