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The Big Debate: OK gloomsters, how can the music biz be FIXED?

Technology is sinking to the occasion

Battle of Ideas 2012 I was on a panel at The Battle of Ideas conference on music at the weekend, and it went a bit beyond your usual digital music panel.

There was a good turnout - considering there were six concurrent panels, all of them interesting. Everyone got to make a six-minute opening question. Here's mine, and the highlights of the rest of the panel. I've included all the audience questions and the best answers – not all questions were answered – for a reason.

If you think the biggest problem with music is piracy, it isn't, and that becomes evident from the questions. Two of the panellists (Alan Miller and myself) address this in the closing remarks.

On the panel were Helienne Lindvall, singer-songwriter and musician, and author of the Behind The Music column for The Guardian, John Waters, author and columnist for The Irish Times, and Alan Miller, who set up the Truman Brewery. [Full biographies here]

Andrew Orlowski:

I'm going to try and deal with the big picture and one or two recent developments which even if you follow the culture industries, you might not be aware of.

I'd like to focus unapologetically on the economics. Why? Because one of our great human achievements is the economic independence of creators. It's taken us out of the feudal era. And although people will continue to create regardless, the freedom from state sponsorship and corporate sponsorship is a tremendous thing - not just for society but for the self-respect of the individuals as well.

I'm also going to focus on economics because a lot of the other arguments around music today are ways of avoiding the subject of economics, and I'll give you an example. The BBC had a series this summer about the internet, a 7-part series on Radio 4 [Digital Human] and it dealt with everything ... except one. The economics. It's being repeatedly currently, and the journalist [Aleks Krotoski] who wrote and presented it was plugging it on Clive Anderson's programme. And Anderson notices something's missing. And he goes: "Hang on. You've got newspapers closing, cultural industries that are far smaller than should be - that's what the internet really means too, isn't it?"

And her answer? Ah ... you've never heard anyone change the subject so quickly!

So there's this nice gravy train rolling along, which is talking about music industry and avoiding not fixing it. The phrase "business model" is a good example of this.

Now. What we overlook is that the creative and news industries today are market-based. There are exceptions, such as the opera and the BBC, but almost all are creative markets. We like it that way. It creates enormous richness, and diversity, and freedom.

Every technological revolution has given creators more freedom. Every technological revolution has created new markets for culture. This has always been a result of innovation based on a very strong underpinning of property rights. Creators are now being asked not to be richer, to give up economic freedoms, to give up economic freedoms, to give up their human rights.

There's something very wrong with this picture and I'll try and sum up why.

In every field of business money follows popularity. There's one place this isn't true. If you sell the most insurance policies, or the most cars, generally you'll have the most money too. Now, you can fuck up your business in many ways once you're there, but generally, money will follow popularity. On the internet, it doesn't.

And I don't see this as the end of the world but I see this is the most important problem that needs fixing. And it's not non-Euclidian time-space we're grappling with: to fix it, we look at what's worked before.

The problem I think is that there's a childlike, Utopian view that attaching permissions to digital objects, to things, "breaks the internet". It's a phrase you hear quite often. If we start to do this, then horrible things happen. Unicorns will die. We'll get thrown out of the Garden of Eden. But without property rights we don't have cultural markets. If we don't have property rights, if we can't attach permissions to digital things – I'm not talking about movies or newspaper articles – we don't have something else. We don't have any privacy, either.

I think one of the great breakthroughs in the discourse this year has been the recognition that [pro] privacy campaigners and [pro] copyright campaigners are actually on the same page. They're trying to assert individual ownership – not to control, that's part of the paranoia of the debate – they're trying to assert ownership. Now libraries are based on strong copyright. Libraries are sharing institutions – file-sharing institutions – and they wouldn't be there without the property right being recognised. If you didn't have the property right you wouldn't have the library.

Now, at this point when I'm talking, heads start nodding, and people say "Yes, we support copyright. We support creators' rights. Of course we do."

Then there's a "but".

And the "but" is: Don't you dare assert your right. I find this a very mealy-mouthed argument. It boils down to: "You have a right, sure, copyright-holders – but don't dare assert this right. Don't you dare defend your right." Just imagine if this was an argument about gay marriage. And somebody says, "Gosh, I'm all for gay marriage - but you gays, don't get married if you're gay." That's the kind of discourse we have around copyright.

