net.wars: I ain't never seen no horses download it

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 25 April 2003

It's not often that someone comes up with a new argument against file-sharing of the music kind, but this week the folks in news:uk.music.folk managed to do just that.

Wendy M Grossman

I shouldn't have been surprised, of course, since the combatants - er, debaters - include bright people such as Ian Anderson, editor of fRoots Magazine, fellow computer journalist Martin Banks, and Dick Gaughan, one of Scotland's finest performers, along with the original poster, who asked seriously whether we thought she was a prig for refusing to burn copies of CDs for friends. It's been a discussion worthy of Old Usenet - "before September became permanent," as Gaughan Old-Nettishly put it.

So, the argument I hadn't heard before goes as follows:

Big Music complains that file-sharing hurts revenues, and no one believes it and if it does, no one cares. Independent Music says the same thing, and people still don't believe it. But if it's true, it hurts small labels much more because they're operating so close to the wire that they can't afford any loss of revenues. "If," Gaughan wrote on Wednesday, "small independents like me do not recoup the cost of making the recordings, the recordings don't get made, the small end of the whole recording business goes bust and the only ones left in business will be the very same big corporations that the armchair revolutionaries claim to be attacking."

This is, of course, a likely scenario. If I'm leery of accepting it to the point of doing a 180 and condemning file-sharing, it's because, as I've written here before, the anti-file-sharing agenda - banning file-sharing, enacting laws like the DMCA and the European Copyright Directive, and hard-wiring DRM in everything - will *also* result in the total destruction of independent labels and artists, to say nothing of free speech. The one thing the Internet gives us that we do not have with previous media is access to the channels of distribution.

Let the cable companies bring in content-based routing, have ISPs police sites for copyright violations, make P2P illegal, design "trusted systems", keep extending the term of copyright, and you have no public domain and a medium that is controlled the way TV, radio, the telephone network (both mobile and landline), retail stores, and publishing are controlled. Try getting an independent CD into the average record store or played on the average radio station. Yet here on the Net we have a direct line to the world. For the moment. Our access to distribution is, I believe, what the major labels want to stop.

Nonetheless, it is, as I know from my own experience, damn hard to make a living as any kind of independent musician. If we want to have people who can afford to be full-time professional artists, there has to be a way to pay them. As Gaughan said apparently as early as 1992 - and I also said in about 1999 in a Scientific American article that is behind the Payment Curtain now - one part of the business model that seems set to end is the notion of the "album", the carefully chosen compilation of songs. Gaughan suggested that the future lies in online libraries of tracks that people can choose from as they see fit. Any ten for a fiver, perhaps.

If this is what we believe, we should be creating the service. Now. Even if we will *miss* albums. I've said for years (like a lot of other people) that the music industry could have killed file-trading far more effectively if it had set up its own centralized, reliable service where you could download reasonably priced tracks. Why they don't do this at least with their out-of-print back catalogue is beyond me.

There are other possibilities. Janis Ian finds that free downloads from her site boost CD sales, so she's adding material every month. Pete Townshend used to have a rant suggesting that artists should focus on live performance - the thing music executives can't do. Daily live webcasts, bypassing the record companies altogether - like They Might Be Giants. James Love has posted proposals for compulsory licensing for P2P. One version of these allows some listener control over who - artist, intermediary - the money is actually paid to and for whose benefit. There does not have to be one business model.

But the present business model either is or ought to be doomed, not, as John Perry Barlow argued in 1993 because technology dooms it, nor because the Grateful Dead managed to make a fortune from devoted fans following them around and buying T-shirts. It should be doomed because it does not do what copyright law was supposed to do. The goal, as for example set down in letters between Jefferson and Madison when they were drafting the US Constitution's copyright clause, was to give artists and inventors incentives to create while retaining public right of access. The system we have now primarily rewards distributors and marketers, often at the expense of artists and the public.

To Jefferson and Madison, copyright was a dangerous monopoly that had to be restrained. Big Music has proved that pretty well. This is Independent Music's chance to use the technology to change all that.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).