Much as I want to keep this blog purely for the good things in life, avoiding the indignant shrieks of so much of the web, this comes up so often that there’s no avoiding it. So, once and for all, it’s time to dispel a few myths. What’s true of music is also true of movies and games.
“if u were someone of importance u’d be out there making all that money u claim to have more of than Rihanna … “
That is actually a new one. Normally the conversation ends with the other person saying, “Well, I think if they were real artists they’d give it away for free because it shouldn’t be about the money“. Very few people do their jobs purely for money – prostitutes and call centre workers, mostly – almost everyone else has a certain amount of love for their work (even the prostitutes and call centre workers), and few more so than those in the arts industries. Almost everyone wants to do something they like and get paid for it. Besides, almost everyone in music earns almost f*** all anyway.
That’s how the debate had begun. Someone on Facebook recommending someone just (illegally) download an album rather than bothering to pay for it. I pointed out that this is generally a bad idea because it means labels can’t invest in cool new music if everybody steals it.
MYTH # 1: They can afford it
I used the example of Rihanna, who as I put it, “I earnt more than she did in 2008”. What about the $15m she supposedly got that year? Well, see, this is how it works.
Unusually, Rihanna released her first three albums back-to-back. When the first two failed to sell well and the third had below-expected initial sales despite the single, Umbrella, being #1 for 11 weeks, the label panicked. The amount they would have invested in her was staggering and – like game developers or movie studios – one low-seller can kill your business. Factory Records went bust after the Happy Mondays’ Yes Please cost too much to record, and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless almost sank Creation. Def Jam were entirely correct, in business terms, to refuse to throw good money after bad on Rihanna, leaving her in limbo. She had to finance the rest herself.
Rihanna’s management used the money from her various sponsorship deals to fund videos, recording and tour costs. Out of the $15m she’d earnt that year, she had just $20k (approx £14k) left by the end. If I say I earnt more than she did in 2008, so did most people.
Luckily such a gamble paid off and the album went on to sell a few million – much less than anything comparable in the 80s or 90s, but enough to leave her in a better position than the thousands of pop stars who’ve filed for bankruptcy over the years.
MYTH #2: It’s OK to hurt those greedy labels
In common with the game and movie industries, piracy is hitting the little guy hardest, but even the biggest aren’t immune. The immediate effect is that the smaller independents without vast reserves of cash go bust right away, and the majors simply downsize (mass lay-offs) and refuse to take risks on innovation and go for boring-and-safe every time. The huge rock acts of the 70s and 80s often lament that if they’d have come out now, they’d never even have been signed. Most acts in Rihanna’s position simply disappear immediately, without having the luxury to promote their own material.
So you wind up with the majors letting their underpaid employees go, and the indies dropping all their interesting acts. There’s no long term benefit to the consumer from this: you might be saving a few quid this year by not buying that album, but in the long term, it’s you who suffers because there just won’t be albums like that in a few years’ time because they’re too expensive to make.
MYTH #3: Bands should be pleased people are “advertising” their music
There are two problems with this. The first is that you are wresting away control from the artist on how and where their music gets to be displayed. One of the most frequent arguments I see is between makers of fan art (game mods, YouTube videos) complaining that someone has uploaded their work without permission. It might be the wrong version, or not have the right artwork with it, or they might have wanted to reissue it in a different format and suddenly that’s not an option they get to make any more. They’re normally furious, and justifiably so. The fan community rallies round them and cheerfully denounces the absolute lack of respect – but is suddenly hypocritical when it comes to those trying to make a living from their love.
The second is that when you download a record, you get to keep it. A song played on the radio is only there for as long as the radio is playing it. When someone made you a mix tape, you were getting one song and if you wanted the rest, you had to buy the album. The “try-before-you-buy” outlets are Pandora, Last.fm and YouTube. Next time you want to “share” music, send them a link to a streaming site – not the album itself.
Myth #4: It’s just like home taping
The issue is one of scale. When we were kids, even with home taping, one album would only be shared between maybe two people. With torrenting, it might be shared between 10,000 people – often much more – with almost no loss of sound quality. There’s no motivation to go out and buy the record. Out of 20,000 albums released last year, only 2,000 sold more than 1,000 copies. If just 10% of those torrenting the album had bought it, it would double the sales of most albums.
Proponents of illegal downloads say that the figures should speak for themselves: that they would prove that most people who torrent music are suddenly inspired to then go out and buy it. The best selling album of 2008 was Tha Carter III by Li’l Wayne. It sold just 3.5 million copies – compared to the best-selling album of 1998, Faith by George Michael, which sold over 20 million copies.