There are some problems. The chattering classes have a prejudice against markets and against creativity and intellectual property itself. I've sat at Islington at Hampstead dinner parties where people complain about copyright for hours, quite bitterly. Then the subject turns to whether Jamie or Isabella are going to get the job with the TV production company - or The Guardian - and they realise they're not, because those jobs are disappearing. They're not there anymore.

Another problem is academics, where it's very common to hear a prejudice against the individual. They'll find all kinds of reasons saying the individual isn't creative. Creativity comes from somewhere else – a machine, perhaps, or the Hive Mind – or isn't there at all. And in recent years academics have become part of the regulatory machinery of government. They see a problem not as a business problem – which they don't have a clue how to fix – but a regulatory one. I don't think that's an entirely false view, but this is largely a business problem that's going to be fixed by markets, by people paying for things they like.

Finally, one aspect that's kind of new this year is that we have a radical administration in the UK - it's our bureaucracy - which seeks to collectivise these individual rights. And I'll be surprised if in 18 months we still have a professional photography market. The bureaucrats are out of control, they don't have a respect for individual property rights, for individuals owning their creativity and taking it to a market.

It isn't a big news story yet, although I've covered it a lot at the The Register; we could soon start to see businesses leaving Britain fairly soon because of this institutional hatred of copyright. So to sum up: it's economics, it's a problem... it isn't rocket science to fix it. Thanks.

For brevity, here are précis of the other openers:

John Waters:

Information is now taken for granted and in my industry it's a consequence of decisions newspapers made. In the book The Shallows Nick Carr suggests there's a long-term potential damage to our brains from using the internet and I think there will be a re-evaluation in 10-15 years. Neil Young once said something that was derided at the time: he said analogue music gave a different experience each time it was heard, and digital music gave you the same experience repeatedly. We're now parasites on our past - we have this wonderful archive of music, but all we have to do is fuck around with it. The freedom of the consumer to get what they want is destroying the freedom of the artist.

Alan Miller:

I used to promote raves and my own business had been built around piracy to an extent. The debate around music is now shrill and shallow. A report last week suggests that high piracy groups were also the biggest spenders on licensed music. Imposing legislation doesn't address the issue properly. Roger Scruton described music in a moral sense - the depth, the range, and our relationship to it - and how it forces us to understand ourselves. Art should be valued and remunerated. The music industry is really lacking leadership. The vision and leadership of a Jack Welsh or even a Bruce Lundvall of EMI is missing.

Any mention of enforcing rules brings out shrillness in the debate. Often big corporations are seen as evil in a very juvenile sense. The Pirates will make the point that artists should be remunerated but quickly point to eeevil corporations as justifying the work being free for all. They're narrow and juvenile anti-capitalists.

There's also a determinism here. Machines don't make the law, but us humans do. Our humans opinions and decisions need to be thrashed out. People fall into the technophobe or technophile camps - but human agency is ultimately what's important.

Helienne Lindvall:

Alan said the pirates are the biggest spenders, but that doesn't mean piracy is the cause of their spending. It's a group of people who like music and are obtaining it however they can. I'm a singer songwriter and musician and we're largely invisible. Certainly in this debate. Piracy and copyright is always referred to "big corporations trying to get more money from consumers" but they don't see us. They don't understand how copyright works. I was at ACTA hearings in Brussels this year. Speaker after speaker talked about how The Pirate Bay was freeing them from decades of music industry exploitation. I'll give you my experience of music industry exploitation.

Imagine walking into a bank, telling them you're a songwriter, and asking them to pay your living expenses for four years. And you only have your songs as collateral. And you've never made a record. And if it doesn't work out you, you want them to write off this loan. And you want to get another loan or even want to walk right back in four years time and ask for another. No bank would ever go for that - but my publisher did just that for me. I had no records out. My deal was four years; they probably didn't recoup until six years down the line. Why? All this underpinned by copyright and every time my songs were listened to or consumed there was a micropayment. A tiny payment.

People say someone who makes a chair shouldn't get paid every time people use it. But they don't get paid 0.00002p each time. In music, you only get remunerated if people like what you do – so copyright is very fair.

The word for copyright in Swedish is not a straight translation – it's "Originator's Right". We do not restrict people from using our music, the right is what we use to get something out of it. I agree with Andrew that having the state provide money or underpin the industry is not a healthy way of doing it. Most countries that have healthy cultural markets are not underpinned by state funding.

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