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A false sense of entitlement – the flaw in the new distribution models?

October 17th, 2007 | 1 Comment | Categories: bass ideas · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

In all the thinking that’s going on about new ways of distributing music, one thing is rather bothering me, and that’s the inferred/assumed entitlement of audiences to access to music. There is, built into most of the discussions on how we move forward, the taken-as-red assumption that if musicians don’t provide music in the way that the audience wants it, they’ll just steal it. Fuck you, Mr musician, how dare you think you can limit my access to your work.

If a baker decides that he’s going to make less bread and charge more for it, either he needs to convince his customers that it’s worth the extra money and effort to get it, or he goes out of business (or finds another business to support his baking, if he does it for the love of it). What doesn’t happen is his customers decide that they’ll just go into the kitchen, make bread for themselves and take it home, or help themselves to the bread in the window of the shop, and set up a table outside the door giving it away to passers by because he had no right to do that, and is clearly a selfish bastard who needs to be taught a lesson.

But with music, the option to limit access to your music is assumed to no longer exist. Because everyone feels like they have a right to it. So if Madonna’s new album is too expensive, or only available as a download at low res and with DRM on iTunes, instead of saying ‘well I won’t get it then’ the assumption is that it’s somehow legit to take it. As though access to that music is a right, not a privilege. As though the music I write, and record and make – using my own money and time – is then no longer mine. The recordings aren’t mine, the songs aren’t mine. They’ve become public property without me even being consulted.

Likewise, the whole notion of user-generated content – YouTube videos, live bootlegs, etc. Completely unregulated, and liable to change live music for ever. Jonatha posts a beautifully worded response to the whole question of unsolicited filming at gigs and the effect it has on her in the discussion forum on her site – well worth reading. Basically, it creates a permanent document of something that is essentially of the moment, and filming it turns it into a recording session, losing something of the spontaneity. My response on the forum, when I was asked whether I minded being filmed was ‘normally no’, but I do a) like the be asked and b) like the chance to vet it before it gets uploaded. No-one wants a permanent online record of an off-night (though there is that entire recording of the gig I did with no pedals with Lo. in September!)

So, do you need to have the video of the gig you were at? Do you assume your ticket price also includes some kind of innate recording rights? If a record is too expensive, or not available in the format you want, does that give you the right to download it for free from somewhere else? Clearly, I think that’s a heinous situation, though it’s one that much of the industry seems to have resigned itself to. The biggest own goal seems to have been that the arguments have centered around money, and particularly when someone like Lars Ulrich – a multi-millionaire – complains about it denting his income, most people aren’t really going to give a shit.

However, entitlement isn’t about money, it’s about the right to negotiate with your audience, and your audience then being able to choose to not spend the money by not buying the product, and therefor not owning it! So you cut yourself off from income, but also from your audience. So you negotiate, by way of dropping the price, making it available in other ways or whatever, but it’s your product and you do with it what you like… Just like the baker with the bread.

The video I linked to earlier about media megatrends characterised the shift in slightly more euphamistic a-moral terms by talking about it being a move from scarcity to ubiquity as the driving currency – in an age when you have a physical product, the distribution of which you have control over, the value therein is in it’s scarcity – independent record shops survive because they stock things you can’t get elsewhere. Record labels can do exclusive deals, or even just sell direct. Artists can just sell at gigs, making their product even more desirable by the difficultly of finding it. Even if you sell in mainstream shops, you can set your wholesale price at the point where the price stays up, if that’s what you want, and the the competition is with other recording artists – will people pay £15 for one of my CDs, when they can get someone else’s that they like just as much for £8?

The ubiquity model says that the artist should relinquish control over the proliferation of their work in exchange for a shot at ubiquity – being everwhere, and making money through the exposure, be it profit-sharing on youtube, increased live attendance, sales of premium product (which is what CDs are now becoming, given that the default in a very short time from now will be the download) and radio, tv and film royalties.

I think there are ramifications to this that are anti-creative, and rapacious in their treatment of the creative output of a the artist – especially if you value the mixed-media product that you’ve assembled (be it artwork, sleeve notes, video, collage, pop-up book, whatever…) There’s a hyper-capitalist, spectral Friedman-esque element to the terms of engagement that negate the value of scarcity or the more esoteric value of specific and particular artistic expression, and remove any rights of the artist to negotiate or explore the notion of the work having greater or lesser monetary value in relation to any other work. Instead, it’s about rushing to make your product as ubiquitous as possible in order to turn that ubiquity into cashflow just by being everywhere instead of by being valuable/important/’good’. It’s a pretty unique and depressing scenario… Where next?

My bottom line thesis – you/we don’t need the music. You/we aren’t entitled to the music, it’s not yours/ours to take, it’s the artists to sell, or give away as they see fit. And if you don’t like the terms, you don’t need to buy, and they can starve if they choose to be stubborn. Or sell 30 CDs for $1000 a time.

DRM is a crock of shit, but with its removal comes a social contract between the artist and the audience, one that I think should, if adhered to, help both. The removal of DRM makes it easier for the listener to share tracks as a way of spreading information about an artist around, and also to play the stuff on different systems, copy from computer to mp3 player to phone – being cross-platform is vital, and is why iTunes is now having to change it’s shitty DRM policy (and up its resolution), but it does leave musicians vulnerable… with over 50% of all web traffic being filesharing, the vast majority of it illegal, the idea of the social contract is not getting across. The feeling that somehow it’s fat cat record company execs and multimillionaire rock stars who are losing out seems to absolve the conscience of the file sharers. But the artists still are making art. The judgement call that says ‘this person has sold out already, therefor i can download their stuff with impunity’ isn’t anyone’s to make.

The consequences of all this in creative and artistic terms are things I’ve blogged about a lot recently… it’s a really murky world, and I’m fascinated to see where it goes. I’m going to keep mulling this one over, and see where it leads… your thoughts are much appreciated in the comments, should you wish to share them :o)

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