Perhaps my personal feelings on the matter have clouded my judgement, but I find it hard to believe at this stage that there are _still_ people (otherwise intelligent, articulate people at that) who fail to completely understand the mechanics of, the concepts behind, and the artistic benefits of music file sharing over the Internet. With an opinion piece in last Friday’s Guardian, G. Beato seems to me at least to be one of these people. And it frustrates me no end.
The kernel of Beato’s article appears to be that “the music industry apocalypse” is inevitable; its cause is the free availability and distribution of music files on the Internet, and the (implied) effect is “plummeting” record sales, and ultimately the devaluation of music. Supposedly, “digital distribution is bad for artists for the same reason that it is bad for record companies (and good for fans): it makes too much music available.” I am the only one to whom this seems merely regurgitated major label rhetoric?
Beato, merely one of many who share similar misguided beliefs, appears to be under the misconception that file sharing is completely to blame for the downturn in the corporate recording industry over the last few years. The reality, however, is that record companies aren’t losing money solely because of the Internet; they’re losing money because they continue to perpetuate the rock star aesthetic, they’re losing money because of their outdated business models (ie. advertise the fuck out of something ’til it sells, and if it doesn’t, keep squeezing ‘til it does, or dies).
Beato tries to bolster his argument with the idea that ubiquity equates with loss of value, and in turn loss of revenue, justifying this with the example of print publications’ forays into the treacherous territory of the World Wide Web, and the _plight_ of independent content creators in the murky waters of the blogosphere. Pardon me, but this is total crap. For starters, ubiquity of content isn’t the primary reason pay-to-view newspaper websites aren’t as successful as hoped, just as it isn’t really the primary cause of falling revenues in the recording industry; the weblog phenomenon shows that people like to _share_ what they find on the Web, like one might share this morning’s newspaper with one’s workmates or family, but it’s difficult to share restricted content unless the people one’s sharing with also have access. Most people (AOL users excluded) resent being restricted when they’re on the Internet; they resent being restricted in their usage of information, period. This is just one reason why the Guardian website–one amongst an international selection of newspapers available for free online–is more popular than other newspapers that charge a subscription for access to their online archives.
Furthermore, Beato applies this ‘ubiquity equals dilution’ theory to the independent creative community. There may well be “hundreds and thousands of independent content creators who make nothing” for every Andrew Sullivan-esque success story, but most independent content creators (myself included) don’t do it for any financial gain, they do it because _they love it_. As the proprietor of a weblog himself–by definition, an independent content creator–does he really mean what he’s saying? If I didn’t know better, I might presume that Beato wouldn’t bother writing anything if he weren’t being remunerated by the Guardian for it.
The deeper we get into the article, the closer we get to the nitty-gritty of the prejudice behind this position. Just one example is evident in Beato’s description of the publicity surrounding Janis Ian’s support of file sharing in an essay criticising the “perfidy” of the recording industry (not the first to do so I might add; that accolade goes to Steve Albini and his seminal tract from a number of years ago, ‘The Problem With Music’), in which she is painted as “a legitimate music industry figure who recognised the value of copyright infringement”. This brings up a significant point–who’s copyright is being infringed upon? Although many would like us to believe so–and usually draw unfair comparison to the publishing industry for support–it’s not the artist’s. Many fail to understand that while the composer or composers of a song own the rights to the lyrics and the music, most of the time they have no control over the sound recording, which is owned by the record company. If I were, for instance, to download the latest Eminem single from the Internet today, I may be infringing on the record label’s copyright, but not _his_; to therefore imply that file sharing is detrimental to the creative community is obviously false.
