Monday Aug 14, 2006

Music Industry: If you like music so much, stop trying to make it

So I've long held that copyright restrictions on music make less and less sense in a digital age. While I do support a musician's right to earn a good living from making music, I don't think it necessary that musicians become multi-multi millionaires. More to the point, I certainly don't see what service the so-called music industry (I prefer to think of it as the CD-selling industry) supplies that entitles it to cream so much off the top.

Quite simply, the record business came into being when technology made it possible to reproduce audio. Whilst the technology required to replay audio, the grammarphone, was relatively cheap and ubiquitous, the technology required to record (a recording studio), was not, and on top of that there was production and distribution of the recording. There was a value to be added there, a business opportunity. With the internet, much of it has gone. We don't need record companies to promote record sales of NSync and their ilk. We can do it for ourselves. Let's cut out the Justin-Timberlake-pushing middleman. The same forces that created a business around recording and reproducing music have now rendered it obsolete, and, judging by what the industry has done to music in the 50-or-so years that it has been around, that's probabaly a good thing.

The CD-selling industry is trying to hold back progress for the sake of a business model, but this is always dressed up as the protecting musicians to keep making music. Some musicians, such as the unfortunate Flea, it is worth noting, do buy into this.

But the arguments often ring so hollow:
Don't listen to music unless you've paid a lot of money for it first. These, er, millionaires, they need the money to be motivated to make another record. The sound quality isn't as good as on the CD. You're supporting piracy. It's illegal (even in jurisidictions where it isn't). You're harming consumer choice. You're stealing.

These arguments have always amazed me. The music industry telling people not to listen to music unless they pay many, many, many times the cost of reproducing that music, (rather than the alternative, of looking for a new business model). But today, I've come across a new line. It seems that the On-Line Guitar Archive, OLGA, beloved website of aspiring guitarists everywhere, has been closed down. The OLGA is a site where guitarists can post guitar tablature. Guitar tablature is a very rough approximation of sheet music, essentially a transcription of the position(s) on a fretboard to a specific piece of music, with little or no attention to key signature, timing, or emphasis, or indeed, the other instruments in the arrangement. It serves to help a guitarist figure out a piece, and nothing more. Anyone who has used OLGA tablature can tell you that it is never perfect, seldom complete, and little more than a guide. But it certainly helps a committed player to expand their repertoire. When I asked Jasper, a friend who actually is a professional musician, about OLGA, he replied, "I think it was the first thing I found on the internet".

Clearly, such a threat to the music industry, (people learning to play instruments), cannot stand.

According to this site, The National Music Publishers' Association ("NMPA") and The Music Publishers' Association of the United States, Inc. ("MPA"), "not-for-profit trade associations of music publishers" (they don't say if the music publishers are for-profit, I'm guessing that they might be) have informed OLGA and a number of other tablature sites that these crude approximations are illegal under the auspices of the famous Digital Millennium Copyright Act and must be removed. Why?

In so enforcing the rights of the creators and publishers of music, it is our intent to ensure that composers and songwriters will continue to have incentive to create new music for generations to come.

So while the music industry continues to worry about "incentives" for musicians, who is concerning themselves with ensuring that young people will actually learn to make music?

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Thursday May 04, 2006

Flea getting fleeced?

Self-respecting rock star Mr Michael "Flea" Balzary yesterday issued a distress signal to his fans around the world. It seems that the Red Hot Chili Peppers' (Mr Balzary's band) new album has been "leaked" via the internet. You mean you haven't already downloaded it? Well, Mr Balzary urges you not to.

Now we don't advocate breaking the law (anyway, it was just a simple misunderstanding and it won't happen again, officer). But it just so happens that there are places on Earth where it is still legal to download copyrighted music (it may, though, still be illegal to upload it). Either way, one might consider that people obey laws for three categories of reason:
1. The fear of the consequences of breaking the law.
2. The laws are easy to keep or difficult to break.
3. The law seems just, there is a moral case to obey it.

And this is why the CD-selling business is up in arms. Large numbers of people clearly do not feel very strongly that copying music is so immoral. This was the case with the audio cassette, just as it now is with the mp3. With the modern networking and storage, it also became very easy to copy music. So now we see more and more draconian legislation being passed to increase peoples' fear of breaking copyright laws.

So, how do Flea's arguments stack up in this context?

Unsurprisingly, Mr Balzary elects not to threaten his fans with prison nor a fine (Dr Dre already did that), nor does he try to make out that downloading is terribly difficult to do with the coquettishly naive statement:

not that i know alot about this kind of thing but i guess now it is possible to down load it for free if you want

No. Mr Balzary makes a novel moral argument against downloading music. Firstly, he points out, it is "stealing":

yes, we worked for a year and a half to make the epic record of our lives
and it is sad to me for the business reasons of course
i think we are selling something really cool and we put all we had
into it...yes, it is stealing from us, and that is lame everyone has to live with their own conscience on that one let it be your guide

(Other than not being a believer in downloading, Mr Balzary doens't believe in punctuation either)

