THEFT: A History of Music


Originally published at:

It’s been seven years since we previewed Theft: A History of Music, a comic book that explains the complicated history of music, borrowing, control and copyright, created by a dynamic duo of witty copyright law professors from Duke University as a followup to the greatest law-comic ever published: the book was due out years ago, but the untimely and tragic death of illustrator Keith Aoki delayed it – until today.


Hmmmm…how big is the download, how much is the book? Because I must have it. I must!



I love that concept that something musically borrowed must be returned with interest…



It is a complicated situation. While I believe that the musicians should be compensated for what they are doing, I don’t believe that the middle men (or parasitic scum as I like to call them) should be. If the musician wants to pay them, fine. It shouldn’t be the scum gets the money first and THEN give the penny or whatever is left to the musician after they are done. The musician should also own all the music they create, rather than some corporation that will sell it to push brooms or smart water or whatever bullshit is out there.


I should add that I do my best to support true independent artists. Marian Call and Oriana Curls and Irenka Styles are just a few that I do my best to support in any way I can.


There used to be a reason for middle men, because distribution required specialized resources. A few decades ago, the average person could not easily start a television station, cut records, or bind books to distribute their work. But those dedicated distributors have become entrenched rent-seeking parasites who are, arguably, no longer even necessary.


This is excellent, thanks for posting.


This should be appropriate A guitarist I worked with formed another band. He formed it. He was the leader. The band got signed. The band fired the guy. Great guitarist; but a really volatile personality. Still, this guy was held to his contract. for over a year. Could not play in public. Period. The group, or nothing. The group, naturally sank into the ground and disappeared. He was still held to his contract. These are not businessmen, they are the Mafia that discovered something legal they could do. And it works just like the mob, but at least you (generally) do not have to get rid of the motherfucking goddam bodies. A HUGE plus.


I still maintain that was a big lie as the rise of P2P since napster correlates with many indie labels packing it in for financial reasons. Unfortunately I can’t cite articles backing this up.

[quote=“cameronh1403, post:5, topic:95839”]
I don’t believe that the middle men (or parasitic scum as I like to call them) should be[/quote]

What about when the middle people are the musicians?


You’ll be arguing with my adviser there and his book on piracy. He is focusing more on how music piracy from the 19th century to now led to changes in copyright law.

Many more artists are going fully independent rather than setting up labels now, I think that’s true - operating through patreon, bandcamp, and the like and trying to connect directly with their fan base. Or at least that is surface. Lots of time they are still setting up business structures, just for themselves rather than with the idea of signing a host of artists. They are having more success doing it, too (or at least the highly visible ones are). It also seems like we’re moving back into an era of singles as opposed to albums.

True. Not all labels are parasitic especially from the punk/postpunk era, but then again, a label run by a musician can still have serious ethical problems (as Alex Ogg argued in his book on indie labels).


When have you known me to shy away from an argument? :grin:

Sure, its been long enough that its really another generation since Napster. Nothing said that the idea of a label, no matter what size, would last forever. They still make sense for some things, even with the 201X variety of models though.

Thats always a challenge, even if they are in a genre that really is appropriate for live performance. One thing that small labels were good for was a kind of loyalty where “oh, the last few bands on this label were good, I’ll take a chance on this one I’ve never heard of too”. At the time it helped someone new possibly get noticed. There is still room for that model but it requires much faster sales and much more of a cash reserve than it used to and a willingness to abandon physical media entirely.

Very hard to say conclusively. A small number who sell enough to go beyond recouping costs can be considered a certainty. Even with the means of production now widely available, they arent free and the time spent developing the talent to record/mix/produce (not to mention sales & marketing) are rarely well accounted for.

Even if one writes off time and equipment as sunk costs, is this “success” just enough to fund a hobby or is it enough to make a living and for what percentage under the new models?

I dont have the answers.

Thats part of what worries me, the ones that arent so visible dont get written about and benefit from the virtuous circle of press coverage.

Frankly I suspect that a greater number than before dont get heard in part because the filters are now all removed, the gatekeepers who once at least kept back some of the flood of mediocre to shit bands are now gone.

Really it is not in the interest of bandcamp and the like to release the data which would clarify the above.

Oh that ship really sailed decades ago. I suspect that eventually the album era will come to be regarded as an anomaly.

Finally, what I have trouble resolving is academic sounding books using leading language, conflating “piracy” and “theft” with the natural process of musicians learning from each other and stylistic changes over time. Kinda makes me wonder how much the authors really understand things “in real life”. My favorite HHFT comic illustrates this second part perfectly.


Never. You should give Alex’s book a read. It’s quite good.

Agreed. But I’m still of the mindset that if I see a band I’ve never heard of before on a label I do know, it will make me more inclined to buy their CD. [quote=“Israel_B, post:11, topic:95839”]
Thats always a challenge, even if they are in a genre that really is appropriate for live performance.

No doubt. [quote=“Israel_B, post:11, topic:95839”]
There is still room for that model but it requires much faster sales and much more of a cash reserve than it used to and a willingness to abandon physical media entirely.

