Tag Archives: economic crisis

File-sharing, artists and the egregious offenders

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?

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Richard Feynman – the orange juice song

Sometimes you have to just let go –  sit down on that back step and start talking in tongues or singing with drums or whatever it is that you feel the need to do – just to let that precious brain relax awhile.

Boing Boing just highlighted this fab extract from a great documentary on the legendary scientist and eccentric Richard Feynman. I was inspired by his song to encourage my children to drink orange juice (fortunately no video of my orange-juice remix has been preserved) –  you can use it to let it take you to whatever destination you choose! In Feynman’s words it’s Tuva or Bust! Enjoy!

The Value of Nothing and the Price of Everything

In the frenzy of the last few weeks of the economic crisis, there has been much that is familiar to the recorded music industry in the performance of the global economy.  The markets of the world are in crisis over value. Albeit for very different reasons, the recorded music industry has been on a quest to arrest evaporating value for the last ten years.

The recorded music industry has long attempted to blind both paying fans and creative artists with complex explanations of the enormous risks and costs in the industry. The regular practice has been to create contracts in which the true mechanics became opaque and to offer perverse pricing structures which seemed to ignore intrinsic value. The sophisticated segmentation of intellectual property rights in music where no physical good ever existed, and a questionable belief system of trading those rights looks a lot like the house of cards complexities of the broader capital markets. What’s happened in music is comparable to the very sophisticated financial instruments which have sought to conjure profits from counter-intuitive commercial outcomes (hedging that you will ship silver and return sub-prime platinum) and from the parcelling out of debt so that risk averse investors could no longer see what it was that they were putting money into (invest in my label, I’ll do the A&R).

Ironic, given that the one investment mantra that financial wizards repeat with consistent banality is “know your market”, understand what you’re investing in. Yet, what we have witnessed is the detachment of value from substance. It used to be that we thought it was only in creative industries that this kind of crisis could occur, where technology (recording and distribution) has enabled us to invest in and ascribe value to a cultural good. Technology has also undermined that ability and insists that we create a new means of adding value. The value of the music has long been separated from the cost of plastic in the CD but consumer journalists still even occasionally today want to ask how could labels charge £15 for a piece of plastic that only cost 50p?  Today though, consumers have already moved on. The majority of music consumers now happily pays for music as a service while the recorded music industry still tries to sell it as a product. In the volatility of the world’s stock markets over the last few weeks, what we have seen is this same critical separation of value from price.  It would seem that once the cultural, pyschological and technological underpinnings of value are rendered opaque or anachronistic, then any price is as meaningful as any other and none is low enough – until it looks like a bargain and then you can buy like crazy!

But there is a very broad spectrum that goes from Damien Hirst’s £10.3m Golden Calf to the Volkswagen share price spike which confounded the hedge-funds.  Hirst’s prices seem as if were achieved by manipulation and propping up of value, Volkswagen’s price spike appeared to derive from an unexpected  realisation of and faith in the management team behind the business. And it is the Porsche team that brought back the confidence with a reputation for design, innovation – and making very fast cars!

Blinded by bling or putting faith in management and the quality of innovation?

As we look towards 2009, the characteristics that we will see coming to the fore are going to be all about transparency, quality, and experience in innovation. We will see a move away from the most technically dazzling and a preference for good execution on more tried-and-tested ways to innovate. But there can be no deviation from innovation – that is still be a requirement to grow markets by responding to technological change and by racing to take advantage of what it has to offer. And in the current climate the best way to do that is to temper the risks by a greater depth of experience in innovation itself.