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The Pros and Cons of Free

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Jon Webster | 12:33 UK time, Tuesday, 1 September 2009

(Jon Webster spent the early part of his career at Virgin, initially in retail, then the record label in the 80's, where he was instrumental in the founding of the Now! series. He has been a manager, founded the Mercury Music Prize, worked for the BPI but left 'the dark side' in 2007 and now runs the Music Managers Forum. The following post is published with kind permission and represents Jon's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)

Digitisation of music, combined with the internet, has wrested control of distribution from the rights holders - traditionally the record labels and music publishers. The truth is that music has always been susceptible to copying and sharing; the internet has made it so easy that music, as soon as it has been digitized, is effectively free. When you obtain it illegally it often comes with spyware and other nasty files but it is still free. And this hasn't only affected major labels. One recent victim of pre-release sharing, the band Future of the Left, wrote an impassioned piece on April 28th about their loss of control of their music including the line: "Some of us...just want to make the music we love and play it around the world without living in poverty".

And I guess that's the point. The fact that music is free is no longer a technological or legally enforceable issue; it is a social and moral issue and it is affecting all the artists in the world not just the rich and the rights holders of the past. It's affecting how artists are rewarded.
But the loss of control, and possibly income, from recorded music is not all bad. It also creates huge opportunities for artists to connect directly with fans. From that direct connection comes trust, respect and ultimately faith that the artist and fan are in a relationship and each has responsibilities to the other. The artist has a responsibility to deliver to fans music in whatever form that the fan wants; this includes, for instance, not asking the fan to re-purchase music they already have to get new tracks on say a Greatest Hits album. The fan has the responsibility to recognize that artistry and effort need reward. That reward could be the purchase of a concert ticket, a T-shirt, a better quality music file, a CD with either special or normal packaging or whatever. And fans will do that if they feel connected.
This process is in evolution and it is not without problems. The oft quoted solution that artists make money playing live holds little water. Many acts make little money playing live until they start playing to hundreds or thousands of people. Yes the superstars make a lot but they really are the few. And just because you make great music as an artist does not mean you have to stand on a stage and reproduce it. That's the choice of the artist. Surely Kate Bush, who hasn't played live for 30 years, should still be rewarded for making great music whether she plays live or not?
These new models are working for artists big and small. They can be tough to operate and artists and their teams need new skills and hard work to make them function. But they will work.


  • Comment number 1.

    Just about spot on! Interestingly, Amy MacDonald claimed on her twitter that she has yet to make a penny from the multi-million selling album "This Is The Life". (No. 1 in UK and around Europe). So I assume she's making her living from touring around UK and Europe and from T Shirt sales.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think this is a very wise and balanced article. I like the bottom line. Of course it will work. If it didn't then artists couldn't sell and distribute and we couldn't get new music. So we'll find a way that does. It's a bit painful until it all settles down.

  • Comment number 3.

    Just a small point. Without getting into the morality of it, illegal music really isn't that covered in spyware etc. A community has developed around it producing high quality versions, and the community is quick to spot and decry anything potentially problematic. I'm not sure whether your sentence was to cover your behind, or a bit of ignorance, but thought I might enlighten you anyway.

  • Comment number 4.

    Surely Kate Bush, who hasn't played live for 30 years, should still be rewarded for making great music whether she plays live or not?


    Nobody pays me to rest on my laurels. If I teach someone a new skill and they use it for the rest of their lives, surely they should then pay me every time they use it? My grandfather built buildings in Manchester that are still in use sixty years later. Where's my family's royalty payment?

    Thirty years ago I paid for the right to listen to Kate Bush's music. I bought albums which came with a stern warning that home taping was killing music. So I paid again for the rights to listen to that music when I bought the tape. Nobody offered me a discount because I had already rewarded Kate for her efforts. And when the album wore out ad to pay again, not only for the cost of manufacturing and distributing the physical product, but also for the right to listen to the music. Then I paid for CD, twice. I have spent massive amounts of money throughout my life on repeat purchases of music I already own, because the physical medium has worn out.

    I wish Kate all the best, but if she wants any more of my money she needs to get off her behind and do something to earn it.

    Home taping didn't kill music either. The music industry had a damn good try by creating phenomena such as the Spice Girls, but it didn't stop people playing music. Complaints from the music industry boil down to "we want to keep our profits," but I'm a music fan, not a cow to be milked at every opportunity. Music will continue, and the sooner the recording companies are dead the better off we will all be.

    Oh, and Kate Bush has performed live several times since 1979. Publishing factually incorrect statements that are easily disproved does not encourage people to have sympathy for you. It makes you look like a liar protecting his own interests.

  • Comment number 5.

    @TaiwanChallenges - while I think the bulk of your points are fairly made - particularly the issue of royalties you might 'logically' be able to charge a person you have taught a skill to, which they then exploit - I think it may be a bit strong to start implying our bloggers are lying.


  • Comment number 6.

    Might we see a band stop releasing recorded music commerically at all, except in the form of the free promotional giveaway? Given what I imagine are the costs of producing a full professional album, but 'fans' expectation that music should be 'free'.

  • Comment number 7.

    @sophievdennis Those eternal paradigm-breakers Radiohead have declared that they'll not be recording albums in the near future, rather releasing single tracks as and when they like. (Although at a charge of £1 in the case of the Harry Patch track, rather than free.)

