Saturday, September 12, 2009

Runrig and panic: Pete Wishart calls for something to be done

You'll recall Pete Wishart, the SNP MP who once was a member of Runrig. He's written an opinion piece for the Scotsman about filesharing.

Will it be informed amd coherent?

Pete Wishart: We must silence web trade in 'free' goods to protect our artists

No. It turns out it won't be.

Pete kicks off with a long, laboured and inaccurate metaphor:
IMAGINE a perfect Saturday afternoon shopping trip. You've had a fantastic fix of retail therapy and you can't wait to get home to try out all your new goods.
Then you come across your local music store and you can't believe what you see: outside there's a sign saying "for an unlimited period only – everything inside is free!"

With no-one to hold you back, you immediately help yourself to this week's top ten, the new Tarantino film and the latest computer game. As you leave, the assistant calls: "Come back anytime, we're open all hours!"

Of course, this is absurd, but it is exactly what happens online, every second of every day.

It's absurd. Imagine a shop just giving away all its stuff. Crazy!
Music and other digital products are simply offered to a public grateful not to have to pay a penny. No-one refers to it as "giving goods away" – that would be too crude – instead it is "sharing" or "peer-to-peer filesharing" to give its proper title.

Even by the music industry's "downloading a track is like stealing a CD" standards, this is pretty poor stuff - given that Wishart is about to embark on a "filesharing is stealing" rant, why has he started off by suggesting it's like a shop giving everything away? Wouldn't that metaphor only work if the files on the peer-to-peer networks were placed there by the record labels? He can't even frame his absurd reduction properly, so I'm guessing we're not going to get much in the way of new thinking here.
Music led the file sharing revolution and, where music gently tread, the rest of the creative industries came galloping in. Now films, computer games, books and football highlights can all now be given away for nothing.

Just the highlights of the football, mind. Attempts to share bits of a match where there's ten-minute patches of backpassing and time wasting get rejected with a 404 error.

Pete, by the way - you've said "given away" again: aren't you meant to be saying "stolen"?
Platinum selling artists Radiohead and Pink Floyd have said they are happy to see their music used as a sort of digital loss leader to sell other products, but these groups are the exception rather than the rule.

Are they? What about the hundreds of thousands of bands who share their music freely through blogs and MySpace and other sources for exactly the same reasons? What about the hundreds of thousands of artists who make music for fun, and don't see it as being a way to fund their second homes or - ahem - political careers? And all those artists whose work has fallen out of print and isn't doing them any good at all locked away in vaults?

But I'm sure you have figures from a survey asking a representative sample of all musicians, and not just those with active recording contracts with mainstream labels before you claim authoritatively that the Radiohead approach is the exception rather than the rule, right?
The average musician earns less than £15,000 a year and losing royalties makes the day-to-day struggle even harder for them.

Well, that's true - but where do you make the leap from filesharing to lost royalties? If you're relying on music to make your living, under the present system, you're more than likely going to be making a pittance until you recoup, if ever. Musicians have always struggled; back before Tim Berners-Lee hoofed it down to the patent office, most musical careers ended up in a cash-driven rush for a plan B. It's terrible, it's a waste of creativity and it's a situation almost entirely driven by the domination of the major labels.

Crying tears over a possible few lost quid in royalties while arguing strongly for special protection for a cartel which has gouged the heart out of thousands of artists and rigged the market for decades is crocodillic.
The loss of royalties has become such a problem that many artists, such as Mercury Prize winning Speech Debelle, must ask themselves what is the point of creating anything if no-one is paying for it?

I wonder if there's a special keystroke in the new version of Microsoft Office that will insert 'currently fashionable artist' into a document as you type?

Nice to see an MP getting so carried away with the idea of being the voice of the populace that he feels comfortable backing up his own arguments by imagining what Speech Debelle might be thinking about filesharing. He could, of course, have gone to the trouble of asking her.

Rather awkwardly for Wishart, The Guardian ask Speech Debelle what she thinks of filesharing this morning. She does say it makes it harder:
I wouldn't care about [illegal sharing and downloading] if I didn't have the pressure of having to sell more albums to maintain a career. I don't really want to do anything else, so I need to be able to maintain myself and I need to keep people happy.

