Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A few hurriedly written and barely structured thoughts on file sharing.

It would seem that arch-debunker of the dubious use of statistics, Ben Goldacre, has himself become the victim of a rather dubious use of statistics, for in Goldacre's recent twitter posting (in reference to an article in The Guardian), "Home taping didn't kill music: Pirates buy more tunes" the second clause does not necessarily follow from the first. The people who buy the most records have never made up the lion's share of the music industry's income. The vast majority of record sales have always gone to people who might only buy a handful of records a year because that is the vast majority of people. Most people are not obsessed with finding the latest band and the hottest new tune - those that are have probably been sharing music with other people in one way or another for years and p2p file-sharing probably makes very little difference to them. In fact, the people who download 'the most,' whether legally or illegally are not themselves a statistically significant group. The problem arises when the idea that music can, or indeed should, be free reaches a mass audience, those people who do not necessarily have the emotional investment in music that makes them want to do right by artists and buy a physical copy or a paid for download of the things they really like.

Another myth about file-sharing that needs exploding is that it will only harm the very rich and that for smaller artists the greater exposure that it brings will inevitably lead to more revenue. In fact, as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails proved rather amply, file-sharing will not harm the rich one bit. The old major record labels will survive, flourish even, no problem, because file-sharing has allowed them to make the 360 deal (whereby every aspect of a band's revenue, from touring to merch to publishing is not only controlled by but also shared with the label) the new standard deal; and the super-rich rock stars will survive, no problem. For total amateurs who have never had any thought to earn a living from their music, it could also be a good thing, conceivably. The real victims will be those working musicians and songwriters who are just about making a living out of what they do. First off, greater exposure - from where exactly? Take a look at Hype Machine's list of "most blogged artists" on any given day and you will recognise all the names - why? Because the same artists that are "most blogged" are, for the most part, also the most famous for other reasons, the most broadcast, the biggest selling, and the most written about in the old-fashioned print press. All of the current most blogged bands are bands with big record deals and something to plug coming out very soon. Greater exposure on the internet comes about largely in the same way as it does off the internet - for the most part through the intervention of pluggers and press agents. Oh, and "word of mouth" (word of mouth is itself a somewhat mythical concept, a little digging will generally teach you that anyone labelled a 'word of mouth success' has in fact been the subject of a clever bit of stealth marketing). Yes, it is possible to get your song on an mp3 blog without the aid of lots of money, just as it is possible to get in the NME or on Radio 1 without the aid of lots of money, but it's a lot harder, and a lot less likely - particularly to get on the most popular blogs. How do people find music on file-sharing networks? Well, they type in the name of the artist they are looking for and up it pops. See, they have to know the name of the artist already, and how will they know that name? Well the same way they will have always know the name of bands they like - they heard it on the radio, or in the music press, or at a gig, or perhaps on a blog. Secondly - increased revenue: Where will this revenue come from? Now that songwriters are apparently not allowed to make any money from publishing (thanks for that everyone who supported YouTube against PRS) because having your song played on YouTube is "promotion" and you apparently shouldn't get paid for that. Instead you are supposed to earn your money through playing live. Unfortunately most live promoters also regard playing gigs as "promotion" and therefore something they do not need to trifle with paying bands for. In fact, touring is the most expensive thing a band can do. Anyone can make a record if they want to. Go on tour and you need to take time off work, you need to pay all sorts of travel expenses, you will probably need to hire some sort of van, you will need to find places to sleep, and, if you want to sound any good, you will probably have to hire a sound guy to travel with you. All these things make touring a loss-making enterprise for practically everyone - except, once again, the super-rich rock stars like Radiohead who can get away with charging silly money for gig tickets and have powerful agents to make sure they get a good deal out of promoters. So, where will this "inevitable" increased revenue come from? Well, advertising, maybe, but once again the vast majority of sync money, whether for ads or for TV or movies, also goes to the biggest names - and anyway, wasn't that called selling out until rather recently? Should we really be so blase about the fact that perhaps the only way for musicians to make any money in the future may be by simply becoming an adjunct to the advertising industry?

What's perhaps most worrying about the language used by the Swedish Model is, on the one hand, this insistence on being "modern" - "We are modern you know" they say, and as Raymond Williams put it forty years ago, this, precisely, is "the ideology of the never-ending present." Their entire statement is laced with a certain there-is-no-alternative totalitarianism, file-sharing is here to stay and you better like it or lump it, which British readers will recognise from the speeches of Mrs Thatcher. This kinds of language merely precludes any real debate from happening - just as Thatcher's words stampeded through public discourse the very economic model that has caused the current world recession. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the internet, Web 2.0, whatever, is not a revolution, it does not represent a paradigm shift. Rather, like Nazism and Thatcherism before it, Web 2.0 is a pseudo-event par excellence and your loyalty has already been bought up for the price of a few poor quality mp3s.