…And here was me hoping that the arguments over ‘flat license fees’ for music online were going away and people realised it was largely unworkable. Gerd Leonhard has been pushing this for a while as the answer – Gerd is a futurist, and as I’ve said before, he approaches the industry with the characteristic fatalism of a futurist – the trends all point in a certain way, so let’s not try and change the culture or wish for a better world, but instead just bend with the wind and squeeze some money from the listeners before they just steal it all.
And now my favourite living Englishman (OK, joint fave with Tony Benn), Billy Bragg has piled in on the discussion putting his weight behind the idea that music should be either license fee driven or ad-revenue driven.
And I, perhaps not surprisingly, disagree with him. Rather strongly. Here’s a few reasons why:
- the cost of administrating such a scheme would be prohibitively high – the per-track margins involved in such a scheme would mean that the people who currently make a few hundred or a few thousand pounds a year in revenue from their recorded output would be likely driven out of the game, or forced to opt out of the scheme, and in order to ‘compete’ at all, would have to just give their stuff away without any come-back. There is a healthy music-world that operates outside even the spread of the MCPS/PRS licensing scheme for recorded music, where bands record their own original music, press their own CDs and sell them, because audiences are still aware of the financial value of recorded music. Destroy that, and those people are left high and dry – it would be fine if recorded music were genuinely ‘free’, but recording music takes time, resources, skills, all of which are costed on a scale – you want a better drum sound, you better go to a decent studio with great mics… That’s not going to happen if music for band start-ups is designed to be given away. So we end up back with the home-demo production values of the mid 80s, and hand the record labels another way of holding artists to hostage just because they own a studio and have access to advertising revenue…
- how hard it would be to police – without getting deeper into a ‘big brother’ monitoring situation, it’d be damn near impossible to bring all music under that licensed umbrella.
- how difficult it would be for smaller bands to build a ‘brand’ if their music is lost in some massive licensed distribution package – it’s hard enough for bands to carve out their own space online as it is, with most of the current retail options being centralized – iTunes, eMusic etc – they can be linked into, but it’s vital in the current climate that bands can manage their own sales. In the license-era, CDs (or whatever other new format has arrived) could still be sold online as ‘premium product’, but download sales would vanish, and download traffic, in order to fit within the license, will be moved away from the band’s site. I’m sure the widgets will be skinnable, but it’s still shifting the powerbase to whoever gets charged with handling the database (a database of ALL music??? who the hell would we trust with that, to not be gamable by the big labels???)
- what’s the potential for growth within such a system – the Long Tail, as a concept, only works if an artist/content producer is ‘pushing’ traffic into the long tail – very little of my audience passively lands on my music – last.fm is probably the only significant traffic source for people finding me ‘by accident’. Maybe Myspace, to an extent. But I’m still pushing the traffic that way, and the idea of pushing people away from my site, into the license area (however that becomes administered) for miniscule return, just doesn’t work for me as a relatively marginal artist. It’s bloody marvellous for Madonna, Radiohead and even Billy Bragg – for artists with what I think of as an ‘ambient legacy’, a large general awareness of what they do amongst listeners, it’s a great deal – for people to be able to go and download all of Billy’s back catalogue for ‘free’, LOADS of people would do it, but even charge them £2 per album, and they’d think twice… He gets to capitalize on years of record company expenditure and media exposure…
- what it psychologically does to the listener to perceive record music as having no value. This, for me is the crux of it – this approach actively ruins the relationship between listener and music – not listener and band, but listener and music. In order to give people the experience of learning from music, of being changed by it, of learning to love it, we need to be building better filters for discovery, not broadening access to 100,000 song archives. I know teenage kids with 10s of thousands of tracks on their computers. Most of it they’ll never ever listen to. You can’t. They have it because it’s there. It’s consumer-gluttony and benefits no-one. If they were ‘paying’ fractions of a penny per track via a license scheme for those tracks, it’s not going to make that track any more valuable for them. In fact, the value of downloading it illegally is probably higher because they need to step outside of ‘the mainstream’ to do it, there’s a frisson of excitement as doing something illegal (if they even know it’s illegal), and that adds value!
I LOVE Billy Bragg, I think he’s great, and I’m really glad he’s thinking through this stuff, but on this one, he’s many shades of wrong…
So what’s the alternative? i’ll write more later, but feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!by