Friday, August 01, 2008

Mike Batt predicts starvation from unchecked bread downloading

Mike Batt: he's given us a lot of dubious value - the Wombling Merry Christmas, Katie Melua, and now, a piece for The Times where he sets out to prove that - oh, yes - illegal downloading is killing music using any argument he can think of:

Why do people illegally download music? Because they can.

I hate to jump all over his opening line, but this isn't actually true, is it? First of all, there are huge numbers of people who have the ability to illegally download who, for whatever reason, choose not to.

And isn't the fact it's "illegal" means that, rather than doing it "because they can", they're doing it "despite they can't"?

Of course, what Batt is doing here is arguing for bans, for blocks, for making it impossible to download, and so it serves his case to claim that if people can, they will. Don't fall for it, though - people can download graphic images of people having sex with large waterfowl, but don't act on the ability.

Batt then reminds people that the BPI has grudgingly accepted a deal with ISPs:
This has been welcomed by most musicians, industry organisations and fair-minded consumers.

Well, let's leave aside the evidence in the Guardian this week that the industry organisation which negotiated the deal hasn't actually welcomed it and instead sent out petulant letters insisting that the agreement wasn't, actually, in any way binding at all, and instead look at that assumption that if you disagree with the deal, you're doing so not because you have valid worries - it's just that you're not fair-minded.
Reasonable people agree that musicians should be paid for their work.

Aha! You must be fair-minded, because it's only fair that people get paid for their music, see?

Batt doesn't entertain the propsect for a moment that a fair-minded person might object to the deal that's been cut for reasons unconnected with the rights and wrongs of paying for copyrighted work; that a fair-minded consumer might have a problem with the idea that ISPs are being given a role which places them, however loosely, as having a reason for looking at what their customers are doing with the connections they provide, for example.

Or that a fair-minded person could - without losing any sense of reasonableness - conclude that the correct response to a customer base moving to a dubious distribution network is to accept the consumer is king and work out how you thrive in a new reality rather than spending hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to protect a world that has gone.

Batt, though, is surprised that not everyone is applauding his BPI chums:
But there has been negative comment. Last week I read an article by an otherwise sane and respected musician and journalist who said that downloading music free was like “downloading air”, implying that because you can’t see it, it should be free.

I'm trying to decide if Batt is really unable to understand the journalist's point, or if he's just feigning stupidity. It can be so difficult to tell the difference, but let's be fair to him and assume that he really does understand that the writer isn't making a "if you can't see it, you shouldn't pay for it" line of reasoning, and that Mike Batt knows that the point it that music is no longer a thing which is of limited supply - that always on, digital, hyperconnectivity limewired sharing services and cheap storage means that music has moved in the last two decades from being something you had to get a bus into town to purchase, to something that surrounds you. The writer's point, let us generously assume Batt actually knows, is that music is no longer a scarce product, and there are economic realities about products whose supply is unlimited.

Not that these have to be heartbreaking for those that would make a living selling music - after all, oxygen, being part of air, is both invisible and all around us, and yet the British Oxygen Company managed to figure out a way to build a fine business out of selling it.

But does Batt really know that he's misrepresenting the views of the person whose argument he has sketched?
He also said that it is “so cheap to get recorded music to the audience that artists no longer need a major label”.

He does. Interesting Batt chooses to decry his intellectual opponent - "otherwise sane" - without offering the man's name. Could it be that Batt was afraid that if he named the other writer people might look for the original article and see that he was deliberately distorting the other side of the debate? (It was, by the way, Bob Stanley writing - also - in The Times. If only Mike had mentioned that - the paper could have hyperlinked its two articles together. Maybe Batt was just afraid at making it clear that he believed The Times was publishing the rantings of someone who is, on this subject at least, insane.

But Mike has moved on - to dis the h8rs:
Hating major labels is about as useful as hating film companies and supermarkets. They exist.

We're a little lost here - saying 'hating a large company is the same as hating a large company' seems to be self-evident; it's like saying "hating the Bishop of Durham is about as useful as hating the Bishop of Chichester". It's not actually an argument against doing so.

And is it so useless to hate supermarkets? Might it not lead one to conclude you'd be better off trying to shop locally, or grow some of your own vegetables, perhaps? To take that hate and make some small changes which, ultimately, might make your life better? And even if you do accept that you won't bring Tesco to its knees, viewing it as hostile, and keeping an eye on it as it screws over farmers, ignores planning regulations, organises its taxes to ensure it gives as little as possible to the country that educates its staff and underwrites the welfare of its customers, or makes outrageous libel demands against Thai intellectuals, and making sure it is called to account when it does so - surely that isn't useless?