Well, I don't feel compelled exactly. And no, it isn't stealing if it isn't against the law where you happen to live. But we get the point. His work, he's entitled to something. Yup. But the second argument he uses is toe-curling:

we worked so hard, and so thoughtfully, all of us, for so long
to make this record sound as warm and full from top to bottom as was possible
we spent day and night for a year making sure every little sound was just right
that they were all put together in the most beautiful way we could we did not leave a stone unturned in doing that work
i can not put in words how much this record, stadium arcadium, means to us
how sacred the sound of it is to us
...and now, for someone to take it and put it out there with this poor sound quality
it is a painful pill for us to swallow
...and i know that, as sensitive as john frusciante is about sound
the idea of anyone getting and hearing this thing that way
will devastate him
for people to not hear the work the way we meant it to be
will really hurt him deep inside
and all of us will hurt take a version that has been defiled sound wise...that will break our hearts

You see, by you hearing a sub-par version of the recording, the band is the victim. It is breaking his heart that you might hear a version which doesn't have the same sound quality as the release they are bringing to market. Now, I'm currently listening to an aged recording of Beethoven's Egmont Overture. The recording is a bit scratchy but 60 years later, it's still very moving. Do you think that any surviving members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra of 1936 would be heartbroken by this news?

Anyway, I'm looking forward to Mr Balzary's next email when he appeals to fans not to listen on cheaper stereos, nor on an audio cassette, nor to listen to it should it be on AM radio and certainly never on MTV (your TV's speakers will never be up to the job of recreating a sound "as warm and full from top to bottom as was possible"). For that matter, I'd think you wouldn't want people listening to it on streaming audio, that can be pretty ropey too. Er, hang on:

04.26.06 First Place to Hear Stadium Arcadium

Here's the skinny on how you can get your ears on STADIUM ARCADIUM before it hits the streets!'s "HEAR MUSIC FIRST" is previewing The Red Hot Chili Peppers' upcoming offering one week before it'll be otherwise available on planet Earth.
May 1. Got that? May 1 sees the 28-track double CD streamed in its entirety at VH1 Hear Music First.

When Mr Balzary wrote that:

the poor sound quality of the technique they used to get it on there...will break my heart

What technique would that be then? Audio capture from streaming output perchance?

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Tuesday May 02, 2006

Take it or leave it.

Very stimulating thoughts on Jim's blog today about attracting the right kind of critics for what you're doing.

This is timely, because I'm ready to explode. I've had it up to here. I'm sick and tired of reading that the Strokes' third album First Impressions of Earth is a return to form, and that the second, Room on Fire was a disappointment. I even encountered this rubbish in the Independent at the weekend.

Room on Fire was the best follow-up to Is this it? imaginable, refining the sound with even catchier tunes. Yes, it takes a little listening, but then so did the first one. Yes, it sounds just like the first album, but then, so did the first album.

The thing is, noone I know who enjoys the Strokes actually agrees with that the second album is weak, although it seems to be the received wisdom of every music journalist whose column I've bothered to read. Room on Fire was not as heavily promoted as the other two albums. Coincidence?

So I imagine that the people who are commenting on the Strokes, and saying that their third album is a return to form don't even like them. The wrong type of critic.

ps. my opinions on the relative merits of the Strokes' three albums to date are not necessarily those of my employer.

Tuesday Mar 28, 2006

You never give me your money, you only give me your funny paper

As I weaved through heavy traffic this morning on my bike, listening to my iPod and keying in a text message to our neighbour to tell her that I had found my spare set of bike keys, my mind started to wander.

When I first opened the iPod package, I was met by three injunctions: the succint and whimsical Enjoy, the rather more prosaic Install software before connecting iPod, and an out-and-out category mistake, Don't steal music.

Steal music? What, deprive the rightful owners of music of their property? Hardly. What it meant was "Don't duplicate digital files in a manner which contravenes local laws, laws which we are busy lobbying to have changed in a manner which will allow us to continue to make a large amout of money while adding little or no value to the process of creating music".

We were treated to a repetition of this double-speak last week when Apple tastelessly criticised France for passing legislation making closed-DRM illegal in France, in other words, Apple's lobbying didn't work out for them. Apple's response? They called it "state-sponsored piracy", echoing the phrase "state-sponsored terrorism" (in itself a circular term), and again touting the idea that people who duplicate music files are not merely sharing music with eachother, but are in fact murderous plunderers. The thing is, all you can do with music is listen to it. How can "music companies" be so anti-music? And how dare they speak about my mother like that?

The fig-leaf of respectability of suppliers of media containing music is that ultimately, artists receive royalties (a fraction of the total spent on the CD or mp3). But once a track has been recorded, Apple, Warner Bros, Sony and their ilk are superfluous to the dissemination of music. I can do it for myself, thanks. Why don't I just pay the artist directly?

Given that an open DRM standard is more likely to enforce a copyright restriction than one that is unique to Apple's devices, their claims are clearly disingenuous. As noted here, DRM is about raising barriers to entry into the digital music market.

