Musicians POV: Occupy Artist Rights – Full Post

By Chris Whitten

(Copyright in the author, used by permission, all rights reserved)

I’m an independent, self-employed musician.  It’s a risky business. You’re only as good as your last record or gig. There are few long term contracts, no sick leave, no holiday entitlements and nothing in the way of protection against bullying in the workplace, sexual discrimination, or unfair dismissal. Yes, it’s largely a labour of love, with some degree of personal satisfaction, and if you’re one of the lucky ones, some financial reward.

To co-opt the slogan of the recent Occupy movement, we are the 99%.  The 99% of professional musicians who have more in common with ordinary workers than the rock stars portrayed by the media, frittering away their millions like 24-hour party people.

For the last couple of years I’ve been following the piracy debate, especially online. Contrary to what is often claimed, I feel the ‘free music’ movement has succeeded in shouting down the view from actual content creators. Much of the commentary is dominated by technology journalists, or tech industry watchers, but relatively little has been contributed by creative people working in the music industry. Many musicians, especially the young, up-and-coming ones, have stayed out of the debate, leaving music fans not much option but to accept one or two myths and misrepresentations as fact.

The political musician is a thing of the past, it seems. Maybe recent generations of artists are rebelling against their parents who went to Woodstock or Live Aid? What is sure is that musicians understand they need to be liked in order to survive. You build a fanbase, which in turn provides the all-important bums on seats needed to fund the next tour or album recording. So the last thing you want to do is alienate that fanbase. Heck, who wants to be the next Lars Ulrich? Still getting a public kicking eleven years after Metallica triumphed over Napster. As with many things in life, short term gain is popular while the long game is not. Young musicians who ask fans to pay for their music, sometimes even daring to critisise music pirates, are often derided around the blogs and internet music communities.

Let’s be clear about this: in the relationship between musician and music consumer, the musician has no power. Currently the consumer has all the power. Even if they could admit to themselves that non-payment is wrong, who’s going to readily give up all that free music, movies and television with virtually no chance of ever being caught?

The reader comments section of any blog discussing the issue of music piracy makes for depressing reading – at least for professional musicians. The often repeated threat of “price music fairly or we’ll just take it” is made by people who aren’t prepared to work for free themselves, and couldn’t make ends meet if their weekly paypacket fluctuated wildly dependent on how much their employer felt like paying them each week.

The modern mantra is ‘information is free’. Well we pay for our internet service, don’t we? And music isn’t really information, it’s the product of someone working hard to entertain us. In a capitalist system you don’t get to demand entertainment for free. Someone provides a service, and the consumer decides whether they are willing to buy it or not. After the death of capitalism, when we no longer have to pay for our electricity, we can talk about free music.

Another myth is that the music pirate is somehow righting a wrong visited on artists by the major record labels in past decades. Sadly, musicians survive at least in part by selling records. So what we have is an apparent double punishment. You’ve been ripped off by the labels, and now it’s the music fan’s turn to rip you off. Worse still, with the short careers of many artists, we’re supposedly righting some financial wrong done to The Saints by ripping off Wolfmother.

Music artists are grown up enough to look after themselves. As far back as the late 1970’s with the explosion of independent labels and DIY recording, artists have had plenty of acceptable avenues to distribute their work without relying on corporate labels. The reality which rather sinks this pirate ship is the amount of independent and self-released music that is pirated. Do music pirates download music they want to hear, whatever the source, or do they target major label artists only? I personally know people who have written and recorded their own music, paying for the whole thing themselves, only to find it uploaded against their wishes by someone they don’t know for everyone else to share freely.

I have no doubt there are a few idealists, anti-capitalists and ex-hippies who genuinely believe that by file-sharing they are bringing down the corporate music industry. However, the biggest casualties caught in the crossfire are average musicians. Even if they try to do the right thing by the public, eschewing the major label system, pricing their music fairly, giving some music away, they are pirated as readily as the commercial pop manufactured for mass consumption. When Radiohead offered their ‘pay whatever you want’ download of ‘In Rainbows’ there is evidence many still downloaded the album from popular pirate sites. The clear motive then for most is to obtain any music, any time, without having to pay for it.