The other side of the Batt argument - "they exist" - hardly stands up to any consideration, either. They exist now - but, in the past, debtor's prisons existed. Truck ticket shops and highwaymen and Bradford Park Avenue once all existed, but the mere fact of their existence doesn't mean one is obliged to come to view them with delight. We think Batt is using their existence in the sense, though, that they exist like the sun, or HIV, or spiders and that their existence is inarguable and part of creation and thus we'd better get used to them and stop bloody well complaining.

But record companies are not natural phenomenona, and like Bradford Park Avenue and truck ticket shops and highwaymen, it is all too easy to imagine a world in which they didn't exist. Some of you, I suspect, imagine just such a world as you say your prayers at night, or offer up a small sacrifice to Hecate, or blow out your birthday candles.

Indeed, it's where Batt's linking together of the record labels and the supermarkets falls down. Imagine the consternation if all the supermarkets vanished overnight - it's hard to even see a way the food distribution network in the country would function. But should the hqs of EMI, Universal, Warners and Sony-BMG be ripped from the Earth by a tornado of some sort, a nation would scratch its chin, and hit shuffle on the iPod.

Still, Batt spells out some simple economics for us:
There will always be dominant players, but there are also about 800 independent record labels in the UK including my own, Dramatico, which has 14 staff and a network of about 50 freelancers around the world. Without the toil and passion of my employees my artists wouldn’t be selling records. Without payment for the music made by our artists we wouldn’t be able to pay our staff. Then the staff would leave and so would the artists.

Nobody would want to see those people thrown out of work, but - being honest - if you're running a business that's trying to sell something that people don't want to pay for, however sad it is, you're probably going to go out of business unless you can find a way to make money in some other way. Batt seems to be starting from the - admittedly understandable - stance of believing that his business must continue and that the world must be rearranged to ensure that happens.

But the world has shifted - in the same way it shifted and cost the guys who worked in video rental libraries their living, and made Tippex a less valubale commodity, and turned coalmen into yesterday's men. One of my forbears used to look after the horses for a brewery - I'd bet that he would have written an impassioned piece arguing that horses must be used to pull dray wagons had he be given the chance. But nobody was going to pay for horses when there were shiny vans to be had. Things change. People get hurt. But wishing it wasn't so doesn't stop it happening.
If you could download a loaf of bread free you would. But you can’t, thank God, because otherwise bakers would cease to exist and there would be no bread to download.

Actually, Mike, most bakers have ceased to exist - they were run out of business by undercutting from those supermarkets you don't want us to hate.

Is this true, though? After all, you can go to a hospital and have your broken bits fixed for free, but people still pay for operations privately. There are many free sources of news, but newspaper circulation is still surprisingly healthy. The Science Museum, apparently, introduced charges for some of its events because people didn't bother to turn up for free ones. Some people might take the download of bread, but others would continue to buy bread.

Batt, though, is warming to his world of digital loaves, and what a dystopia it is. A dystoastia, too:
Then we’d all be dead, and good riddance to us, because we humans are greedy, thieving, conniving bastards, every last one of us. That’s why there are laws to stop us.

What a terrible, terrible view of humanity this man has. What a black outlook. He's also a philosophical idiot, but let's just spend a couple of moments sending mental hugs out to Mike Batt. Let's show him some love, some of the love that he doesn't believe exists.

If every last one of us were greedy, conniving and thieving - leaving aside how Batt would explain charity and volunteering and those people who bring cakes into the office on a Monday morning - then we wouldn't have laws, would we? There are only laws because of an agreed moral code in a society; the codification of morals is there not because without it, nobody would be trustworthy, but because there are a small few people who would behave badly. I suspect that even Batt, if he was walking down the street and saw a dropped wallet, would not think "I'll have that", or even "if only there wasn't a law against stealing, I'd have that", but "where should I hand this in?"

There's also the bigger point that commercial music is not like bread in a very important respect - it isn't essential to living. Now, music - yes, that may very well be vital; certainly, I wouldn't have a life without some music in it. But commercial, recorded music is not the very staff of life. In that world we imagined a moment back, where there was no EMI, we can still hear music - birds singing, church bells ringing, a high school musical (as opposed to a High School Musical); the happy sound of a mother singing a nursery rhyme to a child. Let us not allow Batt or the BPI to pretend that the process of putting sound onto a recorded medium and pitching a marketing campaign is the actual music.