So, what about Sun sponsoring the Open Media Commons - a royalty-free (i.e. anyone can use it without paying money to Apple or Microsoft or, heaven forbid, Sun) DRM project? Well, even our Software CTO has his reservations , and the project is excellently parodied here (although we might observe that the music lovers pictured are at least not tied to a proprietary platform). What is perhaps overlooked is that it is very important to remove the profit motive from the use of DRM, both in locking consumers in and in licensing the use of DRM itself. This does present value: if the major suppliers of mp3s and mp3 players find that selling equipment encumbered with a non-standard DRM is a competive disadvantage, why would they push it?

They may also conclude that restricting the great pleasure of music is something that only a Blue Meanie would undertake. But then the Beatles and Apple are in court again.

ps. these views are not necessarily those of my employer

Update pps. I ought to disclaim this further (following the "don't be stupid" principle) - I am an Apple customer (and a semi-happy one at that), my implication that members of my family might be described as "pirates" is not to be taken seriously and I am not making allegations that Apple's lobbying extends beyond their public condemnations. It might, I don't know. Oh, and it isn't safe to ride a bike and send text messages.

Saturday Jan 28, 2006

Rock me, Amadeus

In the latest edition of staid BBC technology programme Click Online, (available here in the occasionally working RealPlayer format), they focussed on the issue of DRM, Digital Restrictions Management to some, Digital Rights Management to others (including the producers of Click Online it seems). They presented this topic from the Hard Rock Vault in London, home to such treasures as Lenny Kravitz' black Gibson Flying V guitar smashed during a 1994 gig in Birmingham and a clay mask, hand painted by Boy George.

Incidentally, this, direct from the Hard Rock Cafe's own site:

The story of the birth of Hard Rock’s memorabilia collection is itself a part of music history...Hard Rock Cafe is not only known for its great food and exceptional service, but for its display of rock and roll memorabilia.

Well, nothing says Rock'n'Roll like a well-prepared meal, promtly served.

The presenter, Spencer Kelly, got a little carried away himself, pointing to Jimi Henrix' "one and only" custom guitar -another Black Gibson Flying V, it looked like the one played at the Isle of Wight in 1970, not that I was there. I actually thought that Hendrix had quite a few custom guitars, in fact, I think he even had two custom Flying Vs, a black one and a psychedelic one. But I digress.

The topic of DRM was presented within the framework that the music industry would like it to be presented, that is, illegal copying has become so prevalent that the industry has to take measures to prevent it. The debate then, is not "DRM or no DRM" but "how much DRM is needed to control the pirates".

And there's another thing - music "piracy". A pirate is a vicious plunderer. Who ever thought that term was appropriate to be applied to people who copy music illegally, and did they work in marketing for a record company at the time? Pirate indeed. Why not be done with it and say "music murderers"? Well, in fact, the British music industry already did in the 1980s with its "home taping is killing music" campaign, possibly making the simple mistake of confusing an transitory business model based on mass production and targetted marketing with, er, music.

Mercifully, music pulled through.

We are told that DRM has helped get the music industry "back on its feet", and an apologist for the music industry (a term I shall quibble with later) resorted to the argument that all is fair in a market context:

If people don't like DRM or people don't like a product or service you are offering they will vote with their wallet and they won't buy, they won't subscribe they won't come and do things. So we have to find the balance that gets the right product and the right services with the right DRM at the right price to attract consumers in to grow this market.

The only reason that people wouldn't mind DRM is if they don't know what it is, and they will surely never like it. People will, however, always want to enjoy music, and, as J.K.Galbraith pointed out in The Affluent Society back in 1958, when the means of production seeks to influence demand, the market becomes distorted. Naturally, this proposition is both far more complex and far more wide-ranging that I've presented here, but nowhere is it better illustrated than the music business, where a small fraction of the world's talented musicians (and Craig David) are listened to extensively for a brief period.

Now, as for "the music industry", and for the framework they seek to apply to the analysis of this situation: we don't talk of the literature industry, but of the book industry. Perhaps these companies ought to be known as "the CD industry", as this is what they are trying to sell us: the medium, and not the content. And the point about all this is, the vast marjority of the music-listening population in the developed world no longer needs the services of someone to reproduce audio for them. We continue, on the other hand, to require the services of a publisher to produce literature in book form. (And if you are not in that category, then this is the site for you).

The smart companies will surely one day stop trying to disable technology to protect their "assets", and embrace the fact that technology means that music can be copied and shared at almost no cost. This is a good thing. It is not as though people will stop spending money on enjoying music, but perhaps they should not keep spending money on things that have no added value, such as the burning of a music CD in a factory, when it can be done at home, or not at all, and the music still enjoyed.

Going into a new segment Click Online presenter Kelly (and actually, I suspect that they've renamed the show to "Click", presumably to attract the attention-deficient audience, a key demographic) told us,

It's easy to forget that music started as analogue [points to an electric guitar] on those things.

-this on the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. But then, Mozart's music is in the public domain. I'm sure that Sony BMG, Warner Bros, Universal and EMI would prefer us to carry on listening to Notorious B.I.G., Will Young and Sugababes.

ps. the opinions expressed here may not be those of my employer.




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