Fair trade?

See, they're happy!You know those advertisements you used to see on tv telling you to drink more milk, or eat more eggs? If you were anything like me you probably wondered: ‘who is paying for this commercial? Have all the egg and milk producers clubbed together in the hopes of improving the public profile of custard?’ Turns out that the music industry have decided to do something similar to put a sudden and irreversible halt in the decline in music sales. Apparently, a bunch of artists, labels, songwriters etc have gotten themselves formed into a collective called Music Matters, with the object of reminding the public of the ‘significance and value of music’. There are two parts to their approach. The first one is having the lives of a number of musicians compressed into short animated films, no doubt compelling and inspirational, to be aired on the websites of affiliated enterprises. Well, let’s hope they’re good enough to go viral on YouTube, because obviously, if they appear on the affiliated websites, they’ll only be seen by people who are on-message anyway. Frankly, if you are the type who downloads Sigur Ros from e-Mule, you’re not likely to watch a video on their website telling you why you shouldn’t. Nevertheless, I applaud them for the effort. Sooner or later the unglamorous reality will have to be acknowledged by the public that it’s not so much about the acts and musicians that exist right now being compensated for their work, but that the real loss is in the amount of potentially great artists, songwriters, studio engineers, distributors, retailers, lackeys and label managers who decide that, no, it would be lovely to go into the music business, but it’s just too risky to bet the mortgage on. Anything that helps get that message across is to be encouraged. It’s not all about filesharing, it’s about a culture that has made music a background activity in people’s lives; something that can be ignored and depended upon to continue and flourish without any financial or emotional investment from the absent-minded end-user. Essentially, it’s about convincing people that music deserves their money more than phone credit does.

There is a second part to the initiative that worries me though. Affiliated artists and websites will display a ‘Trustmark’ that indicates their support of the initiative. Details aren’t out yet as to what this will look like,but we can assume fairly safely that it will owe some conceptual debt to the FairTrade organisation’s symbol. Now I’m wary. The reason is that some eight months ago when I came into this business, one of the tasks I was assigned was to come up with some new ideas that might help us make a mark on the public perception. Greenhorn that I was, I got on the phone to the Fairtrade organisation and asked to talk to someone about applying for FairTrade status. As we split all net income 50/50 with our artists, it seemed to me at the time that we were worthy of some sort of ethical recognition. FairTrade were very polite, and patient. Over the course of an hour-long conversation, their representative outlined some of the projects they have on the go in Botswana and Mozambique – how their investment in studios and distribution there was cutting through some of the most heinous abuses of talent and artist-ambition in the industry. We agreed that my understanding of their organisation was somewhat incomplete and, although they didn’t say as much, that any self-congratulation on the part of BlancoMusic for our artist/label relationship was patronising in the extreme when compared with the work they do in improving the lives of indentured labourers and downtrodden farmworkers in the developing world. Like I say, they were extremely nice about it, and the inferences I took from the conversation weren’t forced upon me by their representatives. It’s just that, comparing the music industry’s treatment at the hands of filesharers to the plight of the world’s exploited poor, nomatter how accidental or undeliberate that comparison may be, is a very, very dangerous tactic. The backlash on this one will hurt us all.



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