Batt, though, suddenly changes tack from his breadless land of dying bastards, and has a pop at Prince:
It is tempting to top up your profile by giving your music away free on the web, or as Prince did, by means of a newspaper cover-mounted giveaway to millions of people (his previous album had sold fewer than 90,000 copies in the UK).

But let’s not forget that Prince was paid handsomely for the stunt (at least £150,000).

Isn't this actually running against his argument? Since Batt has spent his time setting up a demand that music must not be free at point of consumption, as nobody makes any money, isn't it a bit foolish of him to suddenly point out that Prince has found a way of giving consumers music for nothing - besides the shame of being seen purchasing the Mail On Sunday - and still make enough to buy a good lunch and a gallon of petrol?
Equally Radiohead, who last year set up an honesty box for their Mercury-nominated album, In Rainbows, had already made millions with their previous albums, so you could argue they could afford to ask people to pay what they wanted to.

Actually, Mike, capitalism works on the belief that people pay what they want for things - the difference with Radiohead was that the price slid to zero. But it's a fair point - Radiohead weren't going to end up eating beans out of cans if everyone took the album for nothing.

Trouble is, of course, a lot of people did pay for it, didn't they, Mike? Which demolishes your claim that if people can get something for nothing, they won't pay for it.
And anyway, without being being cynical about their motivation, the “experiment” also wasn’t bad in attracting attention for the physical release of the CD, which followed a few months later.

Again, though, you've spent ten minutes insisting that if something is made available for free, nobody will ever pay for it again, but now suggesting that giving something away is a great way to persuade people to buy something.
It’s nothing new that the entertainment business is “dog eat dog”. When I came up to London three times a week on the train from Winchester in 1968, a hopeful 18-year-old trying to sell my songs or get signed by, well, anyone really, there were four majors – EMI, Pye, Phillips and Decca. And there are four today – EMI, Universal, Warners, Sony/BMG and Universal. It was just as difficult to have a hit then as it is now. Just as hard to get noticed. The business was just as full of arrogant charlatans with kind, helpful faces.

It's actually a lot easier now, Mike. In 1968 there was one pop station, no music television; certainly no internet. There was, of course, pirate radio still, in 1968, but given how much you object to illegal downloading I'm sure you would retrospectively condemn those guys, wouldn't you? The people who floated about, not paying transmitter licences, ignoring the needle time restrictions without which honest, hard-working studio musicians would lose their jobs? I'm surprised we haven't heard you calling for Tony Blackburn to go on some sort of show trial.

Now, though: MySpace. YouTube. Blogs. BBC Radio Humberside's Raw Talent programme. There are numerous outlets to build a fanbase. It's still hard, but digital makes it so much easier. And you don't even need a label to make money from your music - you can really do it DIY in a way punk only ever dreamed of.

Batt admits this:
Today it’s a different mixture, though, with different challenges and opportunities. Bands and artists can display their wares on YouTube and MySpace, and record companies can audition artists without even leaving their offices.

Hurrah! Right, Mike?

No, it turns out this is a bad thing:
But, because of this easier access, telling wheat from chaff is more difficult.

No it isn't. A good song is still a good song. If you mean there's a lot of stuff that isn't very good, well, yes, but there are also a whole slew of tools which make it easier to sort through and find what you like:, mp3 blogs, trying albums before you buy by downloading a couple of tracks. There is as much wheat as ever, but better still, there's much better winnowing equipment. And we - the audience - are able to hear a load of stuff that we'd never have got to have heard before. Stuff that we'd have not heard not because it was poor, but because it didn't fit with what the A&R person was after when they auditioned, or what his boss wanted, or what her boss was willing to fund.

A few years ago, for most people, hearing a recording by an unsigned artist was rare - like talking to a foetus or tasting an ungrown apple. The very fact of their being unsigned made it hard for their music to get to you. But now? It's hard to log on to your computer without having six or seven bands who only formed last night poking their demo stuff into your eyes. (Although Firefox users have the option of a plug in, I'm given to understand.)

But this is the trouble - Batt isn't really worried that music will disappear; or that we shall all starve culturally to death. He's afraid that the sort of music business he understands is vanishing. And, naturally, he wants to defend it, even if it means making yourself look foolish in the newspapers and calling for telephone companies to send angry letters to their customers:
Record companies have it easier and harder. It’s easier to get the music to the online customer, but harder to protect it from theft. New business models are being sought and invented all the time. ISPs talking to record companies in order to limit online music theft through their broadband channels is good news for everyone except those who think all music should be free and musicians should go out of business.

