THEORY: Or, music critics are becoming lazier

by Lindsey

Joel Waldfogel, a professor of economics at UMN and the author of Scroogeonomics, recently submitted a working paper to NBER, “Copyright Protection, Technological Change, and the Quality of New Products: Evidence from Recorded Music since Napster”. The abstract, emphasis mine:

Recent technological changes may have altered the balance between technology and copyright law for digital products.    While file-sharing has reduced revenue, other technological changes have reduced the costs of bringing creative works to market.    As a result, we don’t know whether the effective copyright protection currently available provides adequate incentives to bring forth a steady stream of valuable new products.    This paper assesses the quality of new recorded music since Napster, using three independent approaches.    The first is an index of the quantity of high-quality music based on critics’ retrospective lists.    The second and third approaches rely directly on music sales and airplay data, respectively, using of the idea that if one vintage’s music is better than another’s, its superior quality should generate higher sales or greater airplay through time, after accounting for depreciation. The three resulting indices of vintage quality for the past half-century are both consistent with each other and with other historical accounts of recorded music quality. There is no evidence of a reduction in the quality of music released since Napster, and the two usage-based indices suggest an increase since 1999.    Hence, researchers and policymakers thinking about the strength of copyright protection should supplement their attention to producer surplus with concern for consumer surplus as well.

My first reaction to the abstract was that the usefulness of the results would be limited, thanks to the lack of counterfactuals, namely a Napster-free Earth and an Earth where the financial and temporal costs of making and discovering music had remained about the same, adjusted for inflation, over the time period studied. In the full paper (PDF), Waldfogel does admit “it is entirely possible that absent the weakening of effective copyright protection, the other changes in technology might have ushered in an era of even greater creative output” and that we will never know a world without file-sharing. A fine effort nonetheless.

If you are thinking of becoming a thoughtful mainstream music critic, you should note the following. When the author overlapped professional music critics’ best-of-the-2000s lists–56 for albums, 22 for songs–he found “a great deal of concordance”:

Two albums – Funeral by Arcade Fire and Kid A by Radiohead appear on 47 of the 56 lists covering the 2000s. Is this It? by the Strokes and Stankonia by Outkast appear on 45 and 37 lists, respectively. One hundred albums account for 40 percent of the entries on decade-best lists, 250 albums account for over 60 percent, and 500 albums account for over three quarters of the 4202 entries on 56 publications’ best-of-the-2000s lists. At least 300,000 albums were released during the decade. Yet, 500 albums – less than 0.2% of the decade’s new releases – account for three quarters of the entries on 56 critical best-of-the-2000s lists.

Can someone at Facebook create a graph of the number of users listing Arcade Fire as a favorite band over time? I would do it myself, but I have to go steal Stankonia.