See, it’s not the Digital Economy Bill any more, it’s been passed, so now it’s the Digital Economy Act. So now we’ll all end up getting our anti-drug agencies with our anti-piracy laws, and no-one will know who to call when their computer is hijacked by coked-up swashbucklers with wooden legs. Look, I can’t figure out what to think about this. Legislation to make it more difficult to thieve music is a good thing – wrapping up a series of caveats to make that legislation a legal tool to block seditious websites is not. Once again, as with the Criminal Justice Bill, CCTV cameras and the proposed identity card scheme, the UK government is using the ‘if you’re not doing any wrong, you have no need to fear this’ line to piggyback a couple of BigBrother items into law.
The more I look at this issue, and discuss it with people who understand it better than I do, the more I realise that, although I strongly feel that the rights of musicians must be protected, this is not the right way to do it. Nevertheless, it’s done now. What I have a problem with, is specifically a) the distribution of artists’ work without permission, and less specifically, b) a society where it’s considered acceptable to do so. Funnily, although b) is the pub-philosopher, hand-wringing, intangible factor, I honestly think that a) will never be properly eradicated until b) is sorted out. One of the better objections to the DEA is that it forbodes a kind of interventionist society that will be unpleasant to live in. I disagree. I think it reacts to a society that is unpleasant to live in. I’ve noticed that a hipper way of saying ‘old-fashioned’ on the social web is to use the term ‘oldskool’. Well, I’m old-fashioned. I think that filesharing is unacceptable, not because it is detrimental to the income of the artist, or not only, but because it’s rude. Using the social web a lot for my job, I’m in the position to notice how much of our lives we are shifting online. This is fine, it’s fun too. The problem lies in the anonymity and lack of physical proximity it affords its users. That very anonymity leads people to behave in ways online that they would be unlikely to do so were the in a position where they could be held accountable for their actions. Hence cyber-bullying. The social web is a take-first, apologise later medium. An obvious example of this is in the use of quotations in blogs. If you read through the archives of this blog you will see opinions and quotes attributed to Rosie Swash, Eamonn Forde, Helienne Lindvall and other music/culture writers working in the London media. Would it surprise you to know that those quotes/opinions are cleared for permission to use by the writers themselves? Is it standard practise to ask permission to quote writers in blogs? No idea, but it seems abhorrent not to even try. The same goes for any intellectual property. If you want to use it, you have to get permission. That’s not such a hard concept to grasp, surely? We apply it to our own possessions all the time, to our opinions too, even if we’re just grumping about someone using our best joke without saying we told it to them.
You see, musicians and labels are not making this any easier for people. There are a great many musicians out there who see the opportunity to make their music available for free, at no cost to themselves, as being a formidable promotional tool. It is, certainly. The fact remains that the approach depends upon a musician creating a brand-image for themselves, rather than forefronting the music. This is fine if, like Kelly Slater making more money from selling Quiksilver clothes than he does from being a pro-surfer, you are willing to submit to that self-branding process. We had a joke at BlancoMusic some months ago about how the bands should shave off their pubes and add them to luxury box-sets of their records – as a bit of a laugh at the expense of those musicians who see the personalised boxset as being their way out of the quagmire the industry is getting dragged into. Then Gang of Four go and release a boxset in which they include phials of their own blood. It’s a good PR stunt, but what it says about how they view their own music, the value they attach to it as an artefact in itself, is awful. Is it any wonder that filesharers download gigabytes of music onto their hard-drives and listen to hardly any of it, buy even less, when bands themselves come up with ‘value added material’ that actually contains their own DNA? An autographed picturedisc suddenly seems so quaint. Eventually all this serve is to endorse the concept that what is of value in the brand you endorse with your 50 quid boxset purchase is the t-shirt, the box, the blood, the shared experience of the artist’s ‘aura’ of celebrity, and perhaps beneath that all, the music. The music becomes peripheral to the surrounding paraphenalia, where in fact, it is the only part of the setup that has the possibility of touching the eternal, the divine. It’s like OkGo! using their music to advertise car insurance. This is not the same as selling a sync license, where the music attracts the insuranc company, this is the polar opposite.
There ar plenty of acts who choose to make their muic available for free. SOme do it from altruistic reasoning – feeling that their talent is there to be freely shared, god-given and belonging to the world – not just one person. They find a way to pay the mortgages somehow and their art usually muddles along, developing inthe interim periods where they are not earning a living. Others see the act of free distribution as a stepping-stone to an imagined and hoped-for fture where they will be able to charge money for some aspect of their artistry. I don’t particularly like the latter approach, not because I believe it is predicated upon the notion that fans who are made through the provision of free product can be depended upon to become fans who will pay for future product (a notion which I am skeptical of, but am willing to reserve judgment on). This is not my problem with the tactic, my worry is that it propogates the belief that music is a throwaway, constantly, magically-renewed and unimportant part of our lives. To offer something freely does not automatically make it worthless, but doing so sends a mixed signal that can be easily construed that way. I don’t even think music should be cheap, or subject to the kind of discounting that applies to toilet roll. It is undignified to offer or expect a product which can change my mood; offer stimulation, relaxation, comfort, reflection, social comment, wellbeing, exhiliration, joy, or any of the other reactions that music gives me, for free, or for a discount. However, if yu consent to make your music free, that is your choice. Having it fileshared, robs you of that choice. Illegal downloading is a violation. It is a violation that is (badly) legislated against by the majority of freely-elected governments worldwide and that legislation has its origin not in the lobbies of parliaments or even in the forums of ancient Greece, but in the tribal rules of prehistoric society. You can’t take what you have no permission to take.