Wednesday 18 September 2013

There is no such thing as "Free Music"

I was having a Facebook conversation with someone a couple of weeks ago and when reading more about the topic online I realized that a lot of people confuse the issue of internet privacy and music (or other copyright protected material) “piracy”. I use the word "piracy" in inverted commas here simply because it isn't really the right term that is being used. Piracy involves rogue sailors forcibly boarding and robbing someone of their ship or yacht at sea and doesn't really have anything to do with music, videos or the internet, but it has become the common term for the illegal online theft of copyright protected content and so for better or worse we use the word “piracy”. The use of this word was also probably helped along by the now infamous file sharing site “The Pirate Bay”. I think arguing over whether the word used should be “piracy”, or anything else for that matter, borders on the pedantic and is really just to obscure the actual problem.

I think it would be useful at this point to say that I am 100% against anyone, whether they are individual people, organizations or governments being able to read my personal and private emails, listen in on my Facebook chats or Skype communications and gaining access to my banking details. I am entitled to my privacy on a legal and moral basis and I object very strongly to anybody, I don't care who they are or what reason they have, being able to spy on the intimate details of my personal life. I am sure most people would probably agree with me on this point so let’s move on.

Illegal file sharing via streaming or downloading websites or streaming software involves more than just music. It is indiscriminate in the content that it makes available and includes music, movies, software, books, photographs and indeed anything that is downloadable via the internet in one form or the other. This can include copyrighted content that is shared illegally via a video sharing site like Youtube, but there are ways to do that legally on Youtube as well so I am not going to go there... for now.

For the sake of simplifying matters I am going to stick (mostly) to the topic of music for now, but it can be equally applied to any creative art form that requires someone’s input and from which that someone earns, or has the potential to earn, income.

I know several musicians, some are family and some are friends I have had from school days. I have earned money from performing as well although I don't necessarily consider myself a full time music professional mainly because I simply don't have the unique level of talent that these people have, but even so I can tell you that being a musician requires a LOT of hard work! Hours of practice every day for years while perfecting their craft, learning how to read and write music and exercising the talents they have so that we can have the benefit of enjoying their music for years to come. Show me an artist that doesn't work hard and I'll show you someone who can't pay his bills. This holds true in all the arts, not just music.

Now lets deal with the concept of theft because it’s important to know what theft is before we can appreciate what its consequences are. The Cambridge OnlineDictionary describes theft as: (the act of) dishonestly taking something that belongs to someone else and keeping it. The definition is very simple and indeed the act is a very simple one as well! For many years I was in the retail industry and theft was a huge problem for us in South Africa. The act of theft costs the retail industry in South Africa millions every day and a huge security industry has grown there to try and combat it simply because no business can survive if their profits are stolen from them on a regular and sustained period of time. While we all love to complain about the corporate world the fact of the matter is that we rely on the retail industry to supply us with the products that fuel our modern lifestyle and ensure that the average person today has more and a better variety of stuff than even Louis XIV, theSun King, ever had back in his day! I am not of course referring to the millions of people living in “third world” countries that are subject to extreme poverty of course. That is a whole other topic.

Similarly we need musicians to continue to write the music that we know and love so much. Imagine if the Beatles had never released an album because they knew that they would only ever sell a handful before it was available free on the internet, or if Pink Floyd had never bothered spending time in a studio recording The Wall because the studio costs would probably never be recovered, or if Queen had decided that they could make a better living selling fruit and vegetables. It seems totally unthinkable that these wonderful artists who shaped our fondest memories would have possibly vanished from the scene because they couldn't make a living out of what they loved to do and several generations loved to listen to. The bottom line is that it costs money to produce music and also to live and if the money dries up then the music will end. (Yes I know many recording studios exploited musicians as well, but by and large musicians made a heck of a lot more money in the past and had the option of who to sign with etc. it's a different topic so lets leave it at that for now.)

Yet this is the very choice many musicians are faced with today and they are faced with this tough choice simply because someone is stealing what is rightfully theirs.

So who is it doing the stealing? Well this part is fairly easy to answer! It starts with the lazy good for nothing scumbags that run the illegal file sharing websites and earn millions every year from the revenue that those sites generate through advertising, without ever actually creating anything of their own to justify their ill gotten income. And also the dirty rotten scumbags that continue to provide advertising content and revenue to the illegal file sharing sites despite knowing that they are generating income that sustains the criminal activities of the dirty rotten scumbags that own these sites simply because they themselves are making millions (if not billions) of dollars in income providing the advertising to these criminal website owners. And also, finally, the millions of people who continue to support these criminal masterminds by visiting these types of websites and downloading the music that belongs to someone else largely out of ignorance and largely because they simply don't care.

