The Musician’s POV: Occupy Artist Rights, Part 1

By Chris Whitten

[Part 1 of a 3 part post–“Occupy Artist Rights”]

(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.


See Part 2: “A Few Misunderstandings

See Part 3: “The Attack of the Homework Eating Dogs