Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

Lily Allen and The Politics Of Self-Interest

September 30th, 2009 | 45 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

I know, I’m a week late writing about Lily Allen and her attempts to back Peter Mandelson’s campaign to have ‘persistent file sharers’ internet connections taken away. (and in the meantime, she’s taken down her anti-file sharing blog, and allegedly quit music!)

There have been a lot of responses to this, many of them suggesting that Lily (and her brothers in arms James Blunt and Gary Barlow) don’t make music worth buying so they deserve to have it pirated…

So let’s deal with that first. Your (or my) impression of the ‘worth’ of Lily Allen’s music has no bearing whatsoever on whether she’s talking sense or not. She could be John Coltrane saying this, or she could be the Reynolds Girls. It makes no odds.

What’s more important is why she’s saying it.

What’s her interest in it? Is she broke? I’m guessing not. Are her records not selling? Uhm, I think she’s had two number 1 albums… Does she REALLY care about ‘record company investment’ in up and coming artists? How can she when after TWO NUMBER ONE ALBUMS she claims that “The days of me making money from recording music has been and gone as far as I’m concerned ” – this is completely insane! I MAKE MONEY FROM RECORDED MUSIC AND I SELL LESS THAN A THOUSAND PHYSICAL ALBUMS A YEAR!!! [deep breath…]

Does she really think that that’s the way bands will be discovered these days, and in the future? by record companies spending money in the way they have for the past 40 years??? Does she also think that ‘success’ in the future will be measured by the 100s of thousands of ‘units’ you sell (while still failing to recoup), or your ability to play the music you love to an audience who love it without going into debt to a record company ‘advance’ to do it

As someone who made a massive deal out of the fact that her fanbase was a ‘grass roots’ thing, growing on Myspace (a free service), her advocacy for large scale record company expenditure being vital to the future of the record industry seems ill-thought-out at best, and outright misinformation at worst.

Is her objection really as ‘moral/ethical’ as her language implies it to be? Does she really think that the moral implications of people sharing music online are so heinous? (and let’s not forget that the tools that make it possible are also used increasingly by musicians to deliberately make their music available for free so that their audience can do their promo for them – a process that was previously MASSIVELY expensive, and most of the time, not recouped on record sales, due to the wastage and speculation involved…)

Does she really believe that in the world of commerce around music, the moral imperative lies with the actions of big record labels, and that fans downloading the music they WANT TO LISTEN TO are in some way ethically compromised by that desire and action?

I wonder what other actions that are associated with the music industry Allen/Blunt and Barlow are campaigning about. I wonder if, given the strong link between the international drugs trade and the glamourising of drug-taking that the music world – musicians, labels, press and fans alike – have been involved in, they’re now going to put their weight behind a shop-the-junky campaign.

Perhaps there should be plans to snoop on musicians, in case, from their position of influence, they are involved in drug taking. Maybe she’ll want CCTV put in tour buses, dressing rooms, venue toilets, record company offices. All monitored by police, paid for by the tax payer, so that those people who are doing drugs – supporting the multi-billion-dollar drugs trade and leading impressionable kids to think that drugs are cool – can be stopped. Sounds great, huh?

Which action has a greater negative effect on the world – the downloading of music, with a view to listening to it, getting more into the band, sharing the news about that band with your friends, and then checking out what else they’ve done, and buying the bits that make sense to spend money on… or the drugs industry?

The ‘self-interest’ part of this is that she’s become a part of an industry that over-spends and under delivers, that sees no value in anything other than selling pieces of plastic, and hasn’t cottoned on to just how cheaply and awesomely music can be made these days. If you live in a world where the only point to making music is to sell a million albums – and all of a sudden you’re only selling 600,000 but still spending as though you were going to sell a million, then you’re screwed. Utterly.

But that’s not the fault of file sharing. If you can’t make money off of the physical product you’re already selling, your budgeting is wrong wrong wrong. What hope do you have of making more money from more sales? Her first album sold 2.6 MILLION copies – if she’s not a millionaire, she’s either generous to a fault, massively wasteful, or she’s being ripped off by the very industry she’s trying to defend. Surely if 2.6 million sales isn’t enough, 3 million sales will make her even poorer, due to whatever those random costs are that mean she’s not making money from it!

Part II, we’ll look at Some of what already goes on in the industry that is worse than file sharing for musicians.

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45 Comments so far ↓

  • Mat

    I’m not sure exactly why you’re linking the music industry and the drug trade, this is a complete irrelevance. Will you also criticise art, books, television, film?

    Also, just because the Music Industry has completely fouled up, and continues to do so, it doesn’t mean that Lily is wrong. This is not black and white, this is a complex social and economic issue and frankly, most people don’t seem up to understanding it.

    Also, to the poster that tried to equate The Beatles to Lily, how very poor That recording budget that you think is so outrageous, do you know where most of it goes? On people, on paying people like producers, engineers, musicians, caterers, even taxi drivers.

