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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 ↓

  • Hannah Nicklin

    Although I don’t think your blog is necessarily guilty of this, watching the online reaction to LA’s comments have made me feel a bit uncomfortable. There seems to have been an almost glee-coloured tinge to how quickly people have shouted about her stupidity and self-interestedness. I don’t speak as a supporter of either her, or her views, but plenty of other big names have spoken out against illegal filesharing and not garnered anywhere near as much of a *personal* reaction. She seems to be quite good at the business side of music – and in coming out against filesharing she must feel she’s protecting her interests. I understand we need to dissect those arguments, particularly when they’re amplified by big names, but I don’t think she should be a scapegoat as she has been, more so (in much of the interwebs) than Mandleson even. I’ve just sort of been yearning for a piece that deconstructs how a rotten industry convinces people of its necessity, have a look at capitalism in art etc… Just a thought 🙂

  • Hannah Nicklin

    PS, part two might do this, and part one already hinted at it, it’s just something that’s been bothering me.

  • Robert

    It makes me wonder how likely it could be that certain artists are being hired or sponsored to publicly espouse these positions against the whole idea of file sharing.

  • Darren Landrum

    If I sold 2.6 million copies of my album, and I got only 50 cents of each copy, I could retire. Of course, artists don’t get fifty cents a copy, do they? Isn’t it more like 8 cents? For a $15 album? Seems fishy to me.

  • paddy

    i can’t help but wonder if she’s just being fed all this by her label or whatever. perhaps she means well she’s just horribly misinformed…

  • paddy

    ps, can i actually get a penny for each of my thoughts? hope this site is using false advertising 😛

  • Mikael Suomela

    A great post again, Steve!

    I do wonder about all of this as I live in a small country where musicians and the business pretty much somehow know each other. To me it seems that record companies here are still hell bent on releasing stuff that’s fit for Big Brother – the most simplish kind. The kind that most people sort of like (or don’t actively dislike) but do not love intensely. They operate on the assumption that general public does not that much care about music and need to be advertised massively prior to purchase decision. This is why per unit sales here still rule.

    To defend this system seems sort of funny. For as the readers of this blog all know, it’s a star system with few winners, many losers and catering to the most simple needs of the masses – much akin to professional sports. It does not readily help culture. It does not help getting people exalted in the most sublime music. I’m not defending state subsidy systems (grants & like), for they are another sort of elitist trap (again it is a star system, but catering to grant givers).

    Free/fileshare is an answer that has people in charge of dissemination – links and copies, love for the piece. Somehow I too am worried about the livelihood of musicians and this model does away with compensation on direct consumer sales. Of course sync and other forms of indirect compensations still exist – but it poses a problem for those who do not perform live, from songwriters to recording engineers. I do believe in professionalism!

    So no, I don’t have a suggestion for an answer – I’m as baffled as anyone else in the music world is. I hope that the future of music holds magnum opuses of the most sublime music – the kind that renders you to tears instead of let’s say Lily Allen. We need to live on something while trying to create our music, that’s for sure…

  • James Stewart

    One of the things that really bothers me about Lily Allen’s involvement in all this is that she’s not someone who ever released music before file-sharing took off.

    I can kinda understand this line from people who made most of their money in previous decades where home taping was the only way to copy and share music, but MP3s have been popular longer than Lily Allen has. Maybe they’re more popular now than they were, and maybe more of us have broadband, but she appeared after mass broadband adoption began. The same goes for James Blunt, though his demographic is older and so may be less likely to use filesharing, etc.

    If their argument held water Lily Allen would _never_ have sold her recordings in any volume. Things haven’t changed significantly during her career, and she sounds rather silly claiming otherwise.

  • cyberdoyle

    I think the reason Lily has turned into the scapegoat is because she hasn’t practiced what she preached. Four legs good, two legs bad. Great article BTW. look forward to pt2.

  • Adrian

    Robert’s theory is interesting, and I bet we’ll see it happen at some point, but I don’t think that’s what’s happened here. As Cory Doctorow said on BoingBoing, Lily has probably not been wilfully hypocritical… she’s just got all excited about an “issue”, but just didn’t think it through.

    What with the revelation of the free-to-download mixtapes on her website and the verbatim copy of someone else’s material on her blog, the whole thing has been a bit amateurish. Let’s just hope she learns from the experience… judging by her speech at the FAC thingy, she’s starting to do so.

  • Al

    Totally agreed James – she’s coming from a very odd place. It reminds me a bit of the current lot of politicians, who got so much out of free university education etc, busily pulling the ladder up behind them.

    More immediately, having read her post I’m astonished that one of the arguments she makes seems to boil down to ‘because there’s a way for music to be shared for free, with no geographical limitations, in such a way that anyone who’s interested in it can find it pretty much instantly, it’s harder for new acts to break through’. She seems to understand ‘break through’ to mean ‘get picked up by a major label’, rather than ‘find and develop an engaged and appreciative audience’.

    That makes me think of a Chaz Brenchley (crime / fantasy / horror writer) rant that there’s no such as an ivory tower writer any more; that is, a writer who *only* writes, and who leaves everything else (from production and distribution to publicity and audience engagement) to their publisher. Lily seems to be advocating that ivory tower model, where the musician is an active recording artist, but a passive everything else.

