My letter to the Musicians Union About the Digital Economy Bill

Well, the Digital Economy Bill passed. One of the stupidest yet most potentially catastrophic bits of legislation ever forced through in the Wash-Up (the last couple of days of a Parliament before an election.

I opposed it, I still oppose it and I will continue to oppose any legislation about the internet written by people who don’t understand the internet or, in this case, the music industries and the role that music plays in our culture.

I’m particularly ashamed that the Musicians Union – a Union of which I am a member, was a proud member, and have supported by paying double what I should’ve been paying for the last two years – supported this insane bill, to the detriment of musicians everywhere.

I made this public, and got an email of their ‘official position’ this morning, which is:

We fully support the Digital Economy Bill in the interests of getting it through Parliament before the election. We support measures that will reduce the opportunity for pirates to rip off musicians and we also support the graduated response that should help to persuade most filesharers to respect the rights of artists who want to be paid for their recordings. We remain optimistic that the final version of the Digital Economy Bill will directly and fairly address both these issues, and we believe that Government support and intervention in this area is not only welcome but vital.

As you know, our Executive Committee are involved with our policies and decision-making, and the members of the Committee are themselves working musicians.

Here’s my reply to Kelly Wood, The Regional Officer for The North, who sent me the message:


Thanks Kelly,

I think that’s an entirely absurd position to take. Using the word “Pirates” discredits you immediately. These are music fans, discovering music. That’s a great thing.

Teaming up with the BPI does us a great disservice. The BPI wrote the bill as a protectionist measure of an outdated and unworkable business model. It was a model that was NEVER to the advantage of musicians who cared about the music they played and the culture it existed in, but one that made sense at a time when physical distribution was required to reach anyone, and the costs involved were prohibitively high. At that point, labels lying to musicians about how much they dig the music, while making a fortune for themselves but still never ‘recouping’ on the album was deeply unpalatable but a neccesary part of recording and releasing music.

All the costs have dropped. I’ve written extensively about this – most notably here – but nothing has changed in the industry. They still spend money on the behalf of musicians, pay themselves that money, recoup it (AGAIN) and own the product at the end. None of that is remotely to our advantage.

  • The internet is an awful broadcast platform. Terrible. If your model for business sees recorded music as a broadcast-followed-by-sale experience, you’re screwed.
  • The internet is an awesome conversation and sharing platform. Get that, and you can build a sizeable sustainable audience on zero budget. Factor in the reduced cost of making records, and you can release a record at near break-even point, get an audience, then set about given them reasons and means to pay you to do what you do. There are loads of ways. Not least of all, charging for downloads.

People pay for downloads on my site, even though they are available for free. I’m as happy when people download for free as I am when they pay as they are still discovering what I do, and forming a relationship with my music, and me through my music.

So, the premise of the bill – that the situation is desperate – was spurious. The figures quoted for industry ‘losses’ are insane. Utterly nonsensical if mapped against spending trends on ‘physical and download entertainment media’ – we are part of a much bigger entertainment industry now that we ever were, and we don’t dominate it in the way we did from 1956 to 1998. Games and DVD are a bigger part of it than ever. And entertainment spending continues to rise. So 200 million hasn’t been ‘lost’, it’s being spent elsewhere. Meanwhile, the cost of making and distributing records is tiny, and download sales go up and up.

How you can see that as a situation that needs legislating is utterly beyond me. To shut down sites and services on suspicion of illegal activity is a civil liberties travesty. To have my internet traffic monitored ‘in case I do anything bad’ is like the royal mail reading my post, in case my letters contain naughty words. While threatening to brick up my front door if they find them, or think they might have found them.

I’m ashamed of the Union, ashamed to be a member, and feel that your support for this bill is a massive black mark on a Union that has done so much for grass roots music. By focussing on a pre-millenial obsession with money-changing-hands-at-the-point-of-discovery, you’re effectively crapping on the best music discovery, fan-generating, culture-sharing, life-benefitting ecosphere that musicians in the world have ever experienced.

And that is why I’m still considering whether I should stay in the Union any longer.

If you’d like to meet and talk this over further, I’d love to talk about it with you more.



