Monday, October 5, 2009

Copyright ! Download Nation - Music and Art's Civil War

I entered the fray about copyright issues and music downloading, and how music in general has been affected

The US constitution on COPYRIGHTS – To promote the Progress of Science [includes literature] and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors [..] the exclusive Right to their respective Writings…

So the constitution is clear here -”clear” ? ha, I’m in trouble already. Congress is mandated to promote innovation in knowledge and art.
And a key component is the right granted to creators over their work.

This is going to be a long process where we fight over the rules that dominate the information age. We’ve been spared the messiest phase of this battle because for several decades the technology to deliver information, outpaced the technology to copy it. In the music industry and community, we’ve focused on unauthorized downloading, but unfortunately the debate is on a scale involving the essence of culture and group communication. This has broadened the issues to the point where it becomes difficult to apply any of the principles to a specific problem. Disney cartoon characters are a completely different type of conception than Martin Luther King’s “I Had A Dream” speech, or than news reports in a daily newspaper, or than scientific research papers – but copyright laws apply to all these.

I like the wording in the constitution. To all of us, an artist’s ownership of his work is intuitive. We understand that “creative control” is important. We don’t want an artist’s work to be changed by someone outside that creative process, ie: someone at a record label. We bristle at radio edits that change a revered song. We generally want the creation to be a clear expression by that individual artist, unmodified – it is not society’s – it is self expression. 

  Yet somehow in the fray, copyright and the concept of intellectual property has been demonized – largely the result of aggressive tactics by large business interests, and the ensuing backlash. Innovative organizations such Creative Commons have promoted important new concepts in copyright, with what I see as a heavy dose of fear-mongering. According to Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig: “..creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past”. Well I don’t know too many musicians for whom that statement would apply. Not too many want to include a snippet or sample of Britney Spears in their songs anymore. Also, not all those you might seek permission from, are “powerful”.  It’s not as simple as us against them. There are casualties right here, amongst us.

I believe the more one knows of how the middle level of the music business works -independent labels, distributors and booking agents- the more one supports intellectual property rights.

Some of the issues as they pertain to downloading and independent music culture:

Free sharing benefits artists
 Providing free, but limited, products and services to generate demand is as old as commerce itself – ie: “the first one’s free”, “special introductory rate”.Providing promotional, free copies of music to radio stations is nothing new. And even as far back as the 70′s, The Grateful Dead were authorizing unlimited bootleg recordings of their live shows. That made obvious business sense for them, because they were a gigantic live act and could simply sell tickets.

So it’s important to artists and their labels to control and select what is given away promotionally. That’s business, and if that’s a dirty word for some people, that seems to suggest that artists shouldn’t be able to earn money from their creations. Music making is expensive – both recorded and live. Where there’s music reaching the people, someone is treating it like a business

Some people are suggesting music itself shouldn’t have to be paid for, only performance – live performance.

“If all the money is on the road, why not give out more recorded product free” Bob Lefsetz (The Lefsetz Letter – music industry blog) on Twitter
 Taking to an extreme, I believe diversity in the art of recording would suffer. A recording budget basically pays for the 1st copy, so you need to sell subsequent copies to justify the initial expense. And having time to spend in the studio with good equipment and acoustics, is part of a tradition of great record making. But we’re seeing how large recording studios are closing in droves, and large live-music venues are multiplying. That shows how things follow the dollar. I believe that despite the renewed popularity of vinyl, most people don’t really care about recording quality. There are few audiophiles amongst us. But we should know there’s a cost here. There are also many important creators in recordings – producers, engineers, arrangers, extra musicians – who would not receive royalties if records are not sold – or would not be hired in the first place.

The enduring importance of labels.

The music industry is like the financial industry, in that it has shrunk but has not disappeared. There is a whole infrastructure that has remained entrenched, and on some fronts is being re-enforced. One reason is that there is a flood of self-released records. Many publications – like on-line megazine Pitchfork – have an official policy of only reviewing music that is on a recognized label, maintaining the old vetting system of record labels. Also, booking agents will usually only consider artists who are on a label that’s based in their territory – they know that an entity interested in selling the music itself in that territory, is necessary to help create awareness.

Less new artists are being signed to labels big and small.
Many well regarded small labels have greatly curtailed the signing of new artists. This feels like the equivalent of banks chocking off the supply of credit. An example would be Young God Records which discovered Devendra Banhart (other artists include Akron Family, Larkin Grimm). The label has turned down many worthwhile artists because of diminished revenue from distribution

Is downloading truly to blame?

On average, yes. The tanking of the record industry has been across the board, hitting both Davids and Goliaths – and it was underway many years before the current economic turndown. Napster just passed it’s 10 year anniversary

The penalty for unauthorized downloading ?
I feel it should be a social taboo – like not tipping your bartender or driving a gas guzzling SUV. With that in mind, I’d like to say how gratifying it is to see music blogs taking a lead on this. Most blogs that post MP3′s urge you to buy it, if you enjoy it.

Why are some fans not getting this?

There’s a misplaced schadenfreude about the music business collapse
And there’s a misperception about the term “independent”. There’s an assumption that the machinery of the industry only applies to the major labels, when actually the machinery is very similar on a small scale. Also many artists with large fan bases who make a big point of their independence, were once on big labels and benefited from the big promotional push. And many perceived DIY artists, are actually on small labels, and work with small booking agencies. Once an artist goes beyond his home region for extended periods, true DIY starts being impossible – an artist needs to tie into some kind of machine. So small out-of-sight music biz entities that are in jeopardy, don’t get the kind of sympathy that small businesses get in our physical neighborhoods.

Different rules apply to the rock elite.

When Nine Inch Nails released Year Zero in 2007. Trent Reznor told fans in Australia to “steal the record” – in protest of the Recording Industry Association of America’s outrageous lawsuits against individual downloaders. But yet his record had sold 187,000 in its first week, and reached #2 in Billboard. I don’t personally know any touring musicians who could afford to ask audience members to steal their records from the merch table. Records sold at shows are a crucial means of financing a tour for independent artists

Musician ghetto and the fan base paradox.
It seems like there are always those who will have fans, including Myspace miracle buzz bands with viral fan bases. And it’s now generally easier to build on an existing fan base.

 But it’s hard to know what we’re missing. It’s hard to know why artists drop off the radar. So when you really know the situation intimately, you see the contradictions – apparently successful artists unable to tour with extra musicians, or to record at a good studio. Many are increasingly asking for donations,,, $5, $10, $20 helps.

 It’s hard for the public to see artists as workers in the classic sense – who’s livelihoods we have a common interest to protect. Intuitively people see the arts as a wild west niche in society. A tremendous amount of ideas are not really seeing the day – many artists have to simply give up. You can apply the notion that the true visionaries will persevere, and so even independent music is a Darwinian sink-or-swim ruthless environment.

A lot of music is shrinking away in horror.

“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors [..] the exclusive Right to their respective Writings…”

1 comment:

JPA said...

I recently discussed this with a friend, we both grew up in the post-napster era, and we are both musicians. But he doesn't seem to get that copyright laws are necessary. I hope your blog can help change his mind.