The Man 2.0 – Why technology’s brave new world is more evil than the last

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It has never been easier to find music (even if most of it is awful), and you can buy an album with one click of a mouse. Proponents of our download culture will tell you that life has never been better – information wants to be free, after all – but as I’ve said many times before on this site, the problem with the Wild West of the web is that cowboy movies tend to end up with everyone dead.

Until a few months ago, I believed that it was a matter of consumers versus musicians, and that it was just a matter of educating people that illegally sharing files is wrong and nagging people to pay for the content that they use. I now see I was misinformed.  Continue reading

6 Things People Believe (That Are Wrong)

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. Continue reading

How Much Is Music Worth?

Yesterday, I waffled about the music collection that includes the 21 Nine Inch Nails records we’ve paid for. Today I’m going to talk about the one that was free. It also features a pretty awesome (presumably fan-made) video with NIN as the Village People!

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“You think 925 is a lot?” observed my colleague, discussing yesterday’s post. “We have 5,000 CDs.

OK, so that’s a lot.

“Well,” she explained, “They were only about five pounds each.”

Music these days is cheap. This is a good thing in many ways, because it makes music more accessible. Music fans have essentially divided themselves in two: those who buy music and those who don’t.

Back in the old days *creak*, you either bought a record – again, for around six pounds for a vinyl album – or you taped it off a friend. There were singles you bought and singles you taped off the radio. That was how you decided its value: you’d either put up with the crackling hiss of poor-quality audiocassette or shell out for the real thing. New music was discovered through the radio, cover-mount giveaways with magazines, or home-taped compilation cassettes.

Of course, the scale of the non-purchasing was small: on average, each album would be shared between two or three people – not the 20,000 you might get on a torrent site. If you taped an album, you’d at least give it a listen, not shove it on a CD somewhere and forget it existed.

That’s the trouble with these days. I remember the first time I did it. In the days before Napster et al, my husband’s friend had a huge hard-drive full of songs he had ripped from CDs, and invited us to load up a CD-R full of free music. I grabbed two albums and a ton of miscellaneous tracks.

I realised something very strange quite early on: that I wasn’t happy with my home-burned versions of the albums I liked. I wanted to have that sense of ownership that comes with buying a record: I bought them both almost right away. I also felt guilty about what I regarded as theft.

As for the miscellaneous tracks, stripped from the context of the albums to which they belonged – or to the lovingly-assembled tracklisting of a compilation tape – they felt literally worthless. I didn’t even bother to listen to them. I have played that CD-R twice in a full decade. Any of the tracks I gave a damn about, I just bought the album.

For some reason, I get on fine with digital downloads. I think it’s the pain of purchase. Not the hassle of purchase – Amazon’s one-click checkout system is a godsend, and the bane of drunken impulse-purchasers everywhere. (Kanye West? Really?) Nope, I mean the old-fashioned bittersweet transaction of parting with hard-earned cash to enjoy the fruits of another’s labour. My sweat buys your sweat.  (They really need to fix that aircon.) The thrill of online shopping is every bit as tangible as buying something in a store: the price of a cup of tea buys me a song; I can have an hour’s music for an hour’s (minimum) wage.

When you get something free that is not a personal gift, you don’t value it. It is, quite literally, worthless. Through this, we have utterly devalued music. Those who don’t buy music often download tens of thousands of tracks which they don’t bother to listen to and certainly don’t love. There’s no appreciation there. No value. They haven’t sacrificed even the tiniest bit to own it. For me, a music purchase is a choice I’ve made between that album and a video game; that album and a lipstick; that album and a new pair of shoes. My Skechers are so worn through that they’re tearing up my socks and blistering my soles, but my ears are happier than ever.

What’s really making me happy lately is Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 album, The Slip. It was given away as a free download – crucially labeled as “a gift” from Trent Reznor to reward his fans for their many years of devotion.

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