But... she's actually quite relaxed and sees it as a positive for her profile:
Outside of that, I would prefer it just to be heard. Some people might nick it and become lifelong fans. My album is called Speech Therapy because writing it was therapy for me, so I can't be like, well, other people shouldn't hear it unless they pay for it. I didn't pay for it.

[The industry] has changed so much that now you don't put out a record – you put a record on the internet. You've got to have an album to begin with [then] you get your MySpace, your Facebook, your Twitter and you connect them all up.

People spend so much time in front of computers, all they have to do is click a button and they stay in your world.

Yes, Pete, it might have made you look a little less foolish if you'd bothered to find out that Speech sees that unlicensed downloads can have career-positive effects. But still, I know you were just supposing. Let's get back to your supposing, shall we?
If we are serious about developing our creative industries, then we must respect intellectual property and copyright.

Very true. Let's respect the original reasons for introducing copyright, and roll it back to a point where it was protecting creativity and not merely generating a market in intellectual property. That... that is what you mean, Pete, isn't it?
Forthcoming in the next Westminster Parliament is the Digital Economy Bill – a piece of legislation that will create a regulatory framework to combat illegal file sharing and other forms of online copyright infringement.

Here we go again. If it's already illegal, then there's already a regulatory framework to do that, isn't there? What the bill is designed to do is to remove the work of protecting that IP from the owners and shifting it onto everyone else - as if, to adapt your metaphor, the record shop has decided that the cost of its security should come from the council tax, as the people who might steal walk down the street to get there.
The UK government is right to pursue it vigorously. If we are to lead in the world, then we cannot allow our artists and creators to work for nothing.

Two things: "We cannot allow our artists and creators to work for nothing."? You're going to criminalise free performances, are you? You're going to stop bands recording free fanclub giveaways?

No, I know you're not. It's just sloppy wording and half-formed thoughts. You find that a lot on the internet. I just hope like hell you've actually started listening to what you're saying by the time you're voting on the idea of giving powers to private companies to have people barred from their internet accounts.

Even if you'd been a bit tighter with your phrasing, you'd still be wrong, though. Who says that if this bill doesn't pass artists will be "working for nothing"? Do you really think that not changing the rules about what happens when someone is accused of sharing unlicensed files will mean that people will force their way into gigs without paying? That T-Mobile will stop sucking tracks down to soundtrack their commercials? That fans won't ever buy albums in shops out of love? That Radio One will stop paying royalties? That YouTube will stop paying royalties?
"Won't you just criminalise some seven million kids who are doing nothing wrong?" comes the knee-jerk response. No. These "kids" (or rather the internet account holder) will simply get a letter informing them that what they are doing is wrong.

Aha. People who hold differing opinions from you - some people who have been thinking and writing about these issues for over a decade - are "knee-jerkers", are they?

It's nice to see that you're using some statistics at last to back-up your case, although the "seven million" kids or otherwise figure was roundly debunked as being a total fantasy just seven days ago.

It's also nice to see that you're aware that this system is deeply flawed: "These "kids" (or rather the internet account holder) will simply get a letter informing them that what they are doing is wrong." So the person who is doing "wrong" isn't actually the person who is getting the letter. That does float a whole slew of questions about if it's fair, or even worth bothering with.

Assuming that that was all that is currently being proposed. But it's not, is it?
That letter will spell out the damage that illegal file sharing does and politely ask that they stop taking music for nothing. If it is ignored, then they will get another.

Of course, most will stop at this point, but those who continue to abuse the property of others will face sanctions such as temporarily suspending internet connection. What could be wrong with that?

Why will "most" stop at that point? You've already admitted that the person getting the ticking off could be somebody other than the person who is doing the filesharing, so you're making a bit of an assumption there in the first place.

