Friday, May 04, 2007

Peter Gabriel: Can't pay, won't pay, will they?

Pete Gabriel takes space in the Times to promote his entry into an already overcrowded unsigned band market disguised as a rumination on the modern music industry, which starts from a slightly alarming claim:

Many people no longer want to pay for recorded music – it’s a fact.

A fact? "Many" seems less like a fact and, at best, an anecdote. Gabriel then tempers this assertion:
They will pay above the odds to go to a live concert, they will even pay for mobile ring-tones of their favourite artists, but the majority of people under 30 can’t or won’t pay for online recorded music any more.

So, the "fact" is slightly less than a fact, then - already, Pete has recast his "recorded music" into "online recorded music", so he's not actually suggesting an upswing in CD theft from Tesco. But is the claim that "people under 30 can't or won't" pay for downloads even true?

Sure, there is a segment of people under 30 who can't pay for the music they consume - although it was ever thus, and if they can't afford a single single, it's unlikely they'd be willingly paying "above the odds" to go to gigs, either. And is Pete really suggesting there are people who would pay £1-50 for a ringtone willingly who'd baulk at buying the same track for 79p off the iTunes? Or does he simply mean that if it's as simple to get something for free as pay for it, people will take the free option?

Because that's hardly news, Pete. If you'd have left a large box of Genesis albums outside the HMV shop with "free- help yourself" written on a card tucked on top, how many people would have gone inside to buy a copy for seven and sixpence instead?

After a little bit of waffle about the Beatles, Gabriel cuts to the chase. His answer to this dilemma:
There are, as you would expect in the digital world, many different models that can be tried out. The new company We7 (www. is one that I am currently supporting. The principle is simple: it’s an advertising-funded music download service that gives everyone what they want. Fans get free downloads and artists get paid. The only “cost” is listening to some ads, which people do all the time on commercial radio.

Well, except for the half of the time when people don't listen to commercial radio, of course. Obviously, it's great to see someone trying something - well, not new, exactly, as ad-funded mp3 services have been going for almost as long as the technology has made them possible, but at least interesting. But since commercial radio has proven itself incapable of sustaining anything other than a broad, populist, playlisted sludge of broadcasting, it might not be the best model to be building a service upon.
In the We7 model we intend to personalise the ads, based on information that the consumer volunteers, which should make them more useful and digestible.

Hmm. Again, the principle is fine, but in my experience of answering those surveys which attempt to make emails, cold calls and mailshots "relevant" to you, they seldom make the resultant advertising more useful - it's in the interests of the service to collect information in a way that will inspire commercials, rather than close them down. So, for example, you're asked when your home contents insurance expires, and not given an option to say "I would rather not have insurance companies trying to get me to change my insurer"; so you meekly tick a month (always a guess, because what sort of person knows off the top of their heads when their insurance is up for renewal? Who would go and look?) and once every year get deluged with adverts from insurance companies who have interpeted "I renew my contents insurance in May" as "please send me lots of leaflets explaining why I should change my insurance to me every April."

Maybe we7 have a more sophisticated system.

Artists would also have the chance to exclude some advertising to which they had ethical objections.

Let's hope that, if I'm able to say no to any financial services ads, or anything from oil or motoring companies, right-wing publications, companies that deal with regimes who are unelected, and the artists are screening out booze, drugs and companies with a record of sexist advertising, there's a wide enough range of advertisers left to support everything.
In addition, an average hour of self-chosen content from We7 would have approximately two minutes per hour of ads against an average of nine minutes per hour in commercial radio.

But if the adverts are so relevant and digestable, why should this be a problem? And, come to that, since I think of playing stuff on my Mac as being akin to playing records, rather than listening to radio, why would the fact there's seven minutes more advertising on Capital Gold make me feel any better about having ads in my record collection?

Still, there was the Sigue Sigue Sputnik album, I suppose.

More interestingly, Gabriel reveals how he was persuaded away from the strict RIAA-BPI "music must never be free" line:
Of course, there will be those in the industry who feel that, even if you can develop ad-funded models whereby artists still get paid, at the transaction level music should never be free, because people should expect to pay for the commodity they receive. For years I would have agreed; however, the fundamental revolution that has occurred is that value has left ownership and moved to access. It used to be said that possession was nine-tenths of the law, but you can see – in a world where hits on a site are valued higher than sales, in which I don’t have to own a huge printed library when I can google or go to Wikipedia – that access is king. In the old world copyright – the right to make copies – was based on physical goods. In the digital world that rug has been pulled away. We need to be fluid, fast and flexible and explore all the new models emerging. How can you compete with free? The We7 model is one solution that artists can try. Filtering content is another.

We might not agree with Gabriel's solution, or even how he's framed the problem. But at least he's embraced that there is a need for change. For that reason, he's more credible than any figure in a trade assocation currently chiseling subscriptions out of record labels for their expertise in the music industry.