    Of course they are in an enviable position of being able to do what they choose with their content. So are they trailblazing the industry's future or just avant garde and unusual?

  • Comment number 8.

    Dan: I think it may be a bit strong to start implying our bloggers are lying.

    you got me thinking again. Can't sleep now, but not annoyed or defensive. If I broke the house rules than I apologise, but you've touched on the question of what we expect to be true. What standard do we hope for, and what should our response be if we feel we've been let down? This became a long reply and the tone sounds a bit grumpy. It's not intended to be, but I'm tired. Apologies for that.

    There's always talk about how people unquestioningly believe everything they see on the web, but what about people spotting things they believe to be wrong?

    Some time ago, Justin Webb slipped up and described dinosaurs as mammals. He seems like a pretty smart guy, and I doubt he has an agenda, but I wrote in anyway. I received a polite response expressing horror at the slip. No problem, it's not as if he blindly repeated the lies being propogated about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for instance.

    On the subject of dinosaurs, the BBC seems happy to report repeatedly that "Many scientists agree that an asteroid strike 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8179895.stm%29 without giving the topic much more thought. However, plenty of dinosaur fossils have been found above the KT boundary which marks the asteroid impact. I'm not an expert on this topic, but I know enough to know that there is evidence to show that the dinosaurs did not die out quite as suddenly as the well-known explanation suggests.

    I also know that the BBC writes plenty of stories about proposals to protect the Earth from future similar events. These proposals emanate from scientists and engineers who are publicly-funded and have to compete with each other for money which is doled out by politicians. Politicians in turn respond to public opinion which is shaped by the media. Hmm, so people who need money propogate a slightly suspect story to the media, which results in raised public awareness of an issue that prompts politicians to award more money to their research projects.

    NASA needs justification for expensive projects, justifications are found, and the BBC seems to go along with this without questioning the veracity of the underlying claim. You'll pardon me for being a little less forgiviing than I was towards Justin Webb.

    On the subject of NASA, I keep seeing references to 'the replacement for the Space Shuttle'. The new crew transporter may carry people, but it doesn't replace the 30-tonne cargo capacity. I haven't bothered to write to your science correspondents about this because they're presumably dumbing down for public consumption. But all the same, I am aware that the BBC is not a very reliable source for information about space hardware for anyone who is actually interested in the topic. It makes me wonder what the purpose of all those articles is.

    I saw some good reporting a while back about Chinese missiles too, the ones carried by their new nuclear submarine. The reporter managed to confuse the capabilities of the missiles with those of the sub, so the reporting was only good in that it gave me a reason to write a fairly crotchetty letter to the BBC asking them when they were going to start checking their facts. The sub's range is indefinite, the missiles are good for 5000km. Reporting that the sub has a range of 5000km is demonstrating that you really have no idea what you're talking about.

    I didn't get a reply to that mail, but the offending article was amended. A small victory for a non-expert citizen journalist. Unpaid. Why do I spend money on a TV license (I don't) if I know more than the people doing the reporting?

    As I'm in Taiwan, China is an important issue. Accurate, reliable, trustworthy reporting is hard to come by. So naturally I was interested to read a few years ago that the Chinese government plans to build a motorway linking Beijing with Taipei. Again I had to write and ask difficult questions of the BBC. Is your reporter aware that these two cities are seperated by hundreds of miles of open sea which is full of ships and subject to typhoons? Is your reporter aware that, at the time of writing, Taiwan was considered to be a breakaway province and there were no formal relations between the two sides? Plainly not, he/she appeared to have simply repeated what the mainland politicians said without stopping to think about it. I doubt that Justin Webb would have done that, but why is it OK for China?

    I never did get a reply, and this time the article was not amended. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/4633241.stm%29

    This was a few years ago, and it's not important today, but the principle is very serious. What is my relationship today with the BBC? Do I trust the BBC to provide full, acccurate, informed reporting on anything? They clearly can't find people who know anything about space technology, military hardware, international politics, archaeology... OK, I'm being harsh, but if I catch people making elementary mistakes whenever I know even a little bit about something, what should I believe about other topics? If I can't temper what the BBC says with my own knowledge, I have no idea what's really true.

    So then I read someone trying to support an argument that I don't really agree with anyway by making claims that I know are not true. Is he a lazy reporter? Or is he like the scientists with an agenda? Is Kate's inability to find a job genuine? Did home taping kill music? Or are people telling me what they want me to believe in order to preserve archaic business models or invade Iraq?

    Bottom line: the guy should have had the facts at his fingertips, but made a claim that was disprovable in a matter of seconds. If he wasn't lying then he was lazy - which is disrespectful to your readers.

    The internet may be a great medium for disseminating misinformation, but it also makes anyone claiming to be a source of information much more accountable than in the past. It's becoming insulting that people expect me to believe things that are demonstrably untrue.

    At some point, someone somewhere has to insist that 'trusted sources' abide by some code of conduct that says "if any passing member of the public catches you out then you lose your credibility" and respond to that challenge by checking their facts more thoroughly.

    We can bitch about Wikipedia editors, but at least their standards require authors to cite their sources. And if I can demonstrate something to be untrue I can change the text accordingly. Here at the BBC, things which are not truths remain published.

    I read a suggestion once that media organisations should maintain some kind of public record of every single factual error that they have been caught out on. How does that grab you?


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