But, if you really need to have it spelled out to you why closing down an internet account "temporarily" is wrong - especially an account which might be used by more people than the alleged filesharer, let's try this:

- Many people need the internet simply to do their job
- Many people need the internet to access their bank accounts
- Many people rely on the internet for their access to news
- Many people rely on the internet to contact health authorities, legal authorities and so on
- Many people rely on email as their connection with family and friends

Oh, and it's probably illegal, anyway, and you're proposing doing it on the say-so of a record label. Perhaps because someone might have shared a couple of Madonna songs.

You really don't see what's wrong with that?


And you're going to vote on this legislation?
The music industry is an easy hit. It is renowned for its excesses and its contractual shortcomings, but somehow it has conspired to give the UK the second-largest share of a valuable world market, bringing millions of pounds to the UK economy and producing some of the greatest talents the world has known along the way.

Hurrah! At least a vague, throwaway acknowledgement that the companies for whom he is special-pleading might not actually be all that socially responsible. But they make money, so who cares about that, right?
Yes, the music industry is in dire need of reform, but the need to protect and develop our creative industries is more important than one sector's business model.

So... here we stand at the start of a potential new, golden age. We admit that there are problems with having four companies carve-up most of the English-speaking music industry between them, but rather than seize the chance to help create a fairer system, we must at all costs shore up the failed system.

Seriously, Pete: the only way you can think of developing a healthy creative industry sector is by fudging the rules to protect one British, one Japanese, and two American multinationals? I thought Runrig records showed a one-note lack of imagination, but who knew you'd slide backwards from there?
We need serious debate about how our artists are protected and how our creative industries are developed, but the solution does not lie in giving products away for nothing. We can be the best, but only if our artists are rewarded for the work that they produce.

You're making the mistake of confusing profit with quality - the best is not always the richest - and it's nice you want to debate what we do to encourage creativity. It looks a little, though, like you've made up your mind already. A mind made up on dodgy statistics, misplaced suppositions and gloomy understanding it might be, but one made up nevertheless. Where is the debate in this piece, Pete?


Anonymous said...

"The loss of royalties has become such a problem that many artists ... must ask themselves what is the point of creating anything if no-one is paying for it?"

So it's not just that he doesn't understand file sharing but he actually has no interest in art. I mean fair enough Runrig were never great but I'd expect slightly more than a "well actually it's all about the filthy lucre" to come from a somebody who claims to have an interest in music. Could it be Pete that people get into music so they can create something that they genuinely love - something that is more important to them than money?

Actually this single comment from him made me look him up and I discovered that he is in MP4, a band made up of MPs because that is apparently a good idea for a band. Yeah boys. The kids have been desperate for a band of politicians. Apparently they once backed Feargal "I once recorded a good song but now I'm a moaning old man who doesn't quite understand the modern world either" Sharkey. Why am I not surprised?

Robin Carmody said...

Why do I think, more than ever, that 1992 was the last proper general election in the UK, the last one whose result was effectively decided well in advance by the marketing of one of the party leaders as if he was a pop star?

One important point here: the British music industry has the second largest share of the world market not because it is better run, or superior in any other meaningful way, to the music industries of France, Germany, Italy etc., but purely and simply because of the happy accident of language. I would have thought someone from the SNP, part of whose aim is to remove Scotland from the dominance of the "Anglo-Saxon" world and towards a European social context, would have understood that.

Robin Carmody said...

"the last (election) whose result *wasn't* effectively decided well in advance", that should read. Obviously.

James said...

1) The line "what is the point of creating anything if no-one is paying for it?" was particularly soul-crushing, wasn't it? I'd prefer to read some decent blogs that people write for the love of it, rather than a lot of the guff that the press charge for. Community radio stations too are full of people who are making programmes for free because they enjoy it, playing the music they want to share with you (or enthusing on their specialist subject) rather than parrotting some 'reads' about how the Secret Sound is up to a massive £75 (speaking of which, this station makes some amazing shows - I heartily endorse Stagger for new music goodness).

2) Also, with the proliferation of wireless broadband as a popular choice of connection, how many people will find themselves receiving these 'Stop Downloading Music' letters because someone else is using their account without their knowledge? Not everyone knows about setting passwords on their connections.

3) I seem to remember Runrig being shit.

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