Guest Post by Nick Lewis (Copyright in the Author)
Nick Lewis is a mastering engineer from Brighton, UK. Visit his website at www.brightonmastering.co.uk
Most talk about the exploitative internet is focused on artists. But they’re just the headline. Artists may be the front-line, the visible face, but the effects go much deeper.
Artists being paid less due to piracy, pay-what-you-like and advertising funded models has a direct effect on entire subsections of the economy. And these sectors serve as omens for the future of increasingly information-based economies like the UK.
The trickle-down effect
Think about everything that goes into making and releasing a record. Recording engineers, mixing engineers, mastering engineers, mixing desks, outboard, microphones, speakers, software, computers, pressing plants, their staff and equipment, blank stock manufacturers, distributors, warehouses, vans, drivers, PR agencies – the list goes on.
No one gets paid if no one buys the record.
I can’t count the number of times artists have promised to send a single/EP/album to me for mastering by a certain date only for that date to slip because they can’t get the money together. Very often it never materialises: they’ve given up and either forgone mastering, tried to do it themselves or got their hobbyist mate to do it. This isn’t good for me or the band.
The same goes for mixing. Probably 90% of everything I work on has been mixed by the artist themselves. And I’ll tell you something – you can immediately tell when something has come from a proper studio mixed by a proper mixing engineer. It’s night and day. Sure, sometimes it’s a conscious choice on the part of the band, but most of the time they just can’t afford to mix in a proper studio.
The fewer working studios there are, the less money spent on high-end equipment and the fewer techs can afford to keep working. You see where this is going.
Loss of expertise
This isn’t just bad for people losing money. Less money means less investment which means lower quality. Fewer people can afford to make a living doing the things that make a difference to how a record sounds (for example).
Yes you can make a record on a laptop. But it won’t come close to Abbey Road. This is about time with experts where artists can concentrate on their art and not worry about anything else. This is about a level of technical knowledge, let alone appropriate acoustic spaces.
People can’t afford to take on apprentices like they used to. A lot of the top mixing and mastering engineers now work from private facilities at home. Eventually all these people will retire and their skills will go with them. The people that replace them will never have learnt from them, and very likely never had the money to invest in the same quality of equipment.
Soft skills are already suffering because there’s not enough money in it. People have to get day jobs and pursue them as a hobby or not at all. That means a lower quality end product.
This isn’t just about music. It’s not even just about creative enterprises. The downward trajectory of price to zero will eventually affect anything transmittable in binary. Data, software: anything that can be distributed with a computer.
For countries like mine, the UK, which is increasingly moving towards an information based economy, where manufacturing is taking a backseat and media and services dominate – this can only spell disaster. When competition from open source projects, piracy and vastly under-priced international alternatives hits everything from financial services to software development we will have nothing left to sell.
Free market fallacy
The internet has provided the mechanism for the biggest, fastest, unregulated free market the world has ever seen. And its sheer size is exposing the flaws in the system.
The free market theory is that competition will drive price down, which is good for the consumer. Adam Smith couldn’t possibly have predicted what would happen in the face of intangible, easily copyable assets and hyper-globalisation. The trend towards zero is not good for the consumer in the long-term as the quality of product degrades or disappears altogether along with the skills and supportive infrastructure that go into it.
A sustainable internet isn’t just about ensuring musicians and artists get paid fairly for their work, it’s about protecting our economies. Further, it’s about choosing what kind of a world we want to live in.
The French (among others) have a fixed book price agreement, recently extended to include e-books, to protect their publishing industry. The net effect is 2,500+ book shops in France, while the UK sector, left to laissez faire, dwindles. This is a direct expression of the value placed on literature in France – both in itself and as an economic sector. It’s also an example of the kind of measure we need to fight for online. As musicians queue up to descry the new business models of the digital economy, it’s clear the ‘invisible hand’ isn’t working for artists, listeners or the jobs and skills that depend on both.
This isn’t just about art. Art is just the beginning. This is about restoring the link between price and value in an information economy.