BBC Introducing Masterclass

BBC logoBBC Introducing Musicians’ Masterclass was held in London, Salford, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast on 21st March. Take a look at the sessions here.

Maida Vale

Glasgow

Cardiff

Salford

Belfast

 

Two themes and a reprise

Is this were the Major labels need to go next?

money bagI’m going talk about two long term record industry trends and how they might be heading back to where it all started. It isn’t about the Internet, although that does come into it briefly.

Things don’t happen quickly in society or industry. It took technologists most of the 19th century to get from the principles of recorded sound to a record player in 1895 and another decade to knock out a million seller (Caruso, 1907), then twenty more years before amplified sound in 1925. I’m not going back that far but it’s a good illustration of how progress progresses slowly. A lot of that time—about 90 years—was spent on distractions that went nowhere but that is only obvious with hindsight. Engineers at Edison, working on new phonograph cylinder resins for decades, probably thought they were the cutting edge.

It’s fashionable to say our technological society is moving faster than ever but it isn’t really the case. Someone born in 1905 would have had the passive record player and telephone but by the time they were 20 years old, international air travel, radio broadcasting, amplified music and cinema had arrived, and a world war had taken place. A mere 10 years after that we had TV. Progress only seems slow when we look back, at the time it appears overwhelming but day-to-day changes amount to very little.

So I’m highlighting two trends that are long enough to be real, with early signs they could amount to a new milestone.

Our first trend is independent recorded music, which has a 60 year history of growth. After World War Two a number of things came together: new vinyl formats and multi-track recording became available, and a large number of trained engineers left the armed services. These new resources fed a post-war boom in American recording (Sun, Elektra, etc.) and radio—although BBC radio wouldn’t be challenged until the mid-Sixties. In the following decades independent labels became more common and although they were often bought up by bigger labels, numbers increased. The Sixties pop boom in the UK (Immediate, Charisma, Virgin, etc.), punk in the late Seventies and home recording in the Eighties were all good times for independent labels and by the Nineties (Creation, and others) the independents were firmly established. Now, whether they are one-man DIY operations or multi-national independent groups they are a substantial source of new recorded music.

It’s hard to imagine now that there was a time when a handful of companies owned all the technology and resources for making records and that before 1950 independents were almost non-existent. What’s important about independents is they’re not the same as Major labels. They have a strong connection with artists and audiences the Majors don’t, ever since the post-1970 corporate mergers made investors money rather than making music.

So, our second trend is corporate recorded music, which has a 40 year history peaking around 2000 and declining thereafter. I’m not talking about the original Warner Brother records—which was another kind of corporate—I’m talking about the motley corporations founded around 1970 when Steve Ross’ Kinney cleaning and parking empire bought Warner’s and Elektra. That marked the start of an era when outside investors and shareholders drove Major labels to grow by buying up competitors. They adopted the inevitable trappings of big business: de-risking, repetitive processes, micro-management, limited individual freedom, layers of authorisation, corporate strategy and a mass market mind-set. Their focus was never the artist or the fan.

Whatever age you are and whatever music you’re into you probably know the charts around 1970 were very different from what we have today. There were fewer genres then but a wider range of styles. One week’s top ten albums might include teen pop, soul, heavy rock or blues, prog rock, a stage musical soundtrack, classical, folk and jazz. Fans knew what to expect from the record labels and artists re-invented themselves from album to album. That variety has gone, replaced by safer more predictable output. And whereas 1970’s pop, folk, jazz, musicals and classics sold to all age groups very little of today’s corporate music is marketed to anyone over 35.

The charts matter because that’s where the volume is, and diversity matters because that’s where the audience is.

The reason chart music narrowed is that a smaller number of Major labels now control content. They spend a vast amount marketing their own ideas rather than licensing music, even though innovation is something they don’t do very well. Successful new music is frequently from independent labels and management companies. Narrowing output isn’t just a weakness in the record industry. We see it in cinema, book publishing, radio and TV. Every corporate entertainment giant has the same problem. As Kick Ass says in the independent masterpiece of the same name:

Jesus, doesn’t it bug you? Why do thousands of people want to be Paris Hilton, and nobody wants to be Spiderman?

The corporate record industry has come a long way in the past couple of decades but they still don’t have a strategy for growth—at least not one that shows any sign it’s going to work. As revenues fall year after year UMG’s big idea is that streaming will get thousands of times bigger. In some ways that is wanting to be Spiderman but it’s the wrong fantasy.

So where is the new milestone coming from? Let’s rewind to 1895 for moment. When Berlinner launched his genius spiral track flat disc start-up he didn’t have time to dream up the content as well. His record producers pulled in musicians from music halls, concert halls and dance halls. The art of selling recorded music was making and distributing it, not designing the content. He didn’t have to make his artists popular he just signed artists that were already popular. You might think that approach would be impossible today—if a record company only distributed music how could it make money? Well, the Columbia imprint is 125 years old and now part of Major label Sony—one of its best selling artists is Adele. Adele is not a Columbia act, she’s signed to independent XL. The biggest selling artist of the past few years isn’t a Major label act, so it’s not really far fetched to imagine the Majors could return to their roots.

