Dinosaurs Will Die

Pirates and Stormtroopers

Image by Stéfan, shared via a Creative Commons licence

Cards on the table, music means a lot to me. It’s scored many critical moments of my life so far, and papered over the cracks in the boring bits. Music has brought me back from the edge, when I felt like my brain was going to leap out of my head, music has set me far freer than alcohol ever has, whisky helps, but give me a dirty rock club, heat, smoke, lights and I will dance until I can’t breathe, until I feel like I could disappear.

For every heart break, there’s a song that goes with it, for every break up, an album you have to reclaim, for every beautiful moment, a piece of music. Music is reciprocal, it’s shared, it brings people together, it makes moments, and it is inspired by them. It is an essential form that talks to us of the universal; rhythm scores our lives, all life.

(here’s a Spotify playlist of all those songs)

I like music, you get that. But I would have heard none of the tracks above had it not been for file-sharing. I am not poor, not in real terms, I have a roof over my head, food in the fridge, an education. But my food budget for the past two years was something between £7.50 and £10 a week, I have roughly zero disposable income. I download files. Illegally. So does almost everyone I know. If you took that music away from me, you’d be taking away the thickness of experience. You’d be halving the substance of my memories.

This is a blog in reaction to Peter Mandleson’s threat to cut off internet access to persistent file-sharers.  There are two questions here; one is it legal, two, is it useful?

Despite the fact that the in depth Digital Britain report released in June 09 ruled out cutting off P2P sharers (“The most draconian penalty considered at the time was to slow down a persistent filesharer’s broadband connection”. Source) Peter Mandleson has since announced a new plan that

Calls for the secretary of state to be given the power to direct the communications regulator Ofcom to implement technical measures against illegal peer-to-peer filesharing. Source

So, is it legal? There’s quite a strong argument against these measures in terms of them being unenforceable – you cannot cut off 7 million people’s internet connections without due process of law. (I shouldn’t have to say this but) you cannot assume guilt; it’s perfectly easy to piggy back on unsecured wireless connections, just as it is possible that a connection is shared by a building, a family, a business. Is Mandleson proposing to process each illegal filesharer through the justice system? (And at the cost of the taxpayer – “Her Majesty’s Court System currently holds 200,000 criminal cases per year” source – how is it going to deal with millions)? Or is he advocating a form of marshal law, where ISPs are sheriffs, and users are guilty until proven innocent?

The second argument against the idea is that it actually directly contravenes our human rights under EU legislation:

Disconnecting people from the internet does not fully comply with EU legislation. In fact it directly contravenes EU legislation. I am referring to amendment 138/46 which […] declared that access to the internet was a fundamental human right. source

The action also contravenes what was pretty much the whole conclusion of the Digital Britain report: that broadband internet access was a right, not a privilege.

These actions are bolstered by false accounting for losses to the creative industries, and even aside from the exaggerated and erroneous figures involved in the headlines (see Ben Goldacre’s excellent blog post for more) their maths is flawed at the point they assume every download is a lost sale.

It’s all beginning to sound a bit desperate isn’t it?

Whitehall insiders believe the U-turn is more likely to have been caused by a prior meeting with one of the most powerful figures in the British music business, Lucian Grainge, the chairman of Universal Music – Source

Do you know what might save you a lot of money Universal? How about pulling out of all of those lawsuits, cutting down on those very finely paid lawyers of yours. A shiny penny to anyone who can set Universal Music Group’s legal costs against their projected losses to file sharing.

What we are seeing here, is the end of one type of business: the physical distribution of digital products. Source

These movements against progress are nothing less than the death throes of a nasty, parasitic part of a very worthy industry. They are not useful.

Copyright was originally brought about in 1709 to “encourage the creation of artistic works by granting a right to copy for 14 years.” It now stands between 50 and 95 years Source. Its aim was to encourage a profession. I am not arguing for an artistic community that consists solely of amateurs, I understand, boy do I understand that artists need to be paid. But being paid is not the ends for which art is made, it is the encouragement. The leveller. Not the stick with which to beat the consumer.

Culture is not only enjoyable, it is vital to us as a species, culture frames our existence; it helps us reflect of our selves, it asks big questions. Culture was also vital to our evolution, the ability to tell stories- to imagine differing outcomes was key to our growth– we teach out young using stories, cautionary tales and nursery rhymes. Our cultural heritage is open source, peer to peer, shared. See ballads, fairy tales, myths, legends, and performance like commedia dell’arte (its latter day incarnation is pantomime, but it used to be free to view political satire, kind of like a Spitting Image road show). The ownership of stories (told visually, actively, aurally) have changed since then, with the advent of a market economy, came patronage, and then a global capitalist system decided that not only did it want to own our stories, it wanted to sell them to us too. Distribution. But now the system is changing again.