Another thing that strikes me is Beato’s frustrating confusion of music file sharing and the ‘digital distribution’ of music as one and the same; while they may be complimentary, they are most certainly separate issues. Digital distribution for one has obviously faltered, not because of the ubiquity of content, but due to the failure of the major label business paradigm to adapt to technological advancements. File sharing and free downloading, on the other hand, has been a godsend to independent, grassroots labels and distributors who, while maintaining business based on traditional tangible products, utilise the provisions of the Internet to their advantage, as a result reaching a much wider (even international) audience that would be otherwise almost impossible. In this sphere, mp3s are more a promotional tool than a finished product, so it’s really no surprise in this respect that independent labels and artists can stay in the black, while the Big Five cry foul, apparently haemorrhaging cash from every pore.
Beato actually makes a valid point when he states that “musicians who successfully use the Internet to generate revenues directly from fans will be exceedingly rare”, but appears to labour under the impression that any artist who wishes to break free from the corporate chains must circumvent the ‘middleman’ route completely. The big mistake here, in my view, is the presumption that the music industry as a whole has a fatalistic destiny: as the compact disc replaced vinyl, so the mp3 file _must_ replace the compact disc. (Just try explaining this to those who know that vinyl never died, it just went underground.) With many independent labels and distributors flourishing in a climate where record sales overall are purportedly “plummeting”, even though only the corporate giants have taken the biggest hit, what really necessitates the direct approach? In the majority of cases where artists do sell direct they’re not selling digital downloads anyway, so why not sign or license to a small label that pays a favourable royalty rate and promotes and markets your wares on a small, yet highly targeted, scale to mom-and-pop stores and online retailers alike? Plain and simple, real music fans want something you can hold in your hands, something that has been conceived, designed and packaged with care. Real music fans want albums, not songs; they are fans of musicians, not merely the tunes they play.
Unlike, need it even be said, the unwashed masses; the chart worshippers, the kind of people who buy their music in Woolworths or Tesco, the kind of people who might be perfectly happy to download their music; they cannot honestly be described as music fans. Their average musical diet most likely consists of whatever wank MTV has shoved down their throats today, music made by what I like to call Singles Oriented Artists (SOAs), who don’t produce songs as such as they do _entertainment packages_: the tune, the accompanying multi-million-dollar video, the photo shoots, the gimmicky remixes to fill up the single and its inevitable pointless ‘special edition’, the TV spots, the radio airplay (payola _is_ alive and well); the list goes on. With all that money spent, is it any wonder that major labels get pissed when that overpriced single they’ve been trying to flog to the masses stays on the shelves while people who only really want the song–they get the rest of the package from the MTV ten times a day anyways–get what they want, gratis, on the Internet?
Beato seems certain that “many of the lucky few artists who now make a lot of money will no longer do so. And most of the ones who make little money will continue to do so.” But where’s the proof of this pudding? There is more evidence to prove the opposite, at least for the artists who make little money at present. A quote from an interview with Cory Doctorow regarding the major labels brings this to light:
”(T)he recording industry has a story of, “We do two really important roles. One is to make music available and the other is to compensate artists.” But one of the things we know is that 80 percent of all of the music ever released isn’t for sale anywhere in the world. And another thing we know is that 97 percent of the artists signed to a recording contract earn less than $600 per year off of it.”
Today’s big money-makers aren’t so much artists as they are _brands_. Musical talent is no longer a necessity. (Say what you will, but at least many of the pop stars of the 80’s could play their instruments.) They are merely marketing strategies, nothing more. This is the realm of the corporate whore, where the likes of Louis Walsh pimp a relentless production line of shrink-wrapped, genetically modified, meticulously manufactured garbage.
From the overall tone of this article, Beato–whatever his credentials–comes across as really not having a clue about the machinations of the music industry as a whole, nor the motivations of major label business practices. He maintains to the end that the Internet will devalue music. But economics aside, how can one devalue something that has no inherent value to begin with? The only ‘music’ that will truly suffer as a result of file sharing is the vacuous, bankrupt Top of the Pops tripe that deserves to be killed off anyway for polluting popular culture. The file sharing Vandals have come to tear down the walls–I say bring on the fall of the Corporate Music Empire.