58 Replies to “My letter to the Musicians Union About the Digital Economy Bill”

  1. Steve,

    The Internet is brilliant for trying before you buying. I have discovered so much new music through MySpace and YouTube, but the point is that I always ultimately pay for a physical CD if I wish to keep something (and provided the product is available) – unlike many people I know. Of course, I also used to tape plenty of albums as a teenager when I couldn’t afford them, but rather than contributing to the killing of an industry, this encouraged me into becoming as mad about music as I am now. However, when I see affluent adults ripping off CDs and DVDs for each other, that is a different matter. Particularly when a digital copy is as good sound-wise as the original, unlike say a poor vinyl to tape transfer. These same adults will often argue that CDs are too expensive, and that they would buy them if they were cheaper, but that is tosh. If you cannot afford a BMW you stick to a second-hand Vauxhall, you don’t just walk in and steal one off the forecourt. Digital music is simply too easy to copy. You are right about the kids spending most of their money on computer games and ipod apps though.
    Too many people faced with a choice of “should I buy this music and support the people who made it” or “should I spend my money on beer/Sky/dinner or whatever” can now simply choose both because it is so easy to obtain illegitimate copies of music to listen to. I disagree with what you say about it not being theft because there is no physical product involved; the “thing” which is being stolen is in effect the copyright – nobody has the innate right to listen to somebody else’s music just because they want to. Either they have to pay for a CD/download, or the artist has to grant them the right to a legal but free download.

    1. Gareth –

      Accepting that ‘pirating’ from LP to tape as a kid helped foster your interest in (and financial support of) music do you really think that the way to help teenage file-sharers evolve to supporting the music/filmmakers they like is to have them responsible for their household net connection being cut?

      Their dad can’t search for jobs, their mum can’t submit her tax return, their kid brother can’t do his homework, his sister can’t get health advice. He’s really going to love the music industry after that! Think about it.. Please!

      I want to help the wealthy serial copiers who never pay for content (of whom I know a fair few) shift their attitude – but beating them with a stick while the carrot goes moldy at the back of the fridge isn’t the way.

  2. Good response above, Steve. One of the points that doesn’t seem to be made often enough is this… use the Bill to clamp down on the current situation, and the result will *not* be a smooth running music industry with everyone dutifully buying everything they want to hear. The result will be Russia… dodgy market stalls in every underpass, where you can buy a DVD for a couple of quid, containing the complete works of Pink Floyd, Madonna, Metallica, the Beatles or whatever.

  3. “nobody has the innate right to listen to somebody else’s music just because they want to. Either they have to pay for a CD/download, or the artist has to grant them the right to a legal but free download.”

    …so what if I go to a friend’s house to hear it? If I listen to it there every night for a few weeks, but in so doing, have heard it enough an decide I don’t need to buy it? Is that immoral? Illegal?

    What about a song that gets played to 7 million people on the radio. The artist makes a tiny fraction of a penny per listener. Quite often back in my radio listening days, I would hear songs I liked on the radio, but hear them so much that I chose not to buy them. Should I have felt obliged to buy them as a ‘thankyou’?

    What if all the music I get is presents? I never buy anything, I just listen to music that other people buy for me? It’s paid for, but does the fact that I see it as ‘free’ remove my ethical right to listen?

    What if I and my friend both have ten pounds each at a gig. The artist has 2 albums out, each 10 pounds. If I buy one and he buys the other, should we swap them, increasing the chances that we’ll fall in love with the music and buy the other one next time round? Or remain ignorant of the other music? That would seem insane, despite the swapping being illegal… If the artist has released another album the next time round, perhaps we’ll both buy the new album… The more music I have by a person, the more I am constantly reminded of my love for their music, whether it’s through shelf space for CDs, or screen space in iTunes…

    What if I work in the music industry and friends who work at record labels give me endless free albums? All legit (after all, the cost of pressing those CDs is recoupable from the album’s profits) – legal, sanctioned by the label and the industry, but actually costing the musicians money. I have THOUSANDS of pounds worth of free CDs here, a mere fraction of which I was ever able to write about. It’s review-roulette. Send out a thousand CDs, hope to get a dozen magazine reviews. Not even remotely worth the investment on an indie release, but still standard practice. It would be far better for the artists if the journalists just torrented the ones they wanted to hear or write about. But then we get to the point of asking ‘who is a journalist?’ the one paid by the magazine, or the one with an audience who listen? The fan who writes loving reviews, or the scathing wordsmith who destroys years of work in a few sentences…

    Nothing is cut and dried. The value in music is neither metric, monetary or linear. it changes from song to song, person to person, medium to medium and situation to situation. If I thought that all my music was worth to the people who loved it was ten pounds per album, I’d be heartbroken. The time that people take to listen to it over and over and soundtrack their lives with it is worth far more to me personally, and in a tangible way to my career than the tenner they might have paid or the CD. No tenner, no problem. No listens, BIG problem.

