Monday, August 28, 2006


Bob Dylan recently created a minor fuss with his comments on downloading:
"Well, why not? It ain't worth nothing anyway."

No doubt many in the industry would accuse him of hypocrisy considering he's made more than a little dosh out of his recordings. But I think he's probably right in a way other than he intended. Commodities can only maintain a price by scarcity and networked computers make copying anything that can be reduced to a binary representation incredibly easy. Copyright is indefensible, I mean that physically rather than morally (though the latter raises some interesting points in itself).

It itself comes from the early days of the printing press, when a writer would grant a printer the right to make a limited number of copies in return for money. It was easily extended to the music business with the invention of the gramophone; like printing presses, record presses are big lumps of machinery, hard to hide and very expensive to buy. It began to unravel with the invention of the cassette tape, inexpensive and easy to use, and easy to make illegal copies. Immediately the music business took fright, remember the "Home taping is killing music" inner sleeves? Of course, it did no such thing, in fact it may have even boosted sales for them: you mate gave you a tape and if you liked it enough, you'd buy a legit copy.

I don't think anyone would argue against musicians making money out of the product (and I mean musicians as opposed to celebs who take little part in the process other than attempting to sing while the session dudes and production staff make it listenable). The difficult question is on what basis they should be rewarded. The only two systems AFAIK that have been used so far have been through copyright and patronage by the rich. I don't think anyone will want to go back to musos having to get their local member of the aristocracy to put their hand in their pocket.

What about the record companies? What earthly use are they now, other than getting fines imposed on downloaders that bear no relationship to the economic damage caused? It's now incredibly cheap to produce music yourself so they no longer need to provide the capital to get recorded. Developing talent? Tell that one to any bunch of musicians who've been through the mill and there won't be a dry pair of trousers in the house. From punk onwards, the industry has had a remarkable inability to suss out what's going on at ground level. Distribution? From bitter experience I found it was the way they could prevent newcomers getting in on the act, even given the assistance of an insider in one of the big companies. The internet's driven a coach and horses through that (incidentally I remember predicting to a mate back in 1987 or 88 that music would soon be transmitted over the wires rather than through record shops: maybe I should've been a futurologist).

More so, publishers. They've never done anything remotely useful other than collect money off the performing and mechanical rights, a bit of accounting and passing on a portion to the artistes.

I think the only remaining function the industry has is a marketing one. If they can't control supply they can create demand. So over the last few years we've seen them go from exploiting children, e.g. by sending their pretend musicians into primary schools to spamming myspace. And along with this function, they're no longer concerned with the music itself, but rather image. You wanna get recorded? Get some cosmetic surgery and a role in a soap first. The musos have largely gone back to the backroom.

Personally, I won't buy anything off them now. Particularly as their products strike me as a load of pony; modern bands sound like weak versions of what we were doing in the 80s and 90s. I don't want to download illegally, but having lost my entire music collection I would like to rebuild it, so what I've been doing is collecting the free discs that come with newspapers and catching videos off youtube. Incidentally, youtube have embarked on a project to make every music video ever made available.

When there's so much around that's genuinely free, and so much that has to be paid for is utter crud, it takes you all the way back to Dylan's comment.


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