Long time no speak. What with Steve going off to New Zealand and Fracture finishing, I suddenly went from being a fanzine whore with no time at all to fulfill all my column and review commitments and simultaneously attempt to live the rest of my life, to having way too much time on my hands. A very weird feeling indeed.
Not that I’d ever let such a thing as free-time get the better of me! I just made myself overly busy in other ways instead to plug the gaping hole in my life with something else to eat away my free-time other than writing columns.
As well as finishing my undergraduate degree (I now have a first-class BA in philosophy and politics and am about to start a Masters programme in September), I spent a large chunk of the last year directing and performing in an improvised comedy play called ‘The Life And Times Of…’ and helping form and be part of a new comedy troupe called DON’T SAY BLUE DRAGON who are currently filming a home-made DIY sketch show.
I’m also going up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August to perform in a show called ‘Hardcore 24/7’. No, it’s not a play about living the Punk Rock life, nor is it a play about all-day every-day fucking… What it is, is a project whereby every two days for two weeks we spend 24 hours writing, rehearsing and performing a brand-new play (get it? Each play is a Hardcore 24 hours and there will be seven of them overall – thus Hardcore 24/7). I’ll be acting and writing, so it’ll be fun. Hellacious, but fun.
And of course, there’s the music. Whilst I have played a few solo shows with just myself and a bass both in the UK and the US, short of a two track demo recorded with our new drummer Chaz, playing a few shows and writing a bunch of new songs, BULLET OF DIPLOMACY haven’t done too much lately with all of us finishing Uni in three different places and orchestrating the whole operation becoming a logistical nightmare, but come September this year we’re going to get back in the saddle again once everyone’s had the summer off and we’ll hopefully record the new stuff and play some more shows. Meanwhile, I am hopefully recording a bunch of songs with one of my other bands, THE WHINING MAGGOTS this summer, which will be fun. As usual, it’ll be me on bass and Paul Raggity on drums, but this session the guitars will be done by none other than fellow ACADEMY MORTICIAN, Simon Mastrantone. Look out for it if pop-punk songs about love and life are your thing!
But enough about me and what I’ve been doing. Let’s get down to the substance of the column.
So what is it that is on my mind in this war-torn world whilst the bombs fly in Iraq and the bullshit fight against terrorism continues? What is it I plan to talk about at a time when report after report is showing the world that each flimsy justification given for the war in Iraq was based on lies, misinformation, disinformation and manipulation and one of the biggest faux pas of global politics is slowly being exposed for the sham that it is whilst world leaders like Tony Blair and George W Bush back-peddle and flounder for excuses and the general public bay for their blood?
Could it be the upcoming US election, and how Bush junior better start packing because he is out come November if the anti-Bush feeling I felt in New York and Massachusetts when I was over there last month is anything to go by? Or is it speculation of which poor country will be attacked next in the name of protection against terrorism, regardless of who is in the Whitehouse when it comes time to make the decision because, Republican or Democrat they’re all the fucking same? No, it is about none of this that I choose to spout my bile, although it is, allegedly, related to terrorism in a small way.
As this is my first column for the new online version of Scanner; a music fanzine on the internet, I figured I’d use it as an opportunity to let loose my opinions on something concerning the internet itself, and surely of relevance to music fans everywhere. The subject is piracy, and the illegal downloading of copyrighted music.
Anyone with an internet connection and an interest in music will have, at some point downloaded an MP3. Sometimes this will be from a legitimate site such as a record label or band homepage, offering it as a freebie to entice you into buying a full album, or even from a pay-site like iTunes, where for a small charge you can download what you want. But more often than not, it is not from a legitimate source at all, but from someone who has ripped their music collection onto their computer and put it up for sharing via a program such as Kazaa or Soulseek, often putting entire albums, or even artist’s entire recorded output up online for people to download absolutely free, and it is this trend that is worrying the music business into a frenzy.