So let’s briefly look at a few other, shall we say ‘misunderstandings’….

• The new economy for music is in live performance.

Actually, that was the old economy. You earned a little income from selling records, you might also make a bit from playing live, put it all together and most musicians could earn enough to keep playing. The pirate economy removes income from recordings. So in fact, there is no new way of making money, we’ve just taken one income source away.  In addition, the recording is a product in of itself. It isn’t a promotional tool. After Sgt Peppers was released, The Beatles didn’t tour, and yet we can all still enjoy the music today. I was too young to see Jimi Hendrix in concert, but I have always enjoyed listening to Electric Ladyland. In a country like Australia, you often can’t support artists via their shows without literally going the extra mile. If you live in Darwin, even Albury Wadonga, the only way to see most bands is to travel. International acts just don’t play outside the major Metropolitan centres. The easier way to support artist’s output is to buy the record. Records and shows are two equal products with equal creative value. Recordings capture a moment in time. In recordings from ‘Kind Of Blue’ (Miles Davis) to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (Nirvana) it’s a moment of magic you can’t replicate in live performance now some of the players are gone. In the end, does anyone suggest actors appear in movies to promote theatre?

• You should play music for love not money.

Yes, but instruments, music lessons and rehearsal spaces don’t come free. And if you want to attain some level of excellence you need to invest a lot of time and money in your music. Besides, why are there all these rules for musicians that don’t apply to anyone else? I’m sure Sam Stosur would play tennis just for grins, but we apparently have no problem with appearance fees and prize money. It’s obvious Tony Abbott would LOVE to be Prime Minister. When he finally achieves that goal should we take away the $260,000 a year he’s enjoyed as opposition leader, pay him nothing and recommend he “have fun”?

If you add the suggestion to play for the love of music, to the suggestion musicians play more shows, the cracks in these theories start to appear. Putting on a show doesn’t come cheap, there are rehearsals, travelling expenses, equipment costs. So are musicians to fund these costs through professional musicianship, or accept the dreaded day job? If like others in society your ambition is to rent or own a home, start a family and provide for your kids, you’ll likely need to get a regular job. The bank manager doesn’t understand “I work only for love”.

The average holiday entitlement in regular employment is four weeks per annum. That hardly meets the demands of modern touring. So the post piracy band would only tour for one month each year, and every band member would have to co-ordinate the same month off. Then work the remaining eleven months without a break. When do they find time to record the album, or shoot the video?

When I toured globally with Dire Straits in 1991, we spent six weeks in Australia alone. You can forget seeing most international acts grace these shores ever again if those acts have to balance the needs of regular employment with their careers in music.

Finally we come to a couple of ‘dog ate my homework’ type excuses.

• Not Every Illegal Download Is a Lost Sale.

Duh…. yeah! That’s right, but it’s amazing how regularly this is brought up in the debate as if it’s the killer argument, the Achilles heel of the professional musician. Never mind the high probability that many illegal downloads represent many lost sales. It’s really not believable to claim all pirated music is binned without being listened to, or if it is listened to and appreciated, the downloader goes on to pay for it. Clearly a reasonable amount of music is pirated because the pirate wants to enjoy the music but isn’t prepared to pay for it. Isn’t prepared to actually support the persons creating the music.

More than three years into a GFC, with Europe facing financial meltdown, 40% youth unemployment in Spain, rock music’s biggest market the USA looking down the barrel of a double dip recession, and most Aussie musicians driving in the slow lane of a three speed economy, you bet every single lost sale counts.

