Hey Trent — a music tax is a dumb idea

There’s a great interview with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails up at CNET, in which he talks about his experience with the Saul Williams album he recently released as a “pay what you want” download (which I wrote about here). He says if he did it again — and he’s thinking of doing so for the next NIN album — he would offer a physical product as well as the download, and he talks about how music is essentially free now.

I say it’s a great interview, and it is — but Trent also says something that I think is pretty dumb: he says that he’s in favour of an Internet tax, in which everyone would pay their service provider $5 extra and that money would then be distributed to artists to compensate them for downloading. He’s not the only one who thinks this would be a good way to solve the problem, either; the Songwriters Association of Canada recently came out in favour of the exact same thing: i.e, a tax on ISPs.

This idea is appealing primarily because it seems so simple. In reality, however, it would be horrendously complicated to administer, on top of being wrong. Why is it wrong? Because imposing a tax on a broad range of people for the behaviour of a small percentage isn’t just unfair, it’s bad policy and in most cases doesn’t work (and please don’t compare this to the taxes I pay to provide medical care to smokers or whatever; that’s life and death, and this isn’t).

Why should everyone who uses the Internet — even those who just use it to get their email once a week, or to send a web link to their bridge club, or better yet to legally download songs from iTunes — have to pay a fee to compensate artists for the fact that less than 10 per cent of Internet users commit copyright infringement on a semi-regular basis? It makes no sense at all, despite how appealing it seems at first glance.

I sympathize with Trent, and with other artists who are struggling to find a way to adapt as traditional business models fall apart around them, but coming up with new taxes is the wrong solution. As Mike Arrington points out at TechCrunch, it is a both a dumb and dangerous idea for the industry.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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