Seems like at least some artists benefit from giving away the music, and getting buy in on merch, live shows, etc. in some cases, direct support is working out (via patreon, where the fan signs up to give so much per new item created by the artist). It absolutely helps (and might even be predicated on) popularity garnered prior to the move to independence. Radiohead, for example…

Agreed. I do think that the process of making music is a bit more demystified, but that is really only within a smaller circle of individuals who are hardcore music fans (and often musicians themselves). But that’s been truer since the punk era, when people were talking about how music gets made and what kind of alternatives can be used to make it better for the musicians and fans. [quote=“Israel_B, post:11, topic:95839”]
is this “success” just enough to fund a hobby or is it enough to make a living and for what percentage under the new models?

That will entirely depend on the individual musicians, of course. Plenty of people are happy on the hobby end (someone like MJ Hibbett comes to mind - who works a day job and puts out albums on bandcamp) and some want to make it a career. The problem for people who want to make it a career is finding the supporters in the first place - cutting through the amount of noise to get your signal to those who will want to hear it and embrace it.

Oh, totally. Like much of the “disruption” economy of the past few years, the victories are widely celebrated, while the people struggling are generally ignored. Maybe much less has changed as people want to pretend with regards to the production of music.

Fair enough on that. [quote=“Israel_B, post:11, topic:95839”]
what I have trouble resolving is academic sounding books using leading language, conflating “piracy” and “theft”

If you’re referring the book I linked to, that’s not really what’s going on. He’s talking more about how the industry conflated the two terms, rather than doing that himself. The various kinds of pirates (which he works pretty hard to differentiate when discussing them, where as the industry generally did not) also show up and are accounted for pretty fairly. Some were genuinely interested in sharing music that would otherwise just disappear or had a certain kind of fandom in mind when sharing music, while in some cases, it was a criminal operation just bent on turning as much profit as possible at the expense of the copyright holder (and they didn’t care if it was the artist or the label losing out). I’d say that Alex does a good job in not leaving out “real life” in his work.


“Back in the day” label trust worked well for SST, ROIR, Dischord, etc and more recently with hip hop.

Been hearing that preached for years but mainly by those who dont actually have experience with any of that stuff. The exception of course is those who already have their brand well established from when they were on labels which gave them lots of support (Radiohead, TMBG, NiN, etc)

Established bands can also tap into insurance, bonds and other formal systems to support the costs of studio time, touring, and the inevitable problems with selling “merch”.

Obviously those things are not available to Joe Shmoe and the Janetones.

All the more so when Jane & Joe dont even make a kind of music that is suited for live performance or touring. Or maybe Joe is kind of worried about getting insulin on the road, etc.

The process itself wasnt ever all that mysic once you got into it. Getting good at the process takes skill/time/effort, etc. Just like anything else really.

Even these days you cant just hand someone a macbook and say “OK make an album” and expect something listenable the first time out of the gate.

Earlier even. The first phase of Rock & Roll, little studios/labels/etc sprouted like wildflowers on the Texas prairies.

Havent read it so cant fairly comment on it, was speaking more generally. Thank you however for explaining what it is though.


Sure. Which is one reason why it can be argued that labels still matter in making independent music - because a label that’s been around (like the ones you list and many others - K, 4AD, Mute, until it was bought out, etc) has institutional knowledge of how to make this stuff work - as you noted above.

I do believe a sub-industry that takes care of some of that has popped up for help with that… maybe not the insurance, etc. But the mystification still has importance here, because these are the sorts of things that people who aren’t trained in the industry wouldn’t known about or understand. But I’d guess that at least some people who are trying to break in have a background in music business now (my cousin, who has a metal band, also has some sort of music business degree). I’d suspect that’s a lot more common now than it used to be.

There is also this - not all artists want to spend their time on the road.

Sure, but that’s just like anything else. Rock stars are highly mystified in the popular imagination. People with no connections to making music believe that once a musician has made it, has a top 10 hit or even an indie hit, they are rich. The reality is much different of course. There are very few incredibly wealthy musicians and many more visible, but middle class musicians out there. And that doesn’t even take into account people who aren’t making “popular” music.

Well, but the LP/album era came after this, though. Remember the industry has waves of consolidation and fragmentation, with the rock era one instance where there were lots of indies, but many of the big ones were bought up in the 60s and 1970s or folded under competition from larger labels. In the early rock era, singles were the key thing, but by the mid-60s and late 1970s, well after vinyl LPs became the industry standard, the album became highly prized and seen as big money makers - especially from the big, touchstone bands of the period (Beatles, Stones, Pink Floyd, Genesis, etc, all out there consciously making albums that have some kind of coherent narrative/artistic statement). How much of that was industry hype generated vs. people’s genuine interests in an album as a work of art is hard to say. Punks were much more into their 7inches, though. And cassettes were key (to hip hop as well) to sharing their work (such as with fan-centric tape trading networks, as I’m sure you’re aware of).

Fair enough. It’s worth a read.


Thats the job of a manager or a general business manager at a label. Might be the same person who deals with the factories that do physical media, print shops for posters, files with PROs, signs checks, etc etc etc.