  4. The bill is rushed legislation. Only justifiction for that would be a sever problem that was new and needed immediate action. File sharing isn’t something thats just been invented, and whereas it is clearly wide spread there seems to be little or no evidence of it actually harming anyone. Remember how radio was supposed to be real bad for sales and we needed needle time restrictions, then home taping was killing music, then burning cd s was the prob. Now its file sharing.
    Not saying it doesn’t have potential to be a prob but at the mo its no worse than we had in past.
    The kids now with i pods full of downloads had parents who had massive collections of c90s.
    Personally i don’t do illegal downloads. ( Well some sites i ‘ve used i wouldn’t be sure of status. ) Now why don’t i illegal download? Respect for artists? To be honest artists i respect generally so small i wouldn’t expect to find their stuff with any ease. Prob mainly cos with last and spotify i don’t feel the need. If i was 11 and listened to most of my music via my phone in a playground things would be different. Act won’t catch anyone downloading regular, they’ll find ways around it. It will create atmosphere of fear, parents terrified kids might download illegally, internet cafes paranoid they could be closed. Etc and web sites that allow any sort of uploading will be running scared. Could youtube be closed if i upload an unauthorized clip? That level of fear can’t be healthy for anyone. Act goes totally over the top and tramples over peoples privacy, and gives govt new powers – all this and we see it rushed through the commons in two hours. Well labour leave office much like they came in – as real sad disappointment.

  5. I wonder how many people supporting this bill have ever borrowed a book from one of their friends? For that matter, have any of them ever bought a second-hand book? How many of them have sat in a doctor’s waiting room and read magazines in the rack to pass the time?

    It’s generally accepted that sharing printed material is entirely normal, despite the fact that every shared copy is, in theory a lost sale. Even more so, in many cases, given that, unlike with music, people don’t normally read books and magazines over and over again – the book that I read while at my parents’ house last week really is a lost sale, because, even though I enjoyed reading it, I’m not ever going to buy it now.

    The argument that sequential sharing of this nature is somehow different to the simultaneous sharing that takes place when a music file is copied is disingenuous. Ultimately what’s happened in both cases is that two or more people have the benefit of something that just one of them has paid for. And there are only two options here: Either that is fundamentally wrong or it isn’t. And I think nearly everyone would agree that, in fact, it isn’t fundamentally wrong.

    If it’s not wrong in principle on a small scale, then still it isn’t wrong in principle on a large scale. It only becomes wrong in practice if you add in another principle: that the creator has an absolute right to an income independent of whether or not people are willing to purchase his or her material. In some socialist utopia, that might be the case (to each according to his needs, etc), but it surely doesn’t apply in anything resembling a free market economy.

    Of course, it may be true that if too few of us are willing to pay for music, then creators will become few and far between and we’ll end up with less music to share. And I’d agree that that’s an undesirable prospect. But who suffers most in such a scenario? We, the consumers, do. If making music is no longer profitable, the music makers can find another job. But if the music makers stop making music, the consumers can’t get it anywhere else. If that’s the case, though, why legislate to prevent it happening? If the consumers kill their own golden goose, that’s their problem. Lack of popular music or the latest movies never hurt anyone; it’s not like health care or food or shelter or anything else that really matters. But if anyone is worried about a possible shortage of new music, then the remedy is in their own hands: they can pay creators to create it.

    Technological change has always threatened jobs. The introduction of the printing press put the scribes out of work. The railways made stage coaches redundant. Motorised vehicles in turn ended the golden age of the railways. You can’t legislate against the forward march of technology, and you can’t legislate against humanity. We are inherently social animals, and sharing is fundamental to our nature. If technology now makes sharing much easier, then that is a good thing. It’s still a good thing even if it causes short-term loss to those who previously built a business model on it being difficult. In the long run, the benefits to society as a whole outweigh the loss to those who are made redundant by progress.

    Sharing isn’t stealing. It never has been, and it never will be. But denying people the right to share is an assault on humanity itself.

  6. It’s simple: Why is the British Government passing bills to protect the interests of music companies? When did we give them the mandate to do that? What did I miss?

  7. The “very valuable marketing/advertising/advocacy role performed by people who share music…” is something that every Indie artist is hip to-well said Steve-o 🙂 My wife reminds me of the bands ‘String Cheese Incident’ or ‘Phish’, who, taking their cue from the Dead, totally encouraged their fans to tape their shows, then share the music/tapes around with each other. Those bands do pretty well & I wish folks at my shows would ravenously tape my set, and share it with their friends too. Different from ‘file sharing’ I know, but seems to illustrate the importance of grass roots sharing. Another point I’d like to make is about laws in general, I’m not an anarchist, by any means, but it seems laws designed to curtail inconsiderate people’s harmful activities rarely do. I know this is over simplistic, but another way to put it is: bad people will do what they want regardless of what law is in place and people who would voluntarily obey a law probably would behave honorably either way, whether mandated to or not. Too often laws backfire and honorable folks receive disproportional punishments, while the dishonorable ones continue to run rampant.

