Nation of Beancounters

Is the quality of music declining? No.

Posted in Measurement by Navin Kumar on November 16, 2011

In an article that deserves to be a celebrated paper, Joel Waldfogel attempts to tackle an interesting question: has music piracy resulted in a decline in the quality of music?

While the question of whether stealing undermines selling is of vital interest to the recorded music business, it is arguably not the only important question for evaluating the success of intellectual property rules. The purpose of copyright laws is to provide incentives for the creation of new works. Weakened intellectual property protections present a threat consumers as well as producers: if producers cannot appropriate sufficient revenue to cover their costs, they may stop bringing new products to market, causing harm to consumers as well as producers. Keeping this in mind focuses attention on a different question: what has happened to the volume – and quality – of new works since Napster?

He creates three different measures of music quality in a particular year – the number of albums from that year in Top N lists (such as Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of all time); what share of music played on the radio in that year was actually made in that year (and how long that music tends continue getting time on air); what share of music sold in a particular yead was made in that year (and how long it tends to continue getting sold).

First, the three approaches, while independent of one another, produce broadly similar patterns from 1960-2000. Second, none of the three approaches shows a decline in quality following 2000; and two of them – based on actual music usage – show substantial increases.

These results are at first blush puzzling: how could the flow of high-quality music continue despite sharp reductions in firms’ ability to appropriate revenue. The puzzle’s resolution may lie in the observation that technological change has not only reduced effective demand; it has also reduced costs of bringing music to market. The costs of creation, promotion, and distribution have all been revolutionized by new information and communications technologies.

Brilliant methodology! While each is individually flawed, all three together are very suggestive indeed. (The only other way that this data can be interpreted is that the tendency of music to “depreciate” has declined over time – and I see no theory that explains how that happens). This round goes to the IP skeptics.

Note though, that all this data and theory are mostly Western. India has a different model of music altogether (where commercial musicians make money by composing for films, rather than CD sales or live performances) and so results may or may not travel.


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  1. […] noticed a lot of people moaning about how the quality of music is declining. It’s simply not true. So why do people think it […]

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