Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

It pains me to say it, but Billy Bragg couldn't be more wrong…

July 26th, 2008 | No Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

…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 – 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!

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  • netvalar

    Finally someone who not only takes this side of the discussion but actually puts into words the ideas that many of us have and can’t figure out how to articulate.

  • Ikarus

    “So we end up back with the home-demo production values of the mid 80s,”
    Number 1, what’s wrong with that? Number two, those home demos are going to be much better than they were in the eighties and probably cheaper too. It’s about finding a new way to advertise your music. With the net, you can do that!

  • steve

    Hi Ikarus,

    nothing wrong with it at all, if it’s what you want to do, but it would, in my opinion, be a shame for music who currently raise enough money to pay for the music they make by selling it to willing and happy audience members to have the culture of CD buying taken away by an industry-wide move to make recorded music ‘free’, just because those at the top of the pile can afford to use recordings as something of a loss leader and monetize the increased exposure that they get via the ‘snowball effect’ of already being successful and milking that for all its worth.

    Indeed, home demos are infinitely better – a lot of people manage to make amazing release quality music in their bedrooms. It’s quite possible, just as it was possible to make great music on 4 track recorders back then (ironically, Billy Bragg made outstanding music on the most rudimentary of equipment) – but there are other kinds of music and approaches to music that listeners enjoy that require a budget… If that budget is no longer available, the pool of people available to create that music will decrease to become only those who can fund it elsewhere. I’m sure there’ll be some great music coming from them, as there already is from people with a day job, but it seems disingenuous if we value music to marginalise it to becoming an expensive side project for the independently wealthy…

    Indeed, the web provides myriad ways of promoting yourself, but what are you advertising your music for? So people will come and see you live? great! But why release anything other than live recordings if that’s what you’re doing? What happens to the art of recording for its own sake, if you need to convince 20,000 people to download your music from one of the licensed distribution services to make the money back that it costs you to make the record…

    …and I haven’t even started on the idea of forcing people to accept advertising revenue as part of the income stream…

  • Chris

    BskyB soon to launch subscription stream based music model, much like the way we now subscribe to movies.

    Once this concept moves into easy an easy to use package and TV Box + 3G mobile, it will be normal.. right or wrong is irrelevant imho, fiscal forces always prevail.

    We discuss this at length on this cast:

  • Chris

    And then of course there is also this other NEW method, which is inevitable

    Corporate Sponsorship: Funding Music

  • steve

    Hi Chris,

    I don’t think ‘right or wrong’ is irrelevant at all. I think the discussion HAS to be had at a blogger/musician level because the industry has been mis-handled by money-minded fuckwits for too long… to describe the shift as ‘inevitable’ is exactly the trap that I think Gerd Leonhard falls into…

    BskyB’s system isn’t ‘the end’ of the discussion at all given that it’s one company offering it, no doubt as part of an up-scalable service… It is indicative of how the egalitarian idea of ‘all music gets downloaded and paid for via the license’ is clearly going to be bollocks… it’s going to be yet another service managed by the ‘new majors’ – those mega-corps that are in the ‘entertainment’ business, and so are into 360 deals, cross branding/marketing etc…

    For me, the tragedy of this is not what happens to the kind of music that ends up in the charts – that’s been largely risible for a lot longer than the internet’s been around – it’s what happens to ‘working class musicians’ – the vast majority of musicians who are making the same kind of money they’d be making working in a shop or a fast food restaurant, but who make it work somehow, and as a result become the life-blood of music communities. A lot of them (us) teach as well, swap work back and forth on a pro-bono basis and somehow we all manage to make a living, provide live music to people who want to be able to see the whites of the eyes of the performers, and keep making exciting, interesting and vital music… There are people doing all that at the moment whilst holding down jobs as well, but the magic of the music scene is the mix, the breadth, the different approaches… as soon as we start narrowing the options for people trying to make making music be financially viable, we weaken our own pool of musical options, both recorded and live, as fans…

    Corporate sponsorship and ad-driven downloads can fuck right off as a model for releasing creativity, but that deserves a whole post of it’s own…

  • Chris

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I’ve first hand experience of the life you talk of. In the 90s I was doing exactly the same, gigging, teaching, PA work, studios, bit of this and a bit of that, and all the other spinning of plates.

    Fact is I do not think any of this above argument will make one bit of difference to those types of lives, that localised industry, or activity, to be honest. People will still attend gigs, buy a CD (OR a USB STICK is a better option) and want music lessons.

    For those that are have arrangements with PRS and MCPS, royalty checks will still arrive, BskyB and Universal won’t be able to generate music for free.. and rightly so…. we need a new model, and this is the best so far, IMHO.

  • steve

    Hi Chris,

    The BSkyB deal just sounds like a red herring to me – I agree, that won’t spoil it, it’s just another branch in their attempt to get you to buy into their ‘entertainment pipe’…

    I’ve not read up on the BskyB deal – it’ll be interesting to see if it’s specific to their hardware (like the movies thing – you can’t download films from them…) and how much of their bundle you have to buy into… is it a way of getting more revenue from people who already have their boxes?

    Anyway, the Billy Bragg/Gerd Leonhard contention is about that kind of scheme. It’s about a blanket license collected by ISPs and distributed to musicians – the BskyB thing doesn’t seem any different to what Napster already do – unsub from the service and you lose the tracks – the flat license is palpably different in that it’s about trying to license downloads. DRM is pretty much dead, so it’s going to have to be about getting some money back on actual downloads of MP3s, not subscription to a music pipe…

    So while I don’t think the BskyB deal represents the best model, I also don’t think it’s what the ‘flat license’ is about either… that a much more significant paradigm shift… as I understand it…