Piracy is becoming such a worry in fact, that recently they have been trying to implicate piracy of music and films in the funding of terrorism, claiming that terrorist organizations are funding their operations through money made via pirate sales. Whether this is true or not is up for debate. Some might say it is just a cynical ploy to get people to stop buying pirated goods sold at a cheaper price than their own (‘if you buy the new Harry Potter film from a bootlegger instead of paying five quid to see it in a cinema then the terrorists have won!’), but still, what about piracy that involves no money being transferred? That obviously isn’t funding anything, let alone terrorism.
So why does downloading music for free worry people?
It worries them obviously because, if I am downloading the albums people put out for free instead of spending my money on them, then they are losing out on my cash.
It is easy to simply put such an attitude down to corporate greed and big business having a tantrum because they aren’t making as much profit as they used to, but the idea that downloading music is wrong is not one reserved solely for the major music companies. Indeed, many independent bands, underground bands, and Punk bands are similarly against music downloading.
Whilst one could have little trouble arguing that taking your fifteen pounds away from Sony or Time Warner by not paying money for one of their releases isn’t going to destroy them, what about a small-time Punk Rock band who don’t have a multi-million dollar enterprise behind them? Each seven pound CD that they sell helps pay for petrol to get to their next show and to feed them whilst they’re on the road. Is it not wrong to deny them that money? As a musician, it is their wage for plying their craft. Is it fair to take that away from them?
The major media conglomerate’s argument would be that it should be wrong in both cases because the music downloader is equally taking away money from the artists who made the songs. That whoever you are, if somebody gets your music for free instead of paying you for it, you are being ripped off and not properly reimbursed for your creative efforts.
The argument looks something like this: recorded music is a product, just as any other product. If one wouldn’t steal a car, or steal a handbag, then why is it seemingly ok to steal music?
Whatever one’s arguments against big business, property and ownership, let us just assume that we can see that it would be considered legally wrong for me to go into a shop & steal an actual compact disc. What those who argue against music piracy see, is that by getting the album without paying for it, you are essentially doing exactly that because that same compact disc has been rendered redundant as a commodity by your actions.
You still have the product without paying the price and the musician have worked hard but received no wage.
Again, whilst one might be able to condone stealing that money from a mega-selling artist like, say, Elton John, or Madonna where the loss would be negligible to their millions, can we equally condone stealing from people like FUGAZI, or the DESCENDENTS, or even more so, from the local band from down the road with the four-track CD you downloaded instead of buying at the show?
Personally, I immediately have a problem with inconsistent ethics. To say it’s cool to do something to one group of people and not another always seems a dubious path to take to me.
Whilst one might argue that the difference in the positions of the two types of artist (rich and poor) makes differing policies necessary (a rule something along the lines of ‘thou shalt not steal from those who can’t afford it’), it doesn’t really clear up the central problem of whether or not downloading this music for free actually is wrong or not.
If we are saying that it sucks to take free music from struggling Punk Rockers but not to take it from rich rock stars, we are not so much forming a coherent argument about downloading music, as we are simply formalizing our contempt for major-label musicians.
Now, as much as I feel a healthy anger towards an industry that charges at least fifteen times the cost-price for a compact disc, not to mention extortionate live shows & merchandise prices as well as the promotion & perpetuation of soulless, creatively handicapped drones in lieu of genuinely talented performers all in the name of what is ‘marketable’ & what’s not, is a rational & sound emotion to feel; we can’t simply say ‘it’s ok to rip off the majors cuz they’ve been ripping us off for years’ as a genuine argument because it is logically flawed.
To rip someone off as a protest against the evils of ripping someone off is as self-defeating & paradoxical as those governments of the world who kill for peace. Yet maybe there is some way of getting a consistent position on music downloading that still accounts for the differences between artists?
It is my belief that the problem at hand is classifying downloading music as ‘stealing’ in the first place, because, put plainly, it’s not stealing. To compare taking an album’s worth of songs without paying for them to stealing a car or a handbag is confusing the issue with totally incomparable examples.
