Sunday, 22 January 2012

SOPA On A Rope - But We Need The Big Companies

Well I guess I have to take the trouble to post my thoughts on the whole SOPA debate. They may be a little academic now given that the bill appears to have stalled as a result of public outcry but it has raised an important general point.

Let me state my position, which is that, in common with most of the more sensible and well thought out objections (as opposed to the anarchic element), I agree very much with the principle of trying to curb piracy (why would I not?) but the actual proposals were potentially disastrous to the modern music scene. They were obviously geared towards the few remaining corporate dinosaurs of this industry trying to protect their own interests in the face of the loss of control they have been facing for many years now - what with the advent of affordable recording technology and the perfect accessible distribution medium in the form of the internet. But the ability to arbitrarily shut down internet providers on a suspicion threatens the very lifeblood on which those same corporations depend.

Now I believe passionately that every person or entity in this world, big or small, has the right to defend their own interests. I also believe that we artists deserve a fair recompense for our popularity, as indeed do the enabling organisations. But in this case, the few remaining large entertainment giants are fighting a losing battle. Unlike many of my peers, I have no wish to see these conglomerates go out of business - because we need them. I shall explain why shortly. But they are making the same noises that they made years ago with the advent of the compact cassette and the video recorder.

When these technologies first appeared in the late 70s there was uproar from the record companies and film studios. They actually tried to get them banned, for fear that they could not control the resulting piracy that would erode or even slash their revenues, now that the man in the street had the ability to copy music and films. But eventually they came to their senses. Sure, there was piracy, but the corporates more than made up for it (and them some) by creating whole new markets in selling us pre-recorded cassettes and video tapes.

So, record companies - you know from history that your best bet is to embrace the new world, not to try and cripple it. The internet is bigger than all of you put together and will not go away. Whatever you do to try and control what happens it will always be one step ahead. Live with it. Now take advantage of it! Find new ways to persuade people to part with their hard earned cash that work in harmony with the world we now live in. You've done it before, you can do it again.

I don't have all the answers, but there are already some pioneers out there. Take Spotify. As I have said in a previous blog post, I do not currently fully support that particular initiative. But my problem is not with the principle, it is more with the fact that they do not charge nearly enough money to make it work for the artists although it is valuable for music discovery. But the "pay per listen" or subscription principle is a valid one. The consumer is still, at present, rather wedded to the idea of "owning" an album, but that can and will change. And the big record companies are the ones to make that happen. If we can dispense with the sense of consumer level music ownership then the whole notion of piracy vanishes. We just have to find new ways of monitoring usage. Perhaps we should worry less about what individual people are listening to and focus more on public performance and media usage, which is far easier to police. These are just thoughts and far be it from me to come up with the solution in my humble blog post, but there will be one.

Which brings me on to why I want the big corporates to thrive. As an independent musician, I love the way that I am able to compose, record, publish and distribute my own material without them. A few years ago that would simply not have been possible. It is generally accepted in musician circles that this is a great thing for creativity, and it is. But there is a downside. Now, everyone is a published artist. Just take a look at the Twitter followers list of any well known artist, film production company or music journalist. Every fourth follower has the words "Singer/Songwriter" or "Film/TV Composer" in their profile. There are literally millions of them. And every one harbours dreams of being the "next big thing", if only someone would discover them and make it happen.

So who is going to do this "discovering"? Sure, if they are smart, work hard and not to mention prepared to spend a bit of money on it, and of course actually have some modicum of appreciable talent (and that last point immediately cuts the millions down to hundreds, believe me) they can establish a reasonable following, get some nice feedback and with any luck sell some music. But they are almost definitely not making a living out of it, let alone the level of success required to achieve the recognition that they dream about. But as I know from my own experience, this dream is the ONLY thing that keeps them churning out the music.

Basic socio-economics dictates that there is only room for a limited number of "names" in the music business at any given time. The only way to become one of them is to throw more money and palm pressing at promotion than is available to all but a very few artists, by many orders of magnitude. And who has this kind of money and the right contacts to make it happen? I think you can see where this is going.

I have no wish to dissuade all those independent artists since they are the lifeblood of this industry. All I am saying, is that to achieve the level of success that you are working towards you have to face the fact that sooner or later, someone else with a lot of clout will have to get involved. Not necessarily in the sense of a traditional "record deal" but definitely a marketing arrangement. There is no reason why it should not be you that they sign up with, but it will have to happen.

So please - to those of you delighting in hacking the websites of these large record companies as some kind of cathartic vengeance, you may be getting your 15 minutes of fame but you are not doing anything to support the long term prospects of the whole music industry. SOPA is now dead, or at least dormant, thanks to reasoned and legitimate public outcry, largely disseminated through the very medium the companies were seeking to curb. So we've proven the point. These companies may be short sighted and reactionary, but without them new talent will have nothing to aspire to, and so we will probably go back to our day jobs. And that means endless X-Factor singles. You have been warned.


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