And at the end of it all sit the artists who are losing millions in revenue and are now contemplating becoming salesmen instead because they have bills to pay. I am also a photographer, and I can tell you that theft of photographs online hurts photographers too!

I am pretty sure I will pick up an awful lot of hate mail for saying what I just said, because everyone else who has spoken up on this topic has received the same. The question is why would anybody object to someone stealing their own stuff and yet get very hot and bothered when they are prevented from doing the same with somebody else’s stuff online? I think the answer lies in the fact that they simply don't consider downloading some electronic file (mp3) as actual stealing, at least not on the same level as stealing something tangible, like a cd.

So what is it then that they are stealing? The thing that one has to keep in mind is that the cd, or book, or dvd, or canvas, or photographic paper is not what you buy when you buy the right to play, read, look at etc. whatever artistic medium you have purchased. What you have if fact paid for is the content that is on or in the cd, book, dvd, canvas or photographic paper, not the physical material itself. If you go into a store it is very cheap to buy a blank cd, chump change, the sort of stuff anyone is willing to drop into a beggar’s hat without thinking twice. But when you buy a cd with music on it the cost is significantly higher. Why? Simple, you are buying the content, not the cd. The cd is a basically freebee! As was the vinyl we bought music on thirty years ago. As is the canvas that Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” was painted on, and the paints he used to paint it. Nobody looks at “Moon and Half Dome” by Ansel Adams and says “wow, what a nice piece of photographic paper I have” because the paper is not what is important, it’s the content printed on the paper that make’s it worth $6,500.00 to the collector who buys it.

This idea of content having value is not a new concept, in fact there is an interesting story told from the mid 1800’s that illustrates this perfectly. "In 1847, the composer Ernest Bourget visited the Paris Concert Cafe Ambassadeurs in the company of his colleague Victor Parizot. At the time, Bourget was a popular composer of chansons and chansonnettes comiques. Among other pieces, the orchestra played the music of Bourget. When the waiter presented the composer with the bill for the sugared water that he and his colleague had consumed as the fashionable luxury drink of the period, Bourget refused to pay claiming that the orchestra had repeatedly played his music, without paying anything: and so he took the sugared water in return for playing his piece. The dispute between the composer and the owner was brought before the court. On 8th September 1847, the Tribunal de Commerce de la Seine prohibited the owner from playing works of the composer without his consent. The exclusive right of the author to public performances that had been anchored in the French law of 1791 was thus put into practice for the first time. And on 26th April 1849 the Cour d'Appel de Paris sentenced the owner of Ambassadeurs to pay compensation, i.e. royalties, to Bourget."

How then is content in electronic form any different, especially if by downloading it from that file sharing site you are ensuring that the owner of that site makes lots of money while the person who created the content you are downloading gets nothing? Sounds an awful lot like copyright infringement (theft) to me.

So what then is the solution? Is it the legal streaming routes like Spotify that stream music for a nominal fee to the end user with a part of the proceeds going to the artist who created the music? Well, from what I hear the actual artists are making very little money while Daniel Ek, the founder of Spotify is fast becoming one of the wealthiest people in the UK. Some top artists have refused to license their music on Spotify because of this, which is why you can't listen to Radiohead or Bob Dylan on Spotify.

Many organizations around the world are currently looking at how to stem the tide against the online theft of copyrighted material through legislation, and while this could stem the tide somewhat I don't think it will ever be 100% effective, but it at least gives content creators some kind of legal recourse which is lacking in a lot of countries right now.

I would suppose that a medium similar to Spotify, but that puts a larger chunk of the earnings into artists hands, would probably work out ok in the long run and would also go a long way towards eliminating peoples urge for downloading music illegally, thus killing the illegal file streaming sites while providing musicians with the income necessary to keep them producing the music we love. 

Personally I prefer to have a decent quality hard copy in my hands because it simply sounds better and has the added benefit of providing income to the artist, and while I love vinyl I do sometimes buy cd's as well. For instance I recently purchased the Brothers In Arms, 20th Anniversary Edition Hybrid SACD by Dire Straits and it sounds great! Much better than even the best highly compressed music on mp3 ever will.

The bottom line however is that nothing is ever free. Somebody always pays, and I am sincerely hoping that it all gets sorted out sooner rather than later because the alternatives are too terrible to contemplate.



Gene Simmons agrees with me!

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