A car is a car. When a thief takes a car, they possess someone else’s car. It is a mobile vehicle that belongs to an individual to transport them & their heavy items around easily. It costs people thousands of pounds to purchase one, & to take it from them is to deny them that transport & all the advantages of the vehicle’s function after they have paid out all this money for exactly that vehicle & all its advantages that they now no longer have, which is a shitty thing to do. Likewise, stealing a handbag is not about the bag itself, but about the contents of that bag. Someone’s wallet, their money, their credit cards, their ID, their personal belongings…to take that from someone causes them great inconvenience & distress without any provocation & thus is unjustified.
When you ‘steal’ music by downloading it for free, what you are ‘taking’ is an ability to hear these songs. You don’t gain any tangible material object that was not yours to begin with, simply an encoded version of a song that allows you to hear it on a computer or MP3 player.
To say that being able to listen to these songs without paying for them is ‘stealing’ them, is tantamount to saying that it is wrong for me to walk past the window of somebody playing an album I do not own and hearing it.
If it is wrong for me to download a Top 10 single (besides the obvious aesthetic crime of having poor musical taste) & thus gain the ability to hear it without paying for it, why isn’t it also wrong for me to hear that song played on the radio, or on a TV commercial, or in a movie soundtrack?
The argument here is that by saying all I gain from downloading a song without paying for it is the ability to hear it, is slightly misleading. I may as well say that all a car-thief gains from their act is the ability to travel at high speeds & the bag-thief, the ability to pay for more things than they could previously afford. That it is not what the thief gains that is important, it is what the victim loses.
So whilst the music downloader gains the seemingly harmless ability to hear a song, the artist is losing their livelihood as each song of theirs downloaded for free is a song that they won’t be paid for & a share of profits from their talents & efforts that they will not receive.
It is a fair criticism, if it were true. But it is my contention that music downloading, far from taking money away from artists, actually helps them more than they’d admit because I believe that downloading music is simply an advanced form of browsing that helps us discover new bands that we would never have heard otherwise, as well as help us in our music purchases.
When a major record label releases a single into the charts, it is not because they think that this song is an amazing piece of artistic brilliance that the world simply needs to hear. They do it because the song is supposed to entice us into buying the rest of the album – it’s a sample track, sent out there to whet our musical whistles. Using that same principle, the music downloader downloads albums for free & listens to them to see what’s out there & inform their choice when it comes to buying.
Now I am not saying that most people will buy copies of what they have downloaded eventually. That is clearly not the case. What I am saying that what they do buy will be influenced by what they have been listening to & what they have downloaded for free.
Of course, that means that there is still a fuck-load of songs that they have ‘stolen’ without paying any money to the musicians for the privilege. But what people forget, is that this person was never going to buy all that music anyway, so no money has actually been taken from anybody.
If I only have twenty pounds set aside from my wages to buy some music this month, I will only be spending twenty pounds. By looking at what’s around & downloading songs for free, it just means that I can spend that twenty pounds more wisely. Nobody misses out on any money that was going to be there before I downloaded anything because no more money exists…I just make sure I spend what money I do have on the right things.
What it does mean however, is that I now know about more bands now than I would have if my knowledge were limited only to what I could afford to hear. Especially bands who I couldn’t have afforded to take a risk on & buy blind a new album of. So, say I download seventeen bands’ new albums but only buy one. The other sixteen bands have lost nothing from my ‘stealing’ their albums because I wasn’t going to buy more than one album anyway that month…what they have gained is that I now know their songs & know that they exist & so will be interested when they have something new coming out, or if they come to my town & play a show.
This isn’t just speculation of what people could do, but it is what I have seen happen countless times as a direct result of music downloading.
My flat-mate for example, he is a person who has bought about three CDs in his entire life. He didn’t buy them before he got a computer & he doesn’t plan on buying any anytime soon. He’s just not that kind of guy. He does, however, like music. And since he’s been downloading music (which again is music he would never have bought before, but more importantly, because he wouldn’t have bought it, wouldn’t have even heard before) he has regularly been going to gigs of these bands who he has discovered online, & he has bought their t-shirts etc, giving them money this way. Plus, even he has, in one case, bought the CD of a band who particularly impressed him, which is something he would never have done before.