    From that point of view, file sharing is scary; it breaks the model. From the point of view of people who don’t want their work to be mediated through record company mayhem, however, it’s a godsend!

  • Greg Collins

    Some in the industry are keen, others are less keen. Perhaps in some way or other both parties are actually right insofar as certain parts of their arguments are correct whilst their argument in the round is false.

    If you are a ‘musician’ expressing yourself through the medium of your music in what was once termed ‘art for arts sake’ and you’re not looking to support yourself through your sales alone then I can see why you would not mind about filesharing.

    If you’ve only just ‘started down on the road of sin, Playin’ bass under a pseudonym’, as one of my fave artists puts it, then you ought to be a big fan of fileshareing as it is the word of mouth fan based promotion de facto promo tool of choice and will get people to your gigs and get you on the labels radar.

    If you are a ‘performer’ have been picked up by a major label have become a part of the music INDUSTRY and are probably in it for the money and the celebrity lifestyle it gives you then I can see why you’d be vehemently against filesharing. Especially because the label’s PR told you it was bad thing

    The odd thing is that most of the music I listen to these days is from artists who either run their own labels or who are with the fewer genuine indie labels that exist and their stuff just never seems to get ‘pirated’ anyway.

  • Mike R

    One of the best articles I ever read was from Trent Reznor. It was what made the whole thing really click for me:

    http://forum.nin.com/bb/read.php?30,767183,page=1

  • Tim Ferguson

    Great post… I think you took this statement: “The days of me making money from recording music has been and gone as far as I’m concerned” out of context though… I interpretted that as her just saying she’s done with it… Bored, tired, jaded, rich enough… Take your pick!

    Have you heard this come-back song?
    http://encosion.tumblr.com/post/197483249/dear-lily-an-open-letter-to-lily-allen-by-dan

  • Chris Bestwick

    The debate around file-sharing seems to have all the intellectual rigour and nuance you’d expect from an argument between Elton John and 14 year old Chad from Idaho. Those of us who are neither multi-millionaires nor teenagers can afford to be a little less polemical and admit that it can affect different people in different ways, some good and some bad.

    We can for instance say that the record industry is not a sustainable model for the future, and that file-sharing might benefit the vast majority of artists not linked to that model, while at the same time admitting that the industry as it now stands, and the artists within it, may be losing money as a result of file-sharing. If they are, there’s nothing wrong in a democratic system with them trying to argue their case. (Self-interest is central to all political systems – politics is the method of reconciling these conflicting interests in non-violent ways. I think where Lilly Allen went wrong was in not being straightforwardly self-interested enough – the claim that she was acting for the good of future up-and-coming musicians was patently laughable.)

    The problem is that the industry’s voice seems to carry disproportionate weight in the current UK government’s plans, so it’s up to all of us who disagree with these plans to argue back through the political system. This political approach needs to be distinct from ideology, which much of the present debate seems to be based on, where each side claims to be uniquely and absolutely right.

  • Terence Eden

    Music is intrinsicly worthless. I say this for two reasons.
    1) I can live without it (if we trust Maslow’s hierarchy) and if I couldn’t, I could easily substitute it with books, TV, conversation, podcasts &c.
    2) Supply *far* outstrips demand. Not only are there more bands releasing more music than I could ever listen to, I am also not restricted by the supply my local record shop has. I can get free music from the TV, the radio, online streaming, listening to bands busk in the park – or listen to all the hundreds of years worth of copyright free music.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure the music you make is hugely important and valuable to you – but for me, it’s 3 and a half minute of entertainment.

    So, as with all economics, when supply outstrips demand and the cost of reproduction reaches zero – costs come down. Or, rather, they should. When they don’t, alternative markets arise. Hence, filesharing.

    The Beatles album “Please Please Me” cost ~£8,000 to record, mix and master (adjusted for inflation). How much did Lilly Allen’s last album cost to make?

    I’ve not listened to Lilly Allen’s latest work – but I’ll take a punt and say that not one song even comes close to “I Saw Her Standing There”. I’m happy to be corrected though.

    When prices go up and quality goes down, customers dissatisfaction increases. If they don’t believe in the quality of the product, they won’t respect any aspect of it – including the copyright.

    Finally (why are my comments on blog posts always longer than the posts themselves…?) the Internet is global – but prices are set locally. If Lilly Allen’s latest album is outsourced to Malaysia for manufacturing – why can’t I outsource my purchasing to Malaysia? With massive price disparities between markets, it becomes more easy to (falsely) justify the act of ripping off those who rip off you.

    None of this, however, justifies ripping off an artist who doesn’t want their art shared in this way. But it does explain it.

  • Juliet R

    Lily Allen is as entitled as any other celeb to voice her opinions.If Madonna had said the same,would the knives be out for her in the same way??

  • Juliet R

    Not quite sure what point you are making with that last para,Steve.

    All I can say is,bully for Lily Allen – she has some
    strong positive opinions,and is not afraid to voice them.

    Perhaps she should consider standing as an MP?

  • Juliet R

    maybe she wouldn’t need to take a degree like that.

    Witness our current politicians…..:D 😀

  • cyberdoyle

    Think Lily is already proving she won’t be any good as a politician. She can’t stand the heat when caught out. You need skin like an armadillo to get away with it these days. Think she is a bit silly, not dishonest or even hypocritical. Just silly. Times are changing and everyone needs to change with them.