Nobody wants musicians to go out of business. But if everyone spends their time and effort trying to keep a structure of prices and way of working from the 1940s alive, a lot of recorded music businesses will go under.

If god started to rain bread down on the planet, which bakers would propser, Mike? The ones who called for the government to invest in an expensive bread umbrella, to stop the bread from falling? Or the ones who set up travelling slicing machines, went into partnership with the butter churners, and accepted that things have changed?


Olive said...

Nice analysis, Simon, although I suspect that Batt must be suffering from some sort of head injury, since that's the least coherent article on (illegal) downloading I've ever read.

If it's any consolation, Mike, I've never illegally downloaded a note of anything you've done.

Anonymous said...

The idea that we should not hate things simply because "they exist" is, of course, the classic argument of the Right - and, needless to say, Batt has supplied music for a Tory campaign (and in 2001 when they were at their absolute nadir, as well).

The argument is, of course, false because it assumes that the present situation is *natural*, that it has somehow always been that way, when in fact it was created (passing a creation of market forces off as something absolute and inherent is a classic Right-wing argument because it's the only way they can even try to get round their own internal paradoxes). We got by perfectly well without supermarkets, as well - they haven't always "existed", and are a creation of a combination of commercial ambition and public demand for something other than the previous system. Just like the availability of music all over the internet.

This is really a classic late example of that Blair-era phenomenon: Tories moaning about what the operation of the market and individual choice actually does to the businesses which they somehow believe should be protected from the dynamics they spent so long championing in the three decades after the war when they were not the norm.

Anonymous said...

If it's any consolation, Mike, I've never illegally downloaded a note of anything you've done.

I have. The Dreamstone soundtrack is bloody extortionate these days (see here). Glad I did download it illegally now after reading that nonsense from the horrible grumpy old man Batt turned out to be.

Actually, if you do a quick search for Mike Batt on amazon, it's amazing how much of his own music is out of print and hence not earning him any money. The options for giving him money are limited. I can either buy an overpriced second hand copy and contribute nothing to him or download illegally giving him an equal amount of money. Perhaps he doesn't want anyone listening to his music?

It's funny him of all people complaining about this because I would have just assumed that the main income for his career would be coming from film & tv licensing?

Alex B said...

I dropped a note to the Times this morning on this very subject....


Today's article by Mike Batt regarding the BPI's continuing attempts to put the filesharing genie back in its bottle shows how muddled and out of touch the major players of the Music Industry have become. It was not surprising to read that Batt is Deputy Chairman of the BPI as he trotted out the oft repeated 'filesharing is killing music' mantra.

The ISPs only agreed to a toothless arrangement with the BPI to avoid Governmental intervention, the BPI wanted to permanently disconnect the web connections of those caught filesharing - something that no sane ISP would agree to. Instead the BPI has its fairly pointless warning letter in place, but a warning can only be effective if it actually leads to action - these letters do nothing more than inform the user that they've been downloading 'illegal' material, something most will already know.

The fact of the matter is that downloading is benefiting music and musicians. Batt's point about 'In Rainbows' served only to undermine his whole argument - by his own admission Radiohead practically giving their album away (and it being traded on filesharing networks) led to an increase in publicity and a Number One album for the band when the CD was released. How can he expect us to take him seriously when he gives evidence in an anti-downloading article that it actually benefits bands?

A recent edition of Today on Radio 4 featured a discussion on the latest BPI initiative and was illuminating in that the two musicians interviewed (Billy Bragg and Fergal Sharkey) were all in favour of filesharing while the BPI and a representative from a major label claimed it was killing music and that they were only wanting to get money for their artists......artists that are unlikely to see a penny from labels that have long been presenting musicians with contracts heavily weighted in the label's favour. Far from being about the artists, the BPI are acting out of pure self interest and greed.

The power of distribution has been wrestled from the major labels with the spread of cheap, fast, broadband. A band can now record a song in the morning on their home computer, mix and master it, and have it available to a global listenership before lunch, often reaching more potential fans than a traditional record release and radio campaign ever could. Put simply the bands no longer need the labels, Batt and his BPI cohorts are aware of this, which leads to their increasingly desperate attempts to regain control of an industry that slipped their grasp many years ago when they weren't looking.

Mike Batt and his like either have to adapt or face the extinction of their middleman livelyhood."

Anonymous said...

Excellent dissection Simon. I have sent Mr Batt the remains of a large three seed granary in the post with a note saying: "here you are, loaf sharing really does work you know".

Francis said...

Bradford Park Avenue still exist.

What do you make of that Mike Batt!

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