And people like me, who love not only music, but collecting records & CDs… You can download what you want, but it will never be the same as owning the original with its box, its lyric sheet, its artwork etc. Often I will buy albums that I already have downloaded because I still want the ‘proper’ version. For example, I was given a downloaded version of the fantastic new BAD RELIGION album ‘The Empire Strikes First’ & was listening to it for about a month or two before its official release. Still, that didn’t stop me from buying my very own copy of it on the day it came out.
And this brings me to my final point, & the real reason that I think the majors are scared of music ‘piracy’ & why I also think that independents & punk rockers need not fear the fictitious beast of free downloading’s tyranny.
I bought BAD RELIGION’s album after already owning a downloaded version because of many factors. They are one of my all-time favourite bands for one thing because of their fantastic legacy of great music & the new album was right up there with the best of their previous work. I also know that they have innovative & interesting lyrics because they are a band who have something to say & so wanted to own a copy of the lyric sheet, & also that they usually have good artwork for their releases (the 'Gray Race' excluded) so it was worth having the packaging, because it wasn’t simply a box in which to store the disc, but part of the entire album experience.
There is a similar trend with everything that I have bought after already downloading it. In a nutshell, it has to be something worth buying.
The reason that the majors should be scared of this is because in many cases the product that they are selling is not worth buying at all, & now thanks to being able to try before we buy, we can see that more starkly than ever. Perhaps someone, God help them, likes the new Brittany Spears single. Instead of them therefore buying an album that consists of filler between a few hits, they can now download it & realise that the album is the drizzling shits before they part with their money. The songs are saying nothing of any worth, so the idea of needing a lyric sheet is out, & as the album art itself will consist only of egotistical pictures of Spears herself, why bother shelling out a ridiculous amount of money for that piece of crap?
Did I mention also that the BAD RELIGION album was sold at a reasonable price too?
When you’re charging through the roof for the musical equivalent of slap in the face, you’d better be scared when people have a chance to figure out your bullshit before they shell out their hard-earned cash.
The reason piracy is a problem for the majors, is that it allows the consumer to look past the smoke & mirrors of the great & powerful Oz, & take a good look at the sad little man behind the curtains.
A talented artist need not worry about music downloading. The worst it can do is gain you a few extra fans from the group of people who don’t usually buy music anyway but who will now come & support your live shows & who knows, maybe one day will buy something.
Downloading music may be a crime, but that’s the law’s mistake. I don’t agree that it is stealing. It is consumer testing, using the same logic the industry have used for years through promotional singles, samplers, movie soundtracks & radio play. Instead of suing kids for using their initiative & sharing songs with each other, the record industry needs to look at why nobody is motivated to pay money for their products when they would happily pay money for a previously downloaded independent release. They need to stop churning out repetitive garbage in an attempt to make a quick buck & may have to - shock horror - bring out some innovative & original artists who actually have something to say further than ‘baby, baby, ooh, ooh, I want more money, honey, ooh, ooh, yeah baby, yeah’.
Which, of course, they won’t. Because they don’t understand concepts like ‘talent’ or ‘creativity’ or the fact that such things don’t come overnight but need time to be crafted & developed, which means, as talent & creativity aren’t get-rich-quick qualities, they will be ignored. And so, people will more & more download song after song & discover that all the cool music is being put out independent labels by bands they wouldn’t hear about if they just restricted their listening habits to what was being played on the radio, & the underground will remain strong, no matter how many people download its songs for free.
Because good music is good music, no matter how much you pay for it. And if Sony have something to say about it, they should at least stop making MP3 players in an attempt to profit on that which is allegedly killing their business.
That’s it from me for now. As usual, if you want to get in touch about anything in here, or find out about what’s up with any of my bands e-mail me on firstname.lastname@example.org & check out the website at http://http://www.geocities.com/whokilledculture/1.html
Until next time…download something good!
DaN McKee, 21/7/04