My guess would be by a small percentage. Sadly the one common thing with musicians any time in any country seems to be that almost all of them suck at the details of the business side.

Yes and no. The idea of the “album” coming from a book type collection of 78s then 45s sold as a package but most of the first 33s were basically hodgepodge sets of songs maybe by the same performer, maybe omnibus. The “concept album” actually was the exception even when the dino rockers roamed the lands. Most releases were just “here’s the stuff that The Cosmic Shmeegles did in the last year”.

Also I recall reading that even during those times, sales of 45s were more important and often more profitable even for the dino rockers.

Punk 45s were as much defined by industrial capacity as what the band had to release. it was much easier to get 45s made up only because there were more pressing plants that did them or were willing to press your 45s during slack time between big orders from major labels.

FWIW as a bit of info, to make a 45 you still had to pay for the masters and stampers and it wasnt all that much cheaper than the same for a 10" or 12" if you were doing small run pressings like most punk labels/bands did.


I say industry hype. I would guess that the two-good-songs-and-30-minutes-of-filler was 98% of the biz and bands able to make 40 straight minutes of quality music was the exception. When iTunes was hitting it big and people in the biz were complaining about picking individual songs out of an album instead of having to get the whole CD and what this was doing to revenue/artistry I thought people had gone insane- did no one else remember that disappointment of dropping $10-16 only to find out half of it sucked? It was deliberate rip off business model that deserved to die.


Depends on the musician of course but true enough. Some do have a head for business and exploit that for their own benefit. The musicians that were smart enough to secure publishing rights ended up doing much better in the long run than those who sold them off for a bigger cut up front. I think in general there is greater understanding by more musicians about the business end of things than there used to be.

Yeah, but I’d say that 78s never sounded as good, were more fragile, and held less music per side than the vinyl record (which ever speed it was). Vinyl LPs brought a new set of possibilities to albums that really didn’t exist before (same for any technological innovation in the industry, of course). Those sets of 78s tended to be classical music aimed at the higher end market. I still think the “Album era” (short as it might have been) was seen as a change in the industry more broadly. Singles never went away completely and not all albums were of the concept variety, but vinyl LPs became a sort of fetishized commodity, and that’s how the industry tried to sell them. And they did spend a ton of the things, too.

Indeed. I think prior to this recent revival, pressing plants were probably happy to get their business.

Maybe. They still sold an awful lot of LPs, though. There were plenty of artists who took the album as an artistic statement seriously for it to be a aspiration for some. [quote=“stinkinbadgers, post:16, topic:95839”]
It was deliberate rip off business model that deserved to die.

That depends on the album, though doesn’t it?


Oh certainly, and I can come up with many examples of songs I like that I would never have otherwise come across. But I guess the heart of my rant is “the kids nowadays have no idea how good they have it”, and most nostalgic yearning for that gleaming package of big beautiful artwork and a whole album of wonderfully and coherently crafted music is based on survivorship bias that ignores all the crap that we spent oh so much lawn mowing money on.


It wasnt entirely a deliberate rip off, probably not much of intent in that area. Truth is not every band really had more than a couple good songs in them and of those that even made it past their first album, keeping up doing a few good songs every year, much less 10 isnt easy. That combined with there was honest customer demand for more than just the radio singles. Finally record companies were always hesitant to commit to releasing something that was mostly or all shit, it hurt them in the bank account to do so.

We cant all be Mick Jagger. But as you say, the information is much more available these days as to how to actually do the business side.

All what you said before about sound quality and durability correct of course, technology advances benefiting all concerned. Here however though not so much. I’ve got a set of 78s of Hank Williams and have seen lots of what was pop music of its time in those sets as well.

Sure. We all believed that was the normal state of things and how it should be. In retrospect, it was just a phase for the most part.

One thing is for sure there were lots more pressing plants in the 80s-90s than there are today. With the market changeover to CD, lots simply went out of business or scrapped all the vinyl pressing machines.

IIRC some of your interest as a historian is in this area, if you have not already, you might enjoy learning about United Record Pressing in Nashville. They are not only important to the musical history of the 20th century but also to civil rights of the time. They used to do factory tours, maybe still do by arrangement. Really amazing experience. Plus they do great quality work, I’ve made many records with them.


I mean, even if you just skim the now infamous Steve Albini rant, you get a better idea of what the business side is like. Which is great for the musicians.

That sounds amazing. When did you get it and how well has it aged?

Indeed, I do think understanding long term historical patterns and weird blips are part of what I find interesting about this sort of history. Of course, now everyone is making albums again (well, some people are, anyway - all those hipsters) and your average B&N has a decent sized record section, with lots of new and classic LPs reprints. I have some vinyl, but honestly, most of our music collection is still CDs.

You’ve mentioned this place before on the BBS, I think. It’s not far from where I live and might be worth a trip up sometime in the near future. The other thing I want to do is go up the Asheville and tour the Moog factory there. Both would be lots of fun, interesting, and worth the time… I don’t think my family would be bored to tears doing those either.