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Cooking the Books 2: Access Denied

Access denied

In June the BBC offered free downloads of live Beethoven concerts broadcast on Radio 3. It was a huge success. But not everyone was pleased. The Independent (10 July) reported:

“The BBC has been lambasted by classical music labels for making all nine of Beethoven's symphonies available for free download over the Internet. This week the BBC will announce there have been more than a million downloads of the symphonies during the month-long scheme. But the initiative has infuriated the bosses of leading classical record companies who argue the offer undermines the value of music and that any further offers would be unfair competition.”

Yes of course (but they must mean the price, not the value, of music). If something is available free, nobody’s going to pay for it. That is the ultimate “unfair competition”. But the real question is different: if something can be provided free at little or no extra cost, why isn’t it?

The answer is that, under capitalism, the basic economic law is “no profit, no production”. So, no private capitalist is going to invest in providing something free to people. What would be the point? There’d be no profit in it.

The only institution which could do this would be the state, using resources obtained through taxation from the private capitalist sector. In Britain the state does in fact provide a number of services that are free at the point and time of use: roads, schools, parts of the health service, for instance. But these are seen as services for the capitalist class as a whole and as not involving competition with capitalist businesses trying to make a profit out of supplying the same service. (Certainly, there are capitalist firms lobbying for the right to cherry-pick the profitable parts of these services but no capitalist is going to be interested in investing in side streets or in rural roads.)

If the state does venture to supply free a potentially profitable service – as the BBC did on this occasion – then the private sector squeals “unfair, subsidised competition”. As the British state and the BBC are fully committed to capitalism and its logic, the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson, rushed to reassure the profit-seeking commercial suppliers of music recordings:

“In a speech to the British Phonographic Industry, the trade association for the recording industry, Mr Thompson tried to allay fears from the commercial sector. The anxiety, he said, ‘boils down to two questions: is this the start of some new regular service from the BBC, in which, without warning and consultation, the public will be offered chunks of music free at the point of download which will inevitably distort the commercial market in music? And second, are there any limits to what the BBC might download? Could we wake up one morning to discover that half the BBC's musical archive is available on the net? The answer to these two questions is: no and no.’” (Guardian, 21 July).

But that precisely is what could well happen in socialism. Not just half the BBC’s musical archives but the whole of them, as well as all other musical archives, could be made available for people to download freely. And why not? Let those against the provision of free music - and free telephones, free electricity, free transport, etc, for that matter – put up a case for restricting access to what people need and want when the resources to do this exist. If they can.