Two things in the last day have got me thinking more about what is euphemistically referred to as ‘File Sharing’. Firstly, I was surfing the sites of musicians I knew to be really web-savvy in order to find what they are up to in the way of pushing information out to their fan-base. the first site I went to was Gary Willis‘ site, knowing Gary to have done web design work in the past. I didn’t really find much out to do with information dissemination (other than him not having an RSS feed for his blog), HOWEVER: the one post on his blog thus far is a brilliant rant about file sharing.
Then, today, the announcement was made that Radiohead’s new album would be released in 10 days time – initially only as a download, for which you can pay whatever you think it’s worth, to be followed by a mega-boxed set in December, which will apparently contain the CD, the vinyl version of the album, an extra CD of other songs, and a hard backed book, for £40.
Starting with the Willis piece, he basically explains why ‘file sharing’ is a stupid term for what he called ‘unpaid downloading’, looks at many of the excuses people give to justify taking music from file-sharing services (which now, apparently, account for 40% of all webtraffic) and pulls them apart from the indie musician’s point of view.
And it’s great, persuasive stuff, hopefully causing file-sharers that read it, and care at all about Gary Willis’ music to see that it’s not quite the victimless crime that it’s portrayed as.
But I’m torn. Torn on whether we need to keep fighting it in such a blunt way as writing blog posts about how we’re being ripped off (we are), whether we need to find other ways of changing the culture, or whether we need to accept the mindset and look for glimpses of light.
The Radiohead release is going to be possibly the most important release in the history of downloading music, for a number of reasons:
One, they aren’t actually giving it away. If you hear anyone saying that ‘Radiohead are giving away their new record’, please correct them. They are allowing the audience to decide what it’s worth. That’s a huge difference. [EDIT – they’re also, crucially, charging a 45p admin fee. Crucial because it covers their costs of hosting and download, and also perhaps even more so because YOU HAVE TO PUT YOUR CARD DETAILS IN… actually I’m going to go and write a new post about this…]
Two, they aren’t releasing the download and CD at the same time. What this stops is people circulating massively high resolution copies of the files via BitTorrent that music snobs can claim they have to download because they can’t get the CD (I have sympathies with people who want higher res. downloads, and am planning on adding .FLAC availability to the store soon, but it doesn’t excuse stealing music… I just hope Radiohead release their album at sensible quality…) It means that the only versions of those tracks in existence should be the ones they have released.
Three, they leave the boxed set til later, add more music an a book and the rarity factor as a hook for fans, and release something that generates a whole load more income from ‘the fans’ and gives people something that isn’t downloadable.
Four, they don’t put a fixed charge on the download, meaning that people can pay them a pound for it if they like, which is a pound more than they’d get from Bittorrent, and also cunningly makes people start thinking and having conversations about the value of music. Today, everyone’s been talking about it. Radiohead are still zeitgeist-y enough to generate the conversation in a way that someone tiny like me never could outside of the gorgeous people who post on my forum.
So what will the outcome be? Who knows. They could end up making nowt. It’s possible that the whole thing will backfire, and they’ll be left paying the bandwidth on a load of downloads that they are grossing 30p each for. I really don’t think that’ll be the case, but it’s possible.
The opposite could also be true; that they end up making a shed load on it because people will rise to the occasion, given enough room to be grown up and ethical, people may choose the right thing. The band will then make another killing on the boxed set, and the industry will be left reeling from a band without a deal making millions on very little hard cash outlay (clearly they’ve spent about a pound on the website, cos it’s horrible in a quirky psuedo-post-modern-trying-too-hard kind of way – surely all that text didn’t need to be graphic files – haven’t they heard of CSS?).
What does this mean for the little people – those of us who really aren’t in the position to order even a thousand units of a limited edition boxed set to accompany a release like that? I’ve been spending time and energy on making the CD packaging to my stuff attractive ever since my first album. I’ve never liked jewell cases, and have avoided them, going for something tactile, pretty and collectible. If you’ve got all 6 of my proper CD releases sat in a row on your shelf, they look pretty damned fine (I really should’ve decided on a uniform font for the spines at the start, but my design skills have definitely developed over the years… just don’t mention the Comic Sans on NDFC, I’m embarrassed enough about it already…)
But I still don’t sell anywhere near as many CDs as you’d expect for someone with my level of exposure etc. I get a fair few emails from people who are very familiar with what I do, who clearly haven’t bought the CDs (given that they have to get them from me, or at least from a source that reports back to me on who’s got it…) I’m sure some of you reading this have got copies of my albums from friends… I’m not going to berate you for it – I certainly can’t complain any more about people making illegal copies of my music that I can of anyone else’s. I own a handful of illegally owned copies of stuff, and a whole load of BitTorrent-acquired digital copies of things I’ve got on vinyl (on the assumption that it’s perfectly legal to own digitized copies of music you have on vinyl, or they wouldn’t be able to see USB turntables, no?)
And then today, I release my first download only album – the self-titled Calamateur Vs. Steve Lawson album. Calamateur AKA Andrew and I have jointly put it out, on both of our labels, and are kind of testing the water to see how sales go. It’s been up on iTunes for a couple of weeks, but it takes a couple of months to get any accurate reflection of sales from them. It’s been up on my site for day, but there were a few problems with the code on the site this morning (just cosmetic stuff, to do with the formatting of the text) so if you tried buying it them and got freaked out by the messed up screens, try again.
It’ll be interesting to see how it goes – it’s an album that both Andrew and I are hugely proud of, is clearly rather different from what I normally do, but there’s enough of me in there for it to be familiar to people who listen to what I normally put out. But will people buy the download version instead of a CD? I still sell way more CDs through the shop than I do downloads, though the downloads obviously picked up in popularity when I put the price of the Lessons Learned Cds down from £6 to £2.50 (feel free to go and buy them, they’re really rather fab).
So all eyes are on Radiohead, to see if we have a new model emerging for music sales. What needs to be said over and over again in the course of the dialogue on this stuff between musicians and audience is that
Any notion that big record labels are putting up money from a limitless supply of cash for everyone to make records with needs to be nixed at the earliest possible moment. It just doesn’t happen like that, even for the bands on labels. I’ve known friends in bands with proper deals, playing arena shows (as the support act) and who were on prime-time TV shows, but were on a retainer of £700 a month.
Part of the mistake that indie musicians have made is to try and be taken seriously by looking like we’re on majors, like our labels have staff (I know quite a few indie musicians with fictitious staff – you know who you are! :o) ) and like we’re doing better financially than we are. Success breeds success, right? Wrong – these days, it breeds contempt, because success=majors=way too much money already=fine for studenty me to download cos I’ve got far less money than you. And that’s probably not how it is at all.
Your comments please, oh mighty peanut gallery of loveliness.by