  8. Tom H – your views smack of someone who believes that anything to do with the online world and music is part of something that is stealing from you – the artist. Whilst I 100% believe that every artist and creative person should be justly rewarded for the gifts they bring to the world we need to get down to the reasons why the BPI is pushing this bill through parliament.

    The music industry has had its head in the sand about ecommerce and the commercial opportunities of the internet since the inception of the world wide web. It took a computer company – Apple – to make a viable business selling music online. The benefits of audience reach that Steve has mentioned was largely ignored by the music industry yet small bands and usigned artists are embracing this new medium to reach out to new fans in ways never possible before. Websites such as offer ways to market for unsigned artists in a marketplace where it’s easy to preview and discover new music. Online booksellers and even supermarkets are offering legal ways to easily download music. What has the music industry done in response? It has panicked, realised its own lack of innovation and have turned to suing their fanbase. This is commercial suicide.

    A couple of years ago I tried to venture into the world of MP3 music. I went to the BPI’s (or it may have been another music industry body’s website) that offered around 50 links to websites selling music online. I was looking for Nirvana’s Nevermind album as I only owned it on vinyl and wanted to listen to it again. Around half of the websites listed turned out to be broken links. Another half of those left all used the same backend system that didn’t list that album. I was down to around a dozen sites. Most of those required you to register on the website before you could search for music or find out how much it cost. Only a handful of those were UK based. In the end I was left with iTunes and Tescos. Both of these offered the album for £7.99 – the same price as a top 10 chart album. In the end, I drove into town and picked up the album for £4 from HMV. Where in this scenario do you see the music industry’s attempt at capitalising on the market that almost every other industry has adapted to?

    Where is the innovation? Who in the music industry is kicking themselves because they didn’t think up Spotify? How about I give just one example of what they could have done. Do you go to gigs? Did you ever buy bootlegs LPs of any gigs? If you did you know it’s because you love listening to a band’s live performance – I certainly do. When a band is on tour, is it finacially viable to record their set? If it is, why not release every single show as an MP3, available direct from the band or from the record label? If 10,000 fans show up, how many of those will buy a legal MP3 recording of that show? In fact, how many truly dedicated fans would buy several shows? How many would buy them all? In fact, why can’t I buy more live recordings than what’s currently available? Look on Youtube, it’s swimming in live videos. Why couldn’t the music industry cash in on this (unless of course the act of recording every gig proves prohibitively expensive but I’m hoping someone reading this – possibly yourself – could let us know the answer). My point – the music industry’s reaction to having their head up their arse about the commercial benefits of the internet has resulted in their decision to throw money at suing fans and making donations to governments to push through draconian laws that will seriously damage ecommerce in this country. And you support this?

    1. thanks for commenting, Paul.

      Re: your gig sales point, quite a few people have done it successfully – Howard Jones did it for a tour, and Pearl Jam have done it with both CDs and MP3s. I think even Metallica did it… (probably so they could then sue the people who bought it for something or other 😉 )

      1. About the gig stuff:

        Einstuerzende Neubauten did something like this on their 2004 tour. You went to the concert, paid $25 (or so), and on your way out, you got a two-disc set of the performance you just saw.

        Here in Boston, the Middle East regularly makes recordings of its live shows, and the artists are able to sell those. (I’d have to look at the details to find out if the artists can just give them away.)

        I know Clear Channel venues tried doing something like this a few years ago. But because of a number of factors (their own incompetence, labels’ bull-headedness, the thicket of copyright laws) they weren’t able to run with it.

        Yet another example of label protectionism holding back good ideas.

  9. The Allman Brothers have done a great job of selling CDs through Instant Live for about 4-5 years now. They also launched live video streaming for their Beacon run last year. Here in Britain, I was able to purchase a CD at the Bad Company gig I went to 2 weeks ago and a memory stick for the Yes show I attended last year – so certainly for the bigger venues it seems to be taking off.

  10. Steve, really liked the letter and your subsequent responses. On the strength of that i’d like you to stay with the union. Someone has to drag them into the new world and i think you’re doing a good job of yanking that rope.

  11. Just to put this in a bit of perspective, according to Thomas Dolby and Gary Numan, the MU tried to ban synthesizers in the late 1970s / early 1980s:

    See eg

    That seems as utterly absurd now as their support for crippling the internet.. also seems now. The MU does many things well and I shall remain a member, but coping with the future and technological change is not their long suit.

