Has the age of easy music piracy produced less high-quality music? Not at all, according to a recent study by University of Minnesota economist Joel Waldfogel. Waldfogel's paper, published by National Bureau of Economic Research in October, concludes that the post-Napster era has produced as much good music as previous decades.
To measure music quality, Waldfogel relied on three independent statistical analyses of data from 1960 through at least 2007. The first index considered the number of albums by year of release appearing on professional critics' multiyear "best of" lists, such as Rolling Stone's list of 500 best albums. The two other indices measured the market share of radio airplay and album sales for various music "vintages." Waldfogel found that the three indicators were consistent with each other, indicating "no evidence of a reduction in the quality of music released since Napster." Airplay and album sales even "suggest that the quality of music has increased fairly substantially since 1999," the year Napster went live.
According to Waldfogel, the study complicates the case for copyright, which is supposed to spur the creation of new works. If weaker copyright protection doesn't reduce quality, he writes, "policymakers thinking about the strength of copyright protection should supplement their attention to producer surplus with concern for consumer surplus as well."