Recently I retuned my digital radio and discovered a station named Amazing Radio. Amazing is a test station with music consisting of unsigned artists chosen and uploaded by the audience. This got me thinking.
Recently four Danish men were accused of helping Internet users download music illegally. They ran a file sharing web site named Pirate Bay and have now been found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail.
This is not the first time the music industry has prosecuted file sharing sites and the case for the music industry seems to be that the music files are copyright and should be paid for. Pirate Bay claim that they are only allowing people to search for files and the legality of the downloads are not it’s problem. Let’s take a step back and consider what’s happening here.
The music industries case rests on the copyright laws which originated in Britain in 1710 as an act “for the encouragement of learning” and “for the encouragement of learned men to compose and write useful books”. In 1787 a copyright clause was incorporated into the United States Constitution.
Copyright allowed the authors to receive payment for their work which was deemed useful by the population at large. The printing press had been introduced into England in the 15th century but for over two hundred years it was not possible for authors to receive payment based on the popularity of their work. With the introduction of copyright it became possible for an author to receive payment for each copy of the original work he produced.
The copyright principle was later extended to sound recordings and specifically music but before this could happen various technology had to be invented to allow the recording and copying of sound.
The history of sound recording might be said to have begun in 1877 with the invention of the mechanical phonograph cylinder by Thomas Edison. Around 1889 gramophone discs replaced cylinders. Originally made from a resin derivative these discs were dramatically improved in the 1940s with the introduction of vinyl. It was these vinyl records which became the standard for the following decades and the music industry as we know it was born.
Prior to copyright a musician made money by performing. The same person may also have written the song but that made no difference. The song had to be performed for anyone to receive payment.
The invention of the vinyl record meant that a performance could be recorded and this recording then transformed into something saleable. Copies of the record could be sold a million times over with minimal production costs. The music industry liked the maths and many people became extremely wealthy.
As with any new industry the original owners and managers were music enthusiasts but as the profits grew the middlemen were drawn in. Managers, agents, public relations executives and a plethora of other hangers on.
The middlemen were businessmen. They didn’t care about the music they cared about profit and as any businessman knows the way to make profit is to buy cheap and sell dear. Keep your overheads low and your prices high. The businessmen fine tuned the industry by maintaining a small stable of musicians and maximising sales using large scale marketing.
So there were two enablers for the music business as it grew, copyright laws and technology both of which are artificial. The original purpose of copyright may have been “for the encouragement of learning” but it is fair that the definition now encompasses entertainment. But copyright laws is not the same type of law as Thou shalt not kill or thou shalt not steal.
Copyright law was introduced long before digital media and globalisation and its intention was to provide a living for writers and artists not to bestow super star status on a selected few.
The maintenance of copyright laws is valid not because it benefits the music industry but because it benefits the population as a whole. If it does not do that then its existence, or at least its implementation, should be questioned.
It is fair to say that the music industry during the period of vinyl and CDs did not fulfil the purpose originally intended for the copyright laws. The middlemen had so manipulated the industry that it was they who selected the musicians to be famous through massive promotional campaigns. Pink Floyd even made their careers by criticising the industry.
The music was not cheap. At the age of 16 in 1975 I started my first job and earned £15 per week. At that time the average price of an album was £3 or £4. This means that Robert Plant considered that a teenage kid should spend a fifth to a quarter of his wages keeping Led Zeppelin in luxury hotels and private jets!
The Rolling Stones did not earn massively more than similar artists because of their undoubted talent but because of the massive promotional budget. We, the punters, fell for this marketing and revered musicians as spiritual leaders rather than craftsmen capable of banging out a good tune. We worshiped Elvis like a God and listened to tax exiles such as Bono on subjects such as world poverty.
Just last week the front page of British newspaper The Sun proclaimed that Lilly Alan had condemned the BNP! Sorry Lilly, you sing a nice song, but I do not need your advice when appraising the fascistic tendencies of political parties.
A pertinent question to ask is: has the music industry benefited music?
As advertising executives always argue when defending alcohol or tobacco advertising: marketing does not make you consume more it just makes you consume a specific brand. Do we need someone else to spend our money telling us which music to listen to?
The enablers to the music industry are not hard work and talent but technology, copyright laws and marketing. Without these man made artefacts the music industry would not exist as it is today.
So let us return to the situation today. If copying went into overdrive in the 1960s then the digital revolution and The Internet has put copying into hyperdrive. Digital technology has allowed not copying but cloning of music recordings. This means that there is no deterioration in quality if the copy is from an original or from another copy. In addition the production costs of making extra copies are so close to zero as to be unimportant and the technology required can be found in any teenager’s bedroom. Further, The Internet means that these clones can be distributed globally at minimal cost effectively bypassing the music industry and making policing of the old copyright laws almost impossible.
The record companies now squeal that organisations like Pirate Bay are not only illegal but immoral but are Pirate Bay any more immoral than EMI? It could be argued that Pirate Bay have merely leveraged the new technology in the same way that the record company did in the 1960s.
The music industry is not fighting to protect artists and their music, it is fighting to protect the armies of middlemen plus the stable of supposed talent which they have spent millions of dollars hyping. Remember The Bay City Rollers? Was this really the best music Britain could produce in the 1970s?
Of course musicians should receive payment for their work but the bloated music business no longer provides any useful contribution to music. We do not need music companies to pay DJs to play their music. We do not need promoters to ensure that their artist is plugged simultaneously on every TV channel and that promotional plastic toys are included in cereal packets. Remember that these costs are always passed on to the punter.
The world has changed and the music industry cannot insist that the paradigm be frozen as it was when the technology gave them their best advantage. Technology gave and technology has taken away. The industry has exploited teenagers for decades but technology has now swung in favour of the teenagers. About time too!
Amazing Radio works by allowing artists to upload their music via a web site named Amazing Tunes. The music may be tagged as free but if not then anyone downloading the music gets charged 79p per download. The public are free to make play lists and this feeds the content on Amazing Radio.
In 1980, Michael Jackson secured the highest royalty rate in the music industry but even this was only 37% of wholesale album profit. Artists who upload their music to Amazing receive 70% of profits from downloads.
Good or Bad?
It might be argued that Amazing is similar to service such as iTunes but there is a crucial difference. Services like iTunes still adhere to the old paradigm because they restrict choice. They sell only music by artists who have signed contracts with the music industry.
In the 60s an artist gained tangible benefits from signing with a big label as this gave them access to the complex expertise required for music recording, distribution and marketing.
Since recording and distribution can now be done by the artists themselves the music companies provide little more than marketing and even this is being challenged with artists such as Groove Armada signing directly with Bacardi.
The music industry is a cartel system which restricts choice and has created price distortion for decades. It is a legacy system long overdue for decommissioning.
The Amazing paradigm is a revitalisation of the original intent of the copyright laws, based firmly on current technology and a more realistic valuation of music. It allows greater variety while dispersing more of the profits amongst a greater number of artists. Less musicians will be millionaires but more will make a fair living.
Most importantly it will be good for music.
See article on Slashdot: Should a new technology change the patent system?
See article on Ars Technica: 100 years of Big Content fearing technology