  12. Systems have always been hacked – cheques, telephones, DVDs. That doesn’t mean that the business model is broken, stupid. I’m a musican and I’m very happy for you to give your music away for free, but I (like most of the industry) would prefer to charge for CDs/downloads and would like the legal system to allow me to do that, not reward the freeloaders. You might donate some money to a band you start listening to, but the next generation expects free music now and won’t pay you a fig. Imagine if the law stopped Starbucks from charging for coffee and all they could do was for a donation on the way out. All these arguments about ‘getting it’ are crock. You need rules in this economy, but legitimisation of those that can get around the existing ones.

    1. David, no one is stopping anyone from charging for anything. As I’ve stated, I’m not against *a* digital economy act, I’m against this one, specifically because it was written by lobbyists for a particular part of the industry using specious, misleading statistics to scare musicians and politicians alike with Chicken Licken type “the sky is falling” lies that just aren’t born out by any kind of transformative look at what all this means for people who make music and people who listen to it.

      It’s interesting that you dismiss arguments about ‘getting it’, while seemingly demonstrating that there are large bits to this that you don’t indeed get. There is nothing in the legal system to stop you charging for downloads. I continue to accrue sales via iTunes, Amazon, eMusic and other stores, and some people STILL are willing to pay more on a ‘pay what you want’ basis than they would through those other outlets. Others are discovering my music by downloading it for free, at zero cost to me, and that’s fantastic! Instead of me paying a fortune for a radio plugger, for magazine ads, for TV spots etc. I can just get people who like my music to share it with their friends, who them come back and talk to me, and choose to pay for it. Everybody wins.

      But that’s not what the bill is about, at all. It’s about file sharing involving copyright materials, and the penalties for it. It involves the wholesale breach of privacy (do you think the postman should be able to open your post in case you have something that he might be able to report? Or that the police should be able to do spot checks on your CD collection to check for CDRs? Or maybe just follow home anyone buying CDRs, and raid their house for illegal music/video?) and a REALLY blunt edged method for discerning who is ‘guilty’ and who should suffer, all based on a desperation driven by utterly made up statistics.

      That’s no way to write and implement laws. Let’s have a proper discussion about it, and a bill that reflects an understanding of the tech involved and the real impact on an industry that has fairly consistently got in the way of most music reaching an audience for the last 50 years.

  13. Umm… you can charge whatever you want for your CDs and downloads, David. How is that affected by what Steve chooses to do on his site?

  14. Hi All –

    Some great thoughts here. I was a member of the MU for about 10 years before I left to go live in LA. Now I’m back I’ve been intending to re-join. Strange since I also do not (did not) support the Bill. It is utterly misdirected to penalise your “customers” and (quite rightly as has been eloquently pointed out here) flies in the face of what the internet is. BUT…the MU has done me a ton of good as a player and writer. They indemnify me against nasty lawsuits when I perform, they fight for my rates of pay, they put pressure on unscrupulous venues, tv companies etc and they stood shoulder to shoulder with me when I went through the horror of redundancy. I also know that when you join such organisations (much like political parties) they are not going to tick all the boxes. I do believe that it’s better to be standing inside the tent pissing out than standing outside pissing in (excuse the analogy). If we as musician’s don’t agree with the union we must band together and BE HEARD. If you are a muso and you haven’t joined then JOIN and have a voice. We must speak out for our audiences, they deserve that. Walking away and moaning from the sidelines is not an option.

    For those of you on here who are not musicians but enjoy the music… thanks! PLEASE continue to support the creativity of those whose music speaks to you and where you can please try to pay for it. It makes a hell of a difference. 🙂

  15. Hey Steve!

    This is slightly tangential, but; have you seen what the MU and BPI is doing now? What are your thoughts on THAT hot pile of weirdness?

    [just in case anyone’s wondering: the MU/BPI agreement for session rates is currently being negotiated. Summary: musicians lose in terms of earnings, as a record company could try to cram all the work into a shorter time frame. There’s a Facebook group, of course, where’s there’s more information:

    Additional disclaimer: I’m not part of the MU and never have been. If you can see a train coming, don’t walk on to the tracks, as almost nobody says nowadays.]

  16. Hi Steve,
    Great letter. I’ve just finished my final year dissertation on the evolution of the interent as a means of promoting music and couldn’t agree more with you.
    If the digital economy bill is fully enforced it we truly be the beginning of turning the internet into a one-way medium.
    I have a guest lecture with someone from the MU this afternoon and i’ll be sure to raise some of the points you have made here


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