It has been a tumultuous few weeks in the Compatible World – a raging debate about file-sharing has got a lot of people very emotional. It’s mostly been in the music world, but all sorts of creators and creatives in different sectors have been watching with breath held trying to see which way this argument goes. There is nothing like a threat of regulation and legislation to sharpen a debate. There is nothing like a recession, loss of jobs and incomes, to make it emotional. After all, file-sharing is at least ten years old now, but this has only served to amplify the arguments.
On the one side, the libertarian argument – on the other, the conservative view – there’s been little middle ground. On the one hand those that argue there is much promotional value to be had in file-sharing – on the other, those that argue it is totally destructive and leads to an inevitable decline in sales.
With regard to new business models – everyone argues that we need them – even the labels agree. But the conservative argument is that as long as file-sharing persists it hampers the launching of new products and therefore file-sharing must be suppressed. The libertarians argue that file-sharing cannot be suppressed and that the new models need to be encouraged as quickly as possible and that the labels are preventing them by not licensing more innovative models. But, even as one label tries to innovate, another holds back – afraid of cannibalising with a new model the only digital revenues they already have (iTunes).
The new proposal from Lord Peter Mandelson for the UK to adopt a policy of broadband account suspension to be applied to the heaviest sharers, the now famous “egregious offenders” has sparked the new row. The Featured Artists Coalition voiced strong opposition to this and fuelled a heated internal argument inside the music industry. Lily Allen piped up in a strong voice – unexpectedly putting the conservative argument and saying “it’s not alright” to file-share. As a result the labels got very excited and did everything they could to “help” her and a huge amount of abuse came down on her head from the online community.
But Lily did speak out in a significant way. Her intervention highlighted the conflicted feelings of many musicians and artists. On the one hand they recognise the incredible potential and value of the net – on the other hand they can’t feel entirely comfortable knowing that their ability to make a living from their own creativity is being reduced by the actions of millions of people who consume without valuing their work – because they can.
So on Thursday night last week we gathered together at Air Studios in Hampstead, north west London, a group of about eighty recording artists – some well known – some more obscure – to try to explore the issues and where artists stood. Members from all sorts of bands like Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Blur, Travis, Keane, Marillion were there, Billy Bragg who is as impassioned and politically savvy as they come, David Arnold who writes the Bond music, Mike Batt who is an artist and the vice-chairman of the BPI all sat there together – ready for a ding dong. In an upstairs room, with his ear to the wall, George Michael was getting reports of the proceedings. Annie Lennox had her digital representative relaying events by phone. We sat in the round, in the studio’s cosy wood back-room with the old church stained-glass windows looking down on us, the paraphernalia of recording equipment shoved back to the walls and a couple of microphones to give people something to hold on to when they talked. About fifteen minutes or so after the discussion began, a timid and tearful Lily Allen came into the room, crouching behind the back row at first. She was encouraged forward and applauded for attending – and was quickly given a seat on the front row to take part in the debate which I had the dubious honour to be chairing. She was tearful, she was angry, she was foul-mouthed and she was eloquent. The whole debate didn’t entirely revolve around her, but she and Billy Bragg became the respective voices of the opposing positions.
The arguments swung back and forth. The conservative view is as strong among many artists as is the libertarian position. There was no particular rationale to which artists adopted which position and for an hour or so the debate simply swung back and forth. One guy from the Long Pigs, got very angry and walked out, saying something about how he “couldn’t understand why you’re being so soft on them – they need to be told”. Billy Bragg delivered an incredible, rowsing speech to huge applause about the need to be nurturing fans and the relationship that an artist has with them is the only one that counts. As the clock reached towards nine pm, I tried to push the room towards a vote. I thought that perhaps while they wouldn’t get agreement on the key issue of suspending peoples’ accounts, maybe we could all agree on the long term educational, cultural change that was needed and that new models were now critically required, perhaps we could conclude by emphasising the positive stuff we do all share.
But then something remarkable happened. As I pushed them to close, they wanted to argue on and the energy in the room suddenly lifted. Someone suggested that perhaps not suspension but bandwidth slowing could be a solution. Perhaps the ability to use email and basic web-serving could be preserved but the high bandwidth needed to make file-sharing worthwhile could be reduced. The room leapt on this compromise with a speed and a degree of excitement that we hadn’t seen all evening. No matter that it would cost the ISPs more to do this than to cut people off. No matter that people could still file-share just more slowly. No matter that squeezing might require as much of an invasion of privacy as suspension – a compromise position was in the air – and everyone leapt on it.
I called for a show of hands and about sixty percent of them went up, including Lily’s and Billy’s in favour of bandwidth squeezing. A significant minority voted against – mostly because they were libertarian, but a few who strongly insisted that hanging and flogging was too good for file sharers. There was a feeling of elation. Euphoria was in the air. Never mind the fine detail, much more importantly, the artist community had become united. Talking face to face, not through the distorting lenses of the media but in privacy with no reporters and no photographers in the room – the artists found common cause and we all celebrated that.
And so the meeting ended with a feverish capturing of the sentiment in a brief statement that was put out to the waiting media. And, as the hour neared midnight, the crowd drifted away with a sense that something important, even historic had just happened; something greater than reaching a consensus on a view about what to do about file-sharing to give to the government. Everyone had the feeling that the power of the artists’ community could be more powerful in this story going forward and that together they could work out solutions that might actually satisfy everyone – and that they were capable of practical deal making – more effectively than some of the other participants in the debate. Argue? of course they did! Compromise? Hell yeah! Who said tearful, emotional, angry artists – couldn’t also occasionally surprise themselves and act more like adults than the corporate grown ups could?