The great chaotic utopia envisaged by some online evangelists would be culturally impoverished – a world that would create millions of buskers, but no Beatles. Source

I, and many of my peers are not calling for an end to the creative industries, we’re calling for changes to a very specific aspect of them – distribution. I’m not talking about some ‘choatic utopia’, what I am saying is the way that we consume is changing. Myspace, and Spotify have already changed the way that that we access music, and that artist distribute their wares. Youtube allows anyone with a camera and a computer to have their say. The Age of Stupid crowd-sourced the complete £450K production budget and are pioneering a system that allows anyone to buy a licence to screen it whenever and wherever they like – keeping the profits for themselves or their climate campaign.

Here’s a theory:

The world of ideas is changing, the news is becoming mutual, Obama’s politics was mutual- not driven by spin, broadcast control and brand […] It’s all about the pull […] Think pirates. Think mavericks, think renegades. They will re-form our world, they can tell us what the future might look like. It’s critical that artists are engaged with the digital world, not for marketing, but to ask difficult, big questions of it – Charles Leadbeater @wethink at Shift Happens

Here’s an industry perspective:

The majority of my audiences watch my films over the BitTorrent system, a system so revolutionarily brilliant that it means I, an independent film-maker, can distribute a film in full High Definition to hundreds of millions of viewers with absolutely no cost incurred to me – Monaghan Media source

And that of a consumer

Now, I muster all the spare cash I have to pay for an internet connection, and go to gigs as often as possible. I tell my mates (and a bunch of strangers on the interweb) about all the new bands I’ve heard of, and encourage them to see them live. So, I’m paying for the music I like, I’m paying the costs of distributing it, and I’m promoting it source

P2P filesharing is revolutionary, it’s zero cost, close to zero in carbon emissions (servers), it runs on recommendations. It is another shift to the ‘pull’ ethic of the digital world. In a hyper-connected, information heavy existence, you cannot deliver neatly packaged tales of what we should buy and how we should be, because there are a million other voices that will simultaneously disagree. People taped music from CDs and radio before now, that’s been going on for years, what really scares the Powers That Be is the peer – peer review, peer sharing. Theirs is no longer dominant voice, we’re building our own stories.

I believe that cutting off filesharing is fundamentally unfair, fundamentally unjust – and penalises the young, and the less well off.

Yes artists need to make a living, but hierarchical distribution is not the only way to do that. Radiohead released their album In Rainbows allowing people to pay ‘what they thought it was worth’, you could pay as little as 1p for it. The average paid was around $6 (source). They also very recently gave away a song for free. In a world where everyone is vying for your attention a loyal fan base matters more than ever, you cultivate that through trust, interaction and recommendation.

Ben Walker, (the man who did the Twitter song [and much else besides]) suggests that “when it’s so easy to make and share music, you’d be an unpopular person if you charged for music.”

Copyright has evolved, we now have Creative Commons, and likewise we can find new models from which artists can make a living, offering “goods that are infinitely duplicated (music) for free and tying them to scarce goods (vinyl records, t-shirts, collector’s items etc.)” source, is one method, Likewise we are never going to be able to duplicate the  singular experience of seeing a performance live, people still pay for that. Artists will still make a living, what digital distribution demolishes is the hierarchy – superstars and massive profit margins.

Johnathan Phan, of Pirate Party UK suggests that

Whereas earlier we had [one] artist making 10 million, we now have a hundred people making 1 million. source

It is not useful for Peter Mandleson to be attempting to tackle file-sharing. What he should be doing, as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, is using the Digital Britain report to offer big business a manual to the digital world, if they want to survive, they have to evolve, Mandleson is doing the country a disservice when he panders to their childish cries to stem the tide of change.

Our world is slowly realising that unrelenting growth is not a sustainable model, in economics, in the environment, in our populace. Unfortunately this message takes the longest to reach the people at the top. What’s the answer? Support artists, not labels. Go to gigs, love music, share your love with others.

And if anyone tries to prosecute you for sharing torrents, show them the Pirate Google, and tell them to fuck off.

NB I know this is also an issue for software and gaming, and I haven’t really addressed them here, I pretty much hold the same line of argument, open-source software is already leading the way, and gaming development needs levelling from the ‘big producing studio’ ethic to allow for greater access for would-be-developers, shifting the focus from the blockbuster to storytelling and innovation. See Psychonauts.

