The law is an ass…

Put the needle to the record

Put the needle to the record by tricky

Not quite law yet,  but with cross-party support from the three main parties, it looks like the Digital Economy Bill soon will be. Unfortunately, being driven by the small-minded folks in the record and film industries shouting loudly about lost profits (not the Welsh band though), the bill is far from being what creative industries and the public need, rather it looks like being a massive missed opportunity and another example of the law being dragged into disrepute. To quote Mr Bumble, the (proposed) law is an ass.

Firstly, laws must be enforceable. An unenforceable law is a bad law. Relying as it does on the threat of having the internet disconnected at the behest of copyright holders is an untenable basis given what has been stated regarding access to internet access being a right not a privilege. Thankfully, the ISPs seem to be resisting pressure on this front and appear to be taking a stance that disconnection will only occur under the direction of a court order, ie in extreme cases where a case has been demonstrated to and supported by a court of law.

Secondly, laws must be beyond reproach. The law is there to serve the people, the rights of individuals and the common good, it is not there to protect the money making, self serving interests of a few corporate fat cats. It is true there needs to be a recording industry in some form but current moves are simply about self-preservation and stifling innovation rather than reshaping cultural industries for the new millennium. Allowing the record and film industries to largely draft their own legislation solely to protect their own current interests is a sure way of bringing the law into disrepute. As has happened with industries in the past, times change and industries need to keep pace with change, the law cannot be used to flagrantly support the status quo (not Rossi & Parfitt!) in favour of a small (but powerful) minority group. Imagine if the original Luddites had managed to get legislative backing to protect their industry and ban mechanical looms or if manufacturers of steam engines had done similar at the advent of the internal combustion engine.

I am not, however, arguing here for a complete breakdown in the creation and provision of music and film. Anarchy is not the way forward. Taking music as my main interest, it is possible to see that the ‘industry’ can play a useful role in promoting artists and supporting live shows, expensive activities which often need serious financial backing. But that does not require the behemoths of yesteryear and they cannot expect to make the vast piles of cash as before. The industry has been in the fortunate position of controlling the means of production and had total editorial control, hence could dictate how material would be created and sold but with technological advances, this has changed and those days have gone. Recording equipment is relatively cheap and easy to come by with a variety of venues in which bands and artists can record, not to mention bedrooms, attics, cellars and outbuildings countrywide. Publishing electronically removes the need for pressing factories. So what is the role for the big corporations in the new millennium? Rather than stifling innovation and access to music, sticking with business models that have existed as long as the recording industry and based around outdated technology, the industry should shrink dramatically and focus on activities which directly benefit artists and their fans.

An interesting statistic came out on tonight’s Panorama: people who download music via file sharing services tend to spend more on music, almost twice as much in fact. I would support this anecdotally in that music fans I know use file-sharing as a way of finding new music but nothing beats owning a piece of vinyl or a CD complete with the inlays and artwork. Having greater access to music encourages sales of music not the opposite despite what industry representatives like the BPI argue. File-sharing is simply the modern equivalent of taping vinyl, CDs and the radio, putting together mixes of favourite songs and sharing them with like-minded people, activities which help to get artists off the ground and have done for decades. True, sales of the latest manufactured disposable Syco pop dross may be in decline (although I note with sadness the return of the Stock and Waterman combo and can’t help wondering whatever happened to Aitken…) but real music produced by real musicians is as popular as ever and new acts are finding that they can use technology to break through whilst experienced acts can use technology to break free from the shackles of  major labels.

As Ludacris said:

Knowing he could rap
No one lift a hand
So he went about his bidness
And devised the plan
Made a CD then he hit the block
Fifty thousand sold, seven dollars a pop

Artists like Ludacris, Kate Nash and the Arctic Monkeys have all made a name for themselves through sheer talent and then subsequently been picked up by record labels. Their fan bases were arguably expanded by the promotion and exposure given to them by major labels but it was not major labels who gave them their break. Their live gigs are definitely facilitated by major labels, scale and finance being important factors, but they were gigging successfully before getting their deals. So there is still a place for the big players, it’s just not the same place they are comfortable with and used to, nor are there the untold millions available through restricting access to the cultural resource and exploiting artists and the public alike. And instead of moving forward, the Digital Economic Bill looks like fossilising this already dying industry; rather than being the panacea touted by the BPI and others, it will only serve to alienate fans and hinder development. The chorus to track 3 on the Prodigy’s Music for the Jilted Generation album springs to mind. Thankfully, music and musicians will survive in one form or another but I fear for the wider ramifications of this crass proposed legislation.