It must suck being a MySpace representative at a music biz gathering. The most popular web site in the United States owes its phenomenal success to a canny exploitation of music. But while sound recordings command a performance royalty - the rules are optional in the exciting world of new media. So while composers get rewarded when music is played in hotel lobbies, clothes shops and pubs, they don't get a penny from it being played, and endlessly replayed, over MySpace's network.
Instead, the popular press advises band to keep praying that they hold the winning lottery ticket ("previous owner: Arctic Monkeys"), while reading headlines like "Murdoch Will Earn A Payday From MySpace" [Forbes].
This doesn't strike many as very fair. So when MySpace's European veep Jamie Kantrowitz agreed to enter the lion's den - MusicAlly's digital music seminar held last night in London - it took some courage.
But Kantrowitz made it clear that MySpace wasn't going to yield anything to the publishers and songwriters - or at least not without a fight.
Asked by moderator Jim Griffin why MySpace shouldn't make some kind of contribution - she replied that bands could get on their bikes and look for other revenue sources.
The great thing about MySpace, she said, was that so many bands took business back under their own initiative.
"People love to go to your show and buy your T-shirt," she said.
What if the band doesn't want to, or can't afford to perform, came back the response. The question was sidestepped.
It wasn't fair to say that MySpace merely exploits, and doesn't give back anything in return, Kantrowitz argued.
"We provide hundreds of millions of dollars of technology investment for new artists. It takes money to build a website."
That brought splutters from the panel. Former EMI exec Ted Cohen replied that this was an argument others could make.
"You say 'We want your music for free, and here's some technology?' Microsoft could say that!"
Oh, but we don't want it for free, she replied.
It's all very much in keeping with the new feudal economics of "Web 2.0": the serfs must be grateful for the hospitality of the proprietor. As PlayLouder's Paul Sanders noted last week, plenty of people appear to be profiting from digital music - except the people who create it.
But a really interesting comment was to follow, as Jamie explained role music plays at MySpace.
"MySpace users," she said, "are interacting with music in the same way as they would in everyday life - in a store or on the radio."
At that moment, a giant cartoon bubble appeared over the packed room - into which you could pencil the thought, "... and those are places where songwriters get rewarded."
It's possible for new websites to return something tangible to artists - rather than some fashionable, intangible phooey, like "attention data". For example, the CD trading site Lala.com has voluntarily set up a fund it calls the Z Foundation to provide healthcare for musicians, including dental treatment. While for some great artists, this may be too late, a precedent has been set.
Will it be one MySpace's billionaire owner, Rupert Murdoch, will want to follow? On current form, the answer's no.®