Myth #5: Bands make their money from touring
Concerts cost a lot to put on. The promoter hires the venue, PA system, sound and lighting engineers, security, bar and other staff, puts on two or three acts per bill, all of whom will require food and beverages, and has to advertise the concert. In the 70s and 80s, bands had to “pay to play” – bringing along their own amplifiers and frequently out of pocket unless the venue sold out (which is rare). By the 90s it was better: you just didn’t get paid. If you could prove enough people had come specifically to see your band, you’d get maybe £30 between you all, which if you’re lucky would cover the taxi fare.
First law of business: “revenue is vanity” – the gross figure is meaningless; the only amount that counts is what you’ve got after you’ve covered your costs. So at the opposite end of the scale is Pink Floyd – the tiny minority who got rich from music. They’re all millionaires who’ve sold a lot of records and made great money from touring. Even so, out of the $250 million from the Division Bell tour, you have to take off the $30 million production costs, expenses for the 161-strong crew and 53 articulated trucks, and the day-to-day venue hire, staffing and maintenance costs for every date on the tour. Suddenly, you’re left with only a fraction of that big round figure you started off with.
Another myth about revenue vs profit was dispelled when an A-list movie star talked frankly about the $20 million fee they were charging to appear in a film. They were deemed worth that amount because of their unique added value that they could bring to the film – nobody else would be quite the same. I won’t pretend this was a poor person, but it did rather put things into perspective when they described all the costs that go into making them unique. Say it’s Arnie: how many personal trainers, nutritionists, stylists, dentists, etc. go into making the Arnie brand (all of whom need to be paid)? To paraphrase: “You’re not hiring one man,” he explained, “You’re hiring a fully-staffed company of which I’m CEO.”
The rest of a movie cast, by comparison, can often come out much worse with many being paid the Screen Actors Guild minimum (as low as $100/day on an Ultra-Low Budget film). Union extras are paid around $130 per day (plus extra for overtime or if they provide their own wardrobe) but on a low-budget film non-union extras are paid less, sometimes nothing at all. An increasingly popular way of reducing the enormous risks involved in making a film is to defer wages for any of the cast or crew in return for a share of the profits – which of course will be reduced if people illegally download it.
Myth #6: It’s not really stealing since it’s just data
Oh, I hear this a lot. Very well, then I hope you’ll be just as happy to hand over your bank details, since that’s also just data, and it’s not really real, and not the same thing as stealing actual bank notes since it’s not a physical product.
When something is offered for sale then you trade your money for someone else’s effort. Not just theirs, either, but all of the overheads and middle-men it took to bring it to you. When you take it without permission and without paying, you are breaking that deal. You are stealing. Everyone has stolen in their lives, but most of us knew that we were doing wrong when we did it. Just admit it: you committed a theft for no other reason than because you could get away with it.
At this point, the other person just starts with the personal attacks: that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Perhaps. I spent five years as a music researcher and eight years as a music critic, and my husband is in two bands who, since 1994, have released seven albums on three independent labels with another out this year.
Between us, we’ve spent far too much time supporting internet campaigns, appearing on national radio shows and writing articles to try to dispel these myths, and as you can see, it falls on deaf ears.
I keep thinking that at some point, people will wake up and realise what they’ve done. I grew up hearing an enormously diverse range of music on the radio and TV – music by bands that labels had taken a risk on. With that infrastructure in place, their music filled the shops with international distribution. The magazines would write about it and promote it – not the sneering, self-regarding bloggers of today but genuine enthusiasts who were passionate about great music. The whole network of exposure and support for new acts is lost, making it likely that you’ve never even heard the best band in the world – and likely never will.
You don’t know what you’ve lost, and – worst of all – you just don’t care. I think that’s what saddens me more than anything else. So why even bother complaining about it? Because out there are thousands of musicians, game developers, writers, artists and industry workers to whom I’d just like to say: it’s OK to be upset when people steal from you. It’s OK to want to retain that bit of artistic control as to how and when your work is released. It’s OK to be frustrated that people will pay £400 for an iphone but refuse to buy a £5 album or £20 game. Even if nobody else gives a crap, I care, and since I don’t believe in complaining without taking action, I’ll do something positive about it. When I want to enjoy a new game, album or movie, I’ll put in my credit card details and help fund the next one. After all, it’s not real (money) is it? It’s just data, after all …