    You write about self interest from Lily, whereas there is nothing more self-interested than the arguments coming from the Freetards. I want, I want music, I want to choose when I pay, I want to do what I want and screw every one else, screw the composer, the artist, the sessionists, the studio staff, the marketing staff who make it possible for you to actually hear the artist through the mountains of shit that there are on the internet, screw them because it’s all fat cats isn’t it? Well, it will be in the end because half the hard working people I know in the industry have lost their jobs. Yes, bad decision making by top industry executives is to blame, but so is file-sharing. It is costing people their livelihoods, and the irony is that the people making the most noise about music being free are probably the same people who would in a typically reactionary way say that Thatcher was bad (though she was) and that they supported the coal miners.

    Can file sharing be justified? Yes, of course it can, but at the moment there is no precedent or system for doing this, and there needs to be. This is the issue, not Lily quite rightfully wanting to protect her interests. I’ve been shocked by the sneering, bullying reaction of the public at large and the complete lack of empathy from commentators who seem almost jealous of Lily and frankly should know better. If you want a debate, let’s debate how we fund music, who pays, what payment models should there be, because there needs to be one.

    After all, the term ‘pay the piper’ exists from pre-Record industry days and it still applies.

  • cyberdoyle

    great reply Steve. The trouble with all these sites is the lack of reasoned and informed debate. Piracy is a very controversial debate, but you do seem to have a handle on it and speak for the views of many in a very sensible way. kudos.

  • steve

    Mat (starting a new thread, cos they’ll only nest so deep 🙂 )…

    So, marketing – marketing is telling people about music. Who better to do that than the people who like you? Let the 5 fans you’ve got give away your music to get you some more fans, and so on. Why speculate with money when you can speculate with music? The music IS essentially ‘free’ as a resource at that point. The alternative is that you run up a debt, in the hope that at the end of it you can pay off that debt by selling some music. There’s no guarantee, and the majority of the time, you won’t recoup.. oh, the record WILL make more than it ‘actually’ cost to make, but because of all the ancillary charges, press-junkets, wasted radio pluggers, limos etc. etc. all expensed without asking you – not to mention the THOUSANDS of CDs given away to anyone in the industry with a passing interest (that’s OK, it’s promotional… honest, it’s good for the artist, cos obviously, people who work in uhm, the accounts dept, getting CDs that the artist pays to have pressed out of their money, but doesn’t get their royalty on because of the way the accounting works… you get the picture.)

    It’s broken. Marketing only requires a team if your intention is it sell hundreds of thousands of records. Marketing people can be hired, by an artist, with their own money. Where’s the money going to come from? Anywhere – get a day job, take out a loan (which is what the record contact was in the first place) find a marketing person who believes in you, becomes part of the team and gets paid as you do…

    As for Arena bands – why on earth would you worry about Arena bands? I can’t even begin to imagine playing music so that I could one day play arenas. Arenas are a really shitty solution to the problem of having too many fans for a proper gig. Yeah, they’re a great communal experience etc. etc. but they’re shit for music. It’s impossible to connect without being an egomaniac, the sound is never as good as it can be in a decent listening environment, they’re hugely wasteful in terms of resources, ticket prices are sky high, food is awful, queues for the loos are long. It’s not a human-friendly environment, it’s a crap compromise. IMHO 😉

    You seem to be talking as though the aim of someone suggesting that Lily is wrong needs to be to show how the scale of the music industry as it stands can be maintained under whatever follows the age of the major label. I don’t think it does, I think it can all be re thought out, that mega-stardom can disappear as quickly as it appeared, and we can look at the latter half of the 20th century as a curious blip on the 10,000+ year history of the relationship between human beings and music.

    Thanks for the debate – I’m really getting a lot out of it. I really appreciate you taking the time to put your case so eloquently 🙂

  • Al

    Hi Mat –

    Hmm, I’ve always mistrusted that ‘people getting into gigs for free’ argument; it seems to me to be a false comparison, albeit one that the music industry finds useful.

    A venue is a finite space, squeezing more people into it creates a variety of actual losses, including loss for audience members (less pleasant gig experience), venue managers (health & safety / licensing issues) & the band (grumpy audience!).

    Being strict about it, copying a song / album only creates a potential loss; that is, the loss of a potential sale of that song / album. It’s worth noting that there’s no guarantee that the copier would have paid money to get a copy of the material if they couldn’t copy it for free.

    Also, that potential loss could well be offset by an actual benefit – the listener decides they like the music, and goes off and actually buys more of it, or buys gig tickets, or whatever.

    An overpacked gig is bad for everyone, but a copied music file could well result in no actual financial loss, while simultaneously seeding further positive engagement with that particular musician / band (isn’t there research floating round that says that those that copy most are also those that spend most?).