• I Can’t Afford Music

I can’t afford to eat at Aria. Life’s a beeeyach. Obtaining music isn’t a right, it’s one of life’s pleasures. And while we’re talking about life’s pleasures, a take away coffee costs $3 to $4, and lasts as long as it takes to drink. A song costs $2.99 from iTunes, and provides entertainment for years. With the popularity of fast broadband and large data plans, it’s quite obvious many of the same people who claim they can’t afford music, somehow can afford a computer, a Blackberry or iPhone and a $60 a month ADSL2 plan. I think what they mean to say is “I can’t afford music because my entertainment priorities lie elsewhere….. and music is available free”

Music piracy is a wholly negative culture. It takes out, but puts nothing back.                                  When I was a teenager we had a similar view of the mainstream music industry. It was tired, complacent and wasn’t making the records we wanted to hear. Towards the end of the 1970’s like-minded people started forming their own bands, they wrote their own music, promoted their own gigs, made their own records and started their own indie labels. It really did blow the establishment apart…. at least for a few years. Why is it that action for positive change has been replaced by simply robbing music from music makers? I can’t say I understand the excuse that pirates download music because most music is rubbish. Surely some young person somewhere is thinking they’d rather make some amazing new music of their own and make a name for themself, rather than spend all night trawling through torrent sites downloading gigs of garbage.

The final pirate promise is that music will always be there.

Well you can’t really argue with that, but what kind of music will it be? Just as talented school athletes play a variety of sports and eventually decide to concentrate on one, young creative often draw, write and play an instrument to a reasonably high level. Given a choice, teenagers will usually opt to pursue a career where they feel valued, have a decent chance of success, and be rewarded for their hard work. Things are pretty gloomy right now in the music scene, but if we could restore income from record sales, I think we could reward our best and brightest to make great music in the future. With the industry in the doldrums or worse than its current state, the most talented creative minds will choose other avenues to express themselves, avenues that give them some hope of a decent living, put a roof over their head, and a pat on the back from respected peers for a job well done.

That would be the music fan’s loss.

Downloading music for free is a short term gain. The long term damage it’s doing to the broader music community and the message that sends to the grass roots, where the musicians of tomorrow emerge from, should be understood by anyone who enjoys new and exciting music. We need creative risk taking and innovation in music, or else millions of teenagers would still be listening to Doris Day and dancing The Twist. The history of pop music shows us creative risk taking and innovation is carried out in the bedrooms of Manchester, England, the garages of Seattle, the back room of a pub in Melbourne, not in the spotlight glare of a season of X Factor. The mainstream is supported by television and advertising, mainstream artists are offered guest spots on CSI: Miami, or a signature fragrance as part of a cosmetic sponsorship. These aren’t avenues of income a young band from Wagga Wagga can enjoy. So we need to financially support the musicians at the margin, for they are the future of good music.

The final ironic twist is I believe free music is a brief abberration. Everyone but the pirates understand that quality content comes at a price. The internet giants are the new record companies. While music sales have been hammered by illegal downloading, web companies have seized the opportunity to throw desperate musicians a bone in the form of some small income from iTunes, Spotify and the forthcoming ‘cloud’. Most of these services are embryonic, but once they gain some popularity it’ll be in the tech industry’s interests to finally stamp out easily available free music, while encouraging people to access music through paid for services like Spotify and iCloud.

The only difference is that many tech companies have demonstrated they are more ruthless than any record label ever was. Unlike record labels, tech companies aren’t interested in music specifically, the nurturing and development of new artists. They are primarily interested in making money through hardware sales like iPads, or online services like Google and Facebook. They want to supply the most popular, most desirable content, at the lowest price as a way to attract and hold on to loyal customers. Mark Zuckerberg’s recent high profile relaunch of Facebook was centred around the (legal) sharing of music and movies.

It’s in the interest of music fans to financially support the next generation of musicians. The internet corporations demonstrably aren’t, and musicians being normal people, they’ll drift away from music as the daily grind of making innovative music with no reward and no encouragement takesits toll.

Less edgy innovation, but more mainstream commercial pop – that’s the road we are on and that’s bad for music fans.

Rather than online anarchy, a mass exploitation by the many of the few, we the 99% of music consumers need to directly support the 1% of adventurous, young music makers, or we can’t really complain when we end up paying. But we won’t just be paying for our entertainment. We will also be paying in terms of the talent that goes unheard and the groundbreaking music that wont be made. And the ultimate irony is that this time it’s a computer company – not a specialist music company – determining what music we get.