Thoughts on File Sharing…

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

  • making music costs money
  • being really good at your instrument takes time
  • if you want great music, you have to be willing to financially invest in the ability of the musicians to spend the time needed to make great music and invest in the technology and technical help required to realise the great music that’s going on in their heads

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.

6 Replies to “Thoughts on File Sharing…”

  1. I bought the Calamateur Vs. Steve Lawson download this morning (v good indeed) and intend to buy the Radiohead download when it’s available.

    I’ll happily pay something similar to what I pay Napster for downloads (£8.95 for most new albums, I paid that for downloading Joni Mitchell’s new one) though if the material was more like The Bends or OK Computer, I’d happily pay more ;O)

    I have also bought CD copies of albums which I already own on vinyl, because I do like the physical ownership of albums too.

    Having said all of that, I do have a sizeable number of less than legally obtained MP3s, so I’m no saint, and I’m not averse to checking out artists I’m either unaware or uncertain of before considering spending some money, though I do sometimes buy CDs without having heard anything, if they’ve been recommended by someone who’s opinion I respect.

    I do buy CDs from people I see live where possible, as I like to support people who are not just chasing the big bucks, and recognise that for many of them CD sales are an important part of their income.

    That doesn’t mean that an artist or band signed to a major label is fair game for stealing their product, but if I’m honest, I’m probably not as uncomfortable about it if that’s the case.

    It’s ok for Radiohead to try something like this, because they don’t need the publicity a record company’s money can give them – I’ve seen mention of the new Radiohead album on just about every net site I visit – in the same way, Prince’s selling of his album to a national Sunday newspaper worked because people already knew who he was, if my band did the same as Radiohead I doubt anyone would know it had happened ;O)

    (in fact I’m sure of it – we had some recent studio recordings free to download from our myspace page and I don’t recall a single comment about it, though I’m sure some did download the songs)

  2. An interesting debate Steve. I think there is a snense that music fans in general have felt ripped off by the price of CDs in the past, citing ‘Rip Off Britain’ as a main factor. I feel that there is some sense in what you say about the perception of ‘Major Artists. (in whatever form) having loads of money, so a few downloads here and there is just helping to spread the wealth a bit. After all, a serious music fan will have collected a lot of music in a physical format over the years, so surely that justifies an illicit download here and there?

    Of course that argument is untenable really, as it then becomes the small truly independent artist , like yourself, who really cant afford to get ripped off, gets ripped off. In that sense it really does make me personally think and want to support the small but perfectly formed independent artist by buying CD’s and attending gigs, in your case catching up with seeing you at Greenbelt, which I try to do. (‘ere steve, when are you going to do a gig in the west country? I know you were here in Bath at the forum for a workshop!)
    Being old fashioned, i do like something phhysical to hold onto, like a CD and would much prefer to buy that than have a download. Having said tha, Your idea re Lessons learned is great, and I have to admit to buying the one I didnt have. I would like a reissue on CD though!
    Keep going Steve you’re producing valuable and worthwhile, wonderful music!

  3. According to the Guardian, Radiohead yesterday sold more copies of the (£40) box set than the (potentially less than £1) download, which is quite amazing.

    But one thing definitely in Radiohead’s favour is their track record of making special editions worthwhile. They hid extra booklets in some copies of Kid A (and finding one before the news was out that they’d done that was a good experience). There was the map they sent out with another album. And crucially, the hidden special features tend to be closely linked with the artistic vision of the records.

    So fans know that if they pay for the box set, the book they get won’t be some cheap thing designed to dupe us, it’ll be an interesting piece we’ll probably spend quite a bit of time with. The extra CD will probably be pretty good, not a load of rough cuts of the band being goofy in the studio. And so on.

    In other words, Radiohead have done enough to build trust with their fans, that people are willing to risk a lot more money than they would on some band whose new album might amount to a few good tunes if we’re lucky. And that gives them license to try something like this.

    So… how should a new artist–who hasn’t had time to build that level of trust–react to that?

  4. I’d much rather have the ‘real’ CD and associated artwork than a download.
    I don’t own any downloads, or copied CDs.
    I really like the tracks that I’ve heard from your new album, but I don’t want to download it, I’d rather buy a proper CD to add to my collection, I like to read the liner notes etc. while listening to it, maybe I’m just old fashioned or something.

  5. I have to say that I love what Radiohead have done. Personally my house is littered with CDs that I dont know what to do with as I’ve ripped them all to my computer and have no use for them. They are keeping both camps happy by releasing both the box and download version.
    There are a few reasons why I have bought CDs rather than downloads. The first is DRM, this is evil and should be chucked. If I buy some music I should be able to do what I want with it, this means listening to it on whatever device I want and (controversally) lending it to a friend to introduce them to a new artist.
    The second is bitrate, most people are catching up now that 128kbps mp3s dont cut the mustard. As soon as more DRM-free mp3/aac files at 192kbps (like your site) are available I won’t buy CDs anymore.

  6. It is certainly a farce that the world’s biggest download store is selling 128kbps MP3s for as much money as they are. I mean, it’s cool for the indies cos it means we can easily measure ourselves against them and be cheaper and better, but it’s crap for the consumer, because most people are herded towards buying from iTunes (the interface and whole idea of it is great, it’s just the bitrate and DRM that sucks).

    What we really need is a way of attaching proper viewable artwork and sleevenotes to MP3s, to complete the artistic/creative side of things… I’ll have to give that one some thought!

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