    Anyway, trying to summarise the above – my sense is – admittedly more superficial than I’d want it to be – that, by using metaphors like that, the music industry (on average) avoids differentiating between potential and actual losses, doesn’t relate file sharing patterns to purchasing patterns in an in-depth way, and doesn’t factor potential positives into the equation when calculating the losses that it assume result from file sharing.

    Of course, music sales have dropped substantially over the last few years, but is that just a symptom of a shift into free music copying? There’s much more competition for an unchanged amount of entertainment consuming time these days – more TV channels, whole home entertainment genres that didn’t even exist 10 years ago (gaming, social media, etc).

    Given this, could it be that reduced music sales are a natural function of increased competition from other *fun things to do*, rather than from the depredations of illegal filesharers? Perhaps the music industry as a whole shouldn’t be battling filesharing, but rather coming to terms with the fact that their share of people’s entertainment budget / time has been permanently reduced by this proliferation of other *really cool stuff to do*?

    I do agree, though, that there shouldn’t be a general assumption that all music should be free. What’s difficult, tho’, is finding the unreproducible / difficult to reproduce experience that people will be willing to pay for. An irony of the filesharing hoo-hah is that it’s revealed that people weren’t actually paying for the music; they were paying for someone to go to the trouble of selecting, pressing, distributing and packaging for them, because they couldn’t do that themselves (as I think you pointed out).

    Now they can, so they don’t actually need the parts of the record industry that do that any more. Which bits DO they need? What CAN’T people do for themselves, in this digital age?

    My money’s either on the unreproducability of performance itself (Madonna seems to be the biggest person so far to acknowledge that), or on some kind of unique interaction with the artist’s creative vision (quite apart from the stuff that Steve suggests above).

    But who really knows? It took people a long time to work out what books were for once printing had been invented – we’ve been handed this astonishing transmedia *thing*, who knows what people will be doing with it in a decade or several; going back to The Beatles, could anyone have predicted ‘Sergeant Pepper’ from ‘I want to hold your hand’? And they weren’t even a new medium, but just a new band using mostly pre-existing technology.

    Btb also on the Lily thing – on the one hand, the web does lead easily to mass bullying, which is bad; but equally, her post seemed to me to bury fair points in a not particularly well thought through rant. Amplify a poorly thought through rant through a very big megaphone (which she most definitely did), and you’re going to get a not particularly pleasant echo coming back at you! But yup, there can indeed be something very unpleasantly thuggish about the internet mob when it’s back is up…

  • Andrew

    If I was a cartoonist – I’d have an image of Lilly Allen and King Canute sitting by the ocean with their feet wet, sharks in the water and a pirate ship on the horizon. Negligible cost digital distribution is here and the era of the major labels is over.
    The morality argument is difficult at the moment because we’re slap bang in the middle of change but I have no doubt that the future of music involves free distribution – what we now call file-sharing or pirating.
    The music industry of the last 50 years was all about corporate retail. The speed in which a profit could be turned was perfected from production through distribution to marketing; a figure like Clive Davis wasn’t really any different from the senior selector at Marks and Spencer – he probably just got laid more.
    But it’s over and having the Music Industry lobby the government to impose controls and restrictions on the very medium (the internet) that is transforming society is about as morally bankrupt as it gets. And Mat – I am sorry to hear about the job losses – but that’s how technology works:
    The truly immoral position is that the executives in the music industry who should have been prescient, seen the change and then re-tooled and re-trained their workforce shoved the profits up their nose and baled in their golden parachutes.

  • Ben Walker

    Steve, you’re a legend among men. There’s nothing I thought to respond through this whole discussion that you haven’t already covered, and FWIW I agree entirely with your argument.

    I posted a lengthy comment on the #media140 site earlier today, and the comments there are worth a read too.

    I feel like there’s been an awful lot of conversation about musicians having the right to earn a living from their music recently. The early rants were quite emotional and difficult to engage with, but we seem to be reaching a point where we can talk about it sensibly (even when we disagree). This is a good thing.

  • Caroline Teunissen


    Enjoyed reading your post very much. Was talking it over with my husband who sent me the link to this article.. which I think argues the case rather well too.

    I always wonder if Lily would have been such a hit if her father were not who he is.

    Anyway, Amanda says it better than me.

  • Simon Fairbairn – Aural Antidotes for a Prescribed Life » Filesharing, once more

    […] to Steve Lawson for providing some much needed perspective on this […]

  • Simon Fairbairn

    Duuuuuude! Awesome!

    Thank you so much for providing some much needed perspective on this issue.

    I hope independent musicians can embrace the opportunity that filesharing specifically, and the internet generally, represents to them.

    This is the best time to be making music independently in the history of recorded music, if you’re willing to withhold judgement and experiment wildly.

    Kudos to Caroline for the Amanda Palmer tip.