The quality of music in a post-Napster world

David K. Levine over at Against Monopoly pointed me to a recent paper (PDF) by economist Joel Waldfogel at the University of Minnesota titled “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie? The Supply of New Recorded Music since Napster”.  As the title implies, Waldfogel investigates the effects of Napster (and its file-sharing progeny) on the music industry:

Economists generally agree that monopolies are bad. Governments grant some of the basic textbook examples of monopolies for intellectual property, in the form of patents and copyrights. Their bad effects – allowing prices above marginal costs and therefore restricting the supply of output – are thought to be justified by their incentive effects on production. But apart from introspection and anecdotes, we don’t really know much about the effects of remuneration incentives on production in the music industry.…Does the prospect of greater rewards bring forth more music? If so, then the past decade, when the ability for sellers to generate revenue from recorded music has fallen as much as half, should be a dry period for music. This is the question we address in this study. [emphasis added]

Noting that other studies have found undiminished musical output (in terms of volume) in the post-Napster world, Waldfogel attempts to measure musical quality using “a time-constant quality threshold based on critics’ retrospective lists of the best works of multi-year time periods”:

Using indices collectively covering the period since 1960, we document that the annual number of new albums passing various quality thresholds has remained roughly constant since Napster, is statistically indistinguishable from pre-Napster trends, and that album supply has not diverged from song supply since iTunes’ revival of the single format in 2003. We also document that the role of new artists in new recorded music products has not diminished since Napster. [emphasis added]

Waldfogel’s findings will unquestionably prove controversial in many circles.  And, to be sure, copyright policy may be based on considerations other that mere economic efficiency (e.g., John Locke’s labor theory or artists’ moral rights).  If Waldfogel’s findings are verified and generally accepted on their own terms, however, the economic policy implications seem clear:

It is easy to see that file sharing simply increases welfare. Producers lose, but their losses – when consumers steal things they used to pay for – are all transfers to consumers, who now enjoy greater surplus (the price they had formerly paid plus the former consumer surplus). In addition to the transfers from producers to consumers, file sharing also turns deadweight loss – circumstances in which consumers valued music above zero but below its price and therefore did not consume – into consumer surplus. In a purely static analysis, eliminating intellectual property rights benefits consumers more than it costs producers and is therefore beneficial for society.

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