Sunday, 15 March 2009

"The secret of life is honesty and fair-dealing - if you can fake that you've got it made"

It is easy to be shocked by the stupidity and lack of understanding shown by much of the commentary on the current dispute between YouTube and PRS for Music over licence fees paid for music videos, but the problem lies in the way the situation has been framed, and by the way Google (YouTube's parent company) has been allowed, practically unquestioned, to set the terms of the debate. In the press release issued by YouTube at the time of their unilateral and entirely unprompted decision to remove 'premium content' music videos from their U.K site in the middle of ongoing negotiations with PRS, as well as in the first Guardian article to report on this P.R. statement, the issue is presented as a clash between, on the one hand, the 'old' exploitative music industry, and, on the other, the brave new world of Web 2.0, offering direct unmediated access between 'artists' and 'fans'. It is essential in these circumstances to problematise each of the terms in this debate - 'the music industry', 'artists', 'fans', and what might be seen as the increasingly invisible mediator between the three, the internet and the various hardware and software companies that have come to colonise its virtual highways - but first of all this opposition between 'the music industry' and 'web 2.0' must be dismissed as false, and perniciously so.

There can be no opposition between the internet's principal software developers and the major multinational record companies, they are joined by ties of common ownership (Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, for instance, owns both MySpace and several recording and music publishing interests; Time-Warner-AOL owns, of course, both AOL and the Warner Music Group, as well as holding considerable shares - to the tune of $1 billion - in Google, not to mention the fact that the present CEO of AOL is former sales director of Google) and have frequently colluded in deals, tied by non-disclosure agreements, to share their profits, to the exclusion, by and large, of any actual music producers. The move on the part of YouTube to present the debate in these terms then, lacking any positive content in reality, must be seen as purely tactical - a somewhat specious attempt on the part of a massive global corporation, with annual advertising revenue to the tune of $16.4 billion (in 2007) and close financial and personnel ties to an even bigger corporate behemoth (Time-Warner), to present itself as 'the little guy'.

Part of the problem lies with this idea of 'the music industry' and the ease with which it can be manipulated. There is a perception that there is this thing called 'the music industry' which intervenes in, and distorts, the relationship between two mythical entities called 'artists' (a term which elevates music's producers to the romantic status of geniuses starving in garrets, outside the social, and beyond the dirt and cynicism of circulation) and 'fans' (a term which reduces music's consumers to the hysteric victims of Beatlemania, blindly following the Pied Piper to their doom). Although there is of course a grain of truth in this, it is certainly no more true than it is of the fashion industry, the potato industry, the furniture industry, the software industry, or the telecommunications industry. The music industry is, in this respect at least, no different from any other under the capitalist mode of production - except for this romantic ideological spin which sees producers as 'artists' who are today inevitably compromised by their financial dealings and were at some mythical point in the past somehow unconstrained by such concerns. The debate must then be reframed in terms of a conflict between, on the one hand, the global corporations which control BOTH the production and distribution of recorded music offline AND the web applications used to distribute music online, and on the other hand, music's consumers and producers (with PRS - a not-for-profit organisation that collects licensing revenue from businesses and distributes it amongst songwriters, without the intervention of any kind of record label, and with a membership of which over 90% earns, in royalties, less than £5,000 a year - very clearly on the side of the producers and consumers).

The notion that the World Wide Web (or perhaps 'Web 2.0') offers the chance of unmediated, direct access between producers and consumers is, similarly, a myth that requires exploding. All web applications like MySpace, YouTube, etc. do is exchange one form of corporate mediation - that offered by a record company - for another - that offered by a telecommunications/software company. Yes, it is possible for a band to buy their own domain name, webhosting, and all the rest of it, set up their own website and distribute their music directly online - but scarcely more so than thirty years ago, when a band could, and frequently did, press their own records, print their own artwork, and take them direct to shops (like Rough Trade) and sell them at gigs. And the simple fact is that the network of websites and applications that have come to be brought under the umbrella term 'Web 2.0' does not increase the possibilities of this happening, but has, in fact, decreased them, as bands increasingly don't bother with their own websites, and audiences scarcely bother looking for them, when they get all they want for free on MySpace. If the idea of a 'bad' major record label is one which gives producers little control over their labour power and what happens to the products thereof, and pays them little or no reward for their work, then MySpace and YouTube and so forth should be seen as the 'bad' mediators par excellence.

There is, however, a third party in this debate, and that is the role played by the peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, from Bit Torrent to Pirate Bay. Although the people who set up these networks will undoubtedly overlap with the previously defined group of music consumers, and music producers have a tendency, seeing the file-sharing networks as a thorn in the side of 'the music business' and thinking in terms of 'my enemy's enemy must be my friend', to regard them with a kind of affectionate leniency, peer-to-peer software, no matter how good the intentions of its designers may be, has had three almost immediate material consequences, none of which are unambiguously positive. First of, file-sharing has helped sustain the growing feeling that music, as though it were some sort of naturally occurring resource like water or oxygen, should be free to all (thus inviting the question of whether there is room in society for any 'professional musicians' at all, and, if so, where their income is supposed to come from); secondly, the existence of file-sharing has in fact increased the leverage and bargaining power that major record labes have over their acts, and the more the media talks of a crisis, the more the major labels can give musicians the impression that any kind of deal is something of a miracle at the moment and that they should therefore immediately accept the most restrictive and financially unrewarding contracts, with the sharp rise in the "360 deal" (where labels control a stake, not just in a band's record sales but also in their merchandise sales, publishing rights, live revenue, and so forth) just one of the more prevalent and immediate consequences of this; thirdly, file-sharing networks have contributed greatly to a massive change in listening habits, due to the free and immediate availability of practically all the music ever recorded. Though some may wish to celebrate this last point as a marvel of the modern age, it comes with something of a mummy's curse attached, for it would seem that the more music there is available for us to consume, the less we really listen.

As a child, I would save up my pocket money to buy an album on cassette perhaps every three or four weeks and then listen to that tape over and over again until I knew it inside out. This kind of dedicated listening is, by now, practically unheard of, not to mention the fact that, with the ever-decreasing sound quality of music formats (from vinyl to tape to CD to minidisc to mp3 to mobile phone...), whenever we listen to music today, we are literally listening to less of it, i.e. to a greatly reduced band of that music's frequencies. So, though I am not necessily advocating the criminalisation of file-sharing networks and the people who use them, I still have a problem with their typical self-presentation as global Robin Hoods, robbing from the rich 'music industry' for the good of all. And when Limewire, for instance, is owned by a man, Mark Gorton, who also owns a hedge fund and a stock brokerage, and Bit Torrent has corporate partnerships with such companies as Fox, Warner Brothers and Paramount, one should maybe pause for thought before assigning them any oppositional position, or liberatory potential, whatsoever.