Monthly Archives: October 2009

The value of music

So apparently a group of musicians in England called the Featured Artists Coalition have voted to support a “three strikes” law against illegal file downloaders: get caught three times and have your bandwidth reduced to a point where you can no longer download big files. It has not met with enthusiasm from the British blogosphere. Signatories to this support document include Steve Jones (presumably the one from the Sex Pistols), Annie Lennox, David Gilmour and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Tjinder Singh from Cornershop, Ed O’Brien from Radiohead, Patrick Wolf, George Michael, and Billy Bragg, who is not exactly known for his rabid capitalism.

Interestingly, this comes on the heels of a blog post by Amanda Palmer, who’s become a sort of poster child for DIY Internet promotion for musicians. Entitled “Why I Am Not Afraid To Take Your Money, By Amanda Fucking Palmer”, the blog details Palmer’s happy willingness to be shameless in her requests for cash from fans. A quote (orthography is hers):

listen. artists need to make money to eat and to continue to make art. artists used to rely on middlemen to collect their money on their behalf, thereby rendering themselves innocent of cash-handling in the public eye. artists will now be coming straight to you (yes YOU, you who want their music, their films, their books) for their paychecks. please welcome them. please help them. please do not make them feel badly about asking you directly for money. dead serious: this is the way shit is going to work from now on and it will work best if we all embrace it and don’t fight it.

Though they are saying it in vastly different ways (and with vastly different responses from their audiences), the core of what the FAC and Palmer are saying is the same: musicians need to be paid for their efforts.

The traditional model, as Palmer points out, is this: artist signs to a record label, who fronts them the money to record and tour and in return collects the profits from sales of the artist’s recordings, keeping the vast majority. This is increasingly no longer true, for two reasons:

  • File-sharing is making it increasingly difficult to make money from selling music;
  • Technology is making it easier for artists to make their own recordings and bring them directly to their audience.

I can’t imagine that anybody in the world really thinks “Fuck this band I love. I’m gonna steal their music and not pay them. I hope they fucking go bankrupt and live in cardboard boxes somewhere.” Music sharing is not data piracy in the traditional sense — where some prick starts selling bootlegged copies of an album without giving any of it to the artist or the label. Music sharing is about loving music.

(It could be argued, though, that somebody makes a profit off of file-sharing: namely, the software companies who create file-sharing software and earn revenue from subscribers or advertisers. If that revenue isn’t shared somehow with the artists (or, as they refer to such people in the Internet industry, “content creators”) then I would say these companies are engaging in a form of piracy, and ought to have their asses handed to them, so long as they’re profiting off of the work of others without compensating those others. This is where my problem with a lot of the copyfighters comes in; they sound less like crusaders for the common good and more like shills for the software industry.)

But here’s the problem: musicians have, for the past century, made their living from selling records. There’s no other model in place yet that really replaces that one, no model that allows musicians to devote themselves full-time to recording, releasing, promoting and touring to play their music. Amanda Palmer is experimenting with one, and it seems to be working for her right now, but only time will tell.

The FAC “three strikes” idea is ludicrous, of course, and it’s creating an incredible tide of ill-will towards them; on their website, commentators are comparing Bragg and other artists to slaves supporting their corporate masters. If one takes a deep breath and steps back, this of course is not true. In point of fact, a lot of the “demands” of the FAC are the sort of thing that make record label executives reach for the Alka-Seltzer, including a “use it or lose it” provision in British copyright law that would require copyright holders to actively renew their claims or lose their copyrighted material to the public domain…not to mention demanding that artists who are signed to labels get paid when the label finds new technologies to sell the artists’ work.

I really don’t believe that the FAC are a bunch of slavering fatcats lounging around on fainting couches made from the tanned skin of file-sharers, eating grapes and demanding that every penny be accounted for. I think they’re a group of people who’ve spent their lives making music that lots of people claim to love, but don’t want to reward them for creating. While some of them may not be fully aware of the fundamental changes that have occurred due to Internet file-sharing or the possibilities that are open to them, I find their “three strikes” notion more pitiable than infuriating.

The people who really piss me off are the ones Amanda Palmer’s addressing, who claim to be irritated by her requests for money. These people are beneath contempt. They’re the ones who really want whatever they want, when they want it, and don’t want to pay for it, and fuck you for asking. These are the people I’d cheerfully smash across the skull with a bottle.

Being a musician is hard work. It takes time and effort to make music — time and effort that ought to be rewarded somehow by the people who enjoy the results. Does anybody really disagree with this, in theory at least? If so, I’d love to hear a logical, well-thought-out objection to the idea that musicians — like waitresses and law clerks and software developers and cab drivers — should be paid for the work they do that benefits others.

Lily Allen is not the problem here, though she seems to be the target of a great amount of vitriol. After reading her thoughts on the subject (before she took her blog down), I don’t think she’s some evil pop star diva; I think she and the group of people she’s been talking to have come up with an untenable solution to an incredibly complicated and quite real problem that lots of very smart people have been devoting a lot of mental processing cycles to over the past decade or so. That doesn’t make her the Devil, and treating her as such is simply childish.

Not that it matters. I sometimes feel like absolutely no one with a voice in this discussion is interested in finding a reasonable, non-combative way to solve this problem in a way that makes life better both for musicians and for fans. Everybody wants to get up and rant about freedom or build imaginary file-sharing straw men. Maybe if people had been a bit more constructive in their conversations and willing to reach out to the other side, we wouldn’t be faced with the FAC’s silly demands and the blitzkreig of hatred it has engendered.

All of this, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that file-sharing, like casual drug use, is still illegal in most jurisdictions; whether you agree with that illegality or not is essentially irrelevant until you figure out a way to change the laws where you live. If you live in a democracy, you have ways to change that, assuming you care enough to put your time and effort — and probably money — into actually changing the law, or at least supporting the people who are trying to do so.

If not, then you’re worse than the FAC could ever be. You’re sitting on your couch shouting at people who are being proactive in this debate, even if you don’t agree with their stance. You should probably shut up now.

If you’d actually like to discuss these issues, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments. If you want to talk seriously, I’ll respond.

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