This is where the title of the post came from:

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6 Responses to “Dinosaurs Will Die”

  1. Karunya August 29, 2009 at 6:51 pm #

    Great post! In all the legal and economic arguments, I think we don’t say enough about how much songs mean to people. Radio isn’t half useful for anything more than a repetitive top 40, live streaming is often blocked on the computers I have access to, and CDs still are a holiday treat. I love listening live to the bands I love. And that’s only because I’ve been able to exchange and share music. If not for filesharing, I would have no clue who these bands from the other side of the world even are.
    Music indeed makes moments.

  2. cyberdoyle August 29, 2009 at 7:14 pm #

    Excellent article, the best I have read so far on the subject. Well done. I totally agree. It is time the media got its act together, and time Mandy got real. I hope someone prints this post out for him to read.

  3. Hannah Nicklin August 29, 2009 at 10:09 pm #

    @cyberdoyle, thanks, that’s cool of you to say.
    @Karunya It’s hard to talk about emotional response in context of legal and economic arguments because it isn’t directly quantifiable, but I think it does need to be mentioned because that’s going to become more important RE fan bases.

  4. Sheldon (Marketing Consultant, Tauranga) August 30, 2009 at 9:34 am #

    You are so brave telling the world this.

    I wonder what the world would be like if the music industry played the game rather than fought against it?

    For a long time P2P or Torrents were cheaper sure, but most importantly, easier. iTunes has made up a lot of ground, to the point that people can’t be bothered downloading illegally because it’s so easy to buy legitimately. The time you save makes up for the dollar you pay.

  5. livelikeian September 4, 2009 at 6:03 pm #

    You’re right. P2P, as a system or technology for distributing digital content should not be circumvented by outside forces. Torrents, for example, do have legitimate uses for minimizing download times for valid, or should I say ‘legal’, content (software updates, patches and bug fixes, etc.). As you pointed out, there should be no mass blockage of P2P access, simply because its use should not denote piracy. All arguments for creative works aside, the technology is being used for distribution by commercial entities and to hinder this progress would be idiotic. The inevitable issue of throttling, however, is a different story.

    Having read your post through the eyes of someone who is looking to create a career in music, I do have some points to make about digital distribution. When you open the can of digital distribution, in terms of music, you’re opening a world of discussion which relates directly to the value of music and musicians today. Hannah, I do not doubt that others feel the same as you toward music, that it affects them in ways which are both wonderous and memorable. But, on that same token, I do feel that a large majority do take the availability of music for granted. Yes, there is something to be said for enjoying a band or artist in a live atmosphere, but because of the sheer volume of music that is consumed today, I highly doubt that any average individual would venture forth and pay for secondary items or concert tickets for more than a handful of the acts they listen to. This makes their dodging of song payment an issue.

    You had mentioned Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want ploy (I say ploy, because the audio quality of the files they provided were sub-par at best). Unfortunately, this model can have devastating effects for musicians on varying levels. For one, Radiohead is an established act and if their average revenue per In Rainbow’s album was 6 pounds (going by the info you provided), where does that leave the up-and-coming artist? How can a startup competitively price their music when it’s so undervalued economically? They can’t. They have no choice of whether to offer it free or not, as they are muscled into giving it away due to lack of buyers. And, because of the variety of lifestyles music producers lead (not all perform), how can they survive? Their time is not any less valuable than a touring musician. These days, achieving a viable revenue stream through music sales requires huge volume. So then, is touring a necessity? This is a huge barrier to entry for a musician looking to make a living off his/her talent, seeing as how it limits the diversity in which they can present their music.

    Additionally, as Trent Reznor from NIN discovered during his jaunt with Saul Williams, the pay-what-you-want model can be destructive to a creative mind. Finding out that your fans value your music at less than the cost of a cup of coffee can be hazardous to an artist emotionally and creatively. This might be a trivial point to an individual who has not spent time creating (not you, Hannah, in general), but it’s a real concern for those who have put themselves into the work they make public. I can tell you that I was somewhat taken aback by the fact that my own friends (upper-middle class) would not pay 99 cents (or less in some other on-line stores) for a song that I had released, Instead, they asked for a free copy.

    Without a doubt, digital distribution can help a startup musician/band. It has definitely helped me. If the industry was anything like it was just 10-15 years ago, I wouldn’t have the potential to get anywhere on my own.

    Anyhow, I hope you’ll excuse this rant. I am all for digital distribution. There’s just so much to discuss on this issue and it’s no wonder that both musicians and labels are having a tough time navigating through the pile of steaming rubble that is the music industry.

  6. livelikeian September 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm #

    Also, wall of text crits you for over 9000!

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