The upside for Sony would be considerable. Adele came through the door with content and all the other stuff taken care of, all Sony had to do was distribute a licensed package.  Licensing from independents would eliminate a lot of risk—something corporate music doesn’t like—and a lot of overheads. They could jettison large numbers of costly A&R and artist management staff, and cut 100% of the losses on their homegrown flops. Most of the acts launched by Major labels flop apart from the TV show celebrities, and I can’t see the indies fighting to sign them.

The downside is that Adele’s contract is with XL, so Sony couldn’t take 80% of the profits but let’s be clear, the golden age of the record industry is never coming back, this is about survival. Another significant drawback for the Majors is they would no longer own any of the masters for licensing, but most of their licensing is not this year’s model so that wouldn’t be an immediate problem. Of course, demystifying the business would make it hard for the multi-million dollar superstar CEOs and their million dollar minions to justify their pay but you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.

About Amanda Palmer’s TED

I liked the video a lot but I’ve been rather perplexed by some of the follow-up commentary.

For sure, learning to ask may be important in some situations but it’s not a new religion. You remember when Brian lost his sandal in The Life Of Brian and his followers try to work out what it means? That’s how I feel about a lot of the responses.

I’m pretty sure Amanda doesn’t mean Asking is The New Way for everyone. It’s certainly not a golden rule from here on. She’s describing her experience and a solution for some of the situations she has been in, perhaps even her philosophy at this moment but there are no general rules.

Of course, some people are desperate to find general rules and ready-made templates that enable them to follow in the footsteps of greatness although we know there are none. That is the same flaw in the reasoning of all the haters who said she mustn’t be permitted to use volunteers after her Kickstarter. There are no rules.

Her TED was illuminating and very moving, and the message I take from it is a positive one. We can also see that she is a natural in today’s changing music business and instinctively understands how to develop her career. But this is just one part of what she’s done and why she’s successful, and it isn’t a general principle for everyone in DIY all the time.

Obviously, I don’t think for a moment my readers are searching for a guru—it just baffles me when other people mistake one powerful message for The Complete Answer.

Creative Commons isn’t magic

creative commons

This is a response to a Wired Opinion article by Ryan Singel Dear Facebook: Without the Commons, We Lose the Sharing Web.

Creative Commons isn’t the only way for a layman to license and it’s not particularly flexible. A longish and interesting Twitter conversation with Ryan was inconclusive so here, without the 140 character limit, is what I think and why, and some background.

First, I should say I’m not pro- or anti-Creative Commons, I just don’t see a use for it. For readers who don’t know, this is where I stand, broadly, on copyright. I speak informally for artists and fans (nobody else) and I favour enlightened copyright protection for music and so-called “file-sharing”. I grew up in an age of free music radio and liberal sharing of recordings. I oppose copyright maximalists, anti-copyright lobbyists, Big Content legislation, Big Technology legislation, the DMCA system, DRM and its lovechild subscription streaming, and many other things.

I exploit copyright in this blog and on my web site. I allow public educators, students and certain others to copy and reproduce my work freely—some (normally web businesses who don’t ask) are made to take it down, and that has happened. I do this without Creative Commons or legal professionals. Copyright as it stands is flexible enough. It gives creators a default set of rights but how they enforce them is their choice.

If we imagine copyright as a volume control which comes set at 10, the rights holder can choose their own level anywhere from 10 to zero. On the other hand a CC license comes set at, say, 5 or 3 and is less easy to change.

CC is not an alternative to copyright and it is not anti-copyright, although many people think it is. Creators (authors, writers, composers, performers, etc.) who oppose copyright should simply make their work public domain. Creative Commons is not for them. CC is a set of boilerplate copyright licenses (no different in principle to other blanket copyright licenses) and it does only one thing the rights holder in the street cannot do—it provides legal wording for certain fixed licensing circumstances.

For creators like me, the cottage industry if you like, legalese is something of a shrug. I can read licenses and contracts, and I have successfully advised artists against record labels, but I don’t use any technical wording myself. I have never needed it. Independent artists I know online exploit their copyrights the same way (including sharing) without legalese and without Creative Commons.

Plain English is easy and copyright law is not hard to understand. My “licenses” say: you can use it; you can’t put it on your web site; you must credit the source; and so on. We know nobody ever reads their iTunes terms and conditions, are they more likely to read a CC license? Musicians can and do say: buy one share one; pay what you like; share freely; you can remix it; please give me credit; etc. I can hear the blood draining from lawyers’ wallets as I say that, but hey, it works.

Ryan says:

By creating legal frameworks for licensing content in more flexible ways than traditional copyright laws, Creative Commons became a core part of the original Web 2.0 movement.

Sharing, re-mixing and permission to do it predates Creative Commons. I can see no aspect of CC that is equal to the flexibility and effectiveness of plain language and the imagination of creators.

Of course, from a user’s perspective, rights that curtail free exploitation might be inconvenient.

On Ryan’s broader point, I care less about Facebook and its dwindling relevance to music than about Creative Commons so I happily leave that question to others. But it seems to me anyone publishing content by submitting it to the permanent flux of social network site T&Cs could perhaps seek a simpler solution.

Imagine there’s no copyright

I’ve been a musician and composer for nearly 50 years and always been aware of, and in favour of, copyright. It means I can decide how my music and lyrics are used. Since 1995, given the ease of copying material online, there has been a new debate about the nature, purpose and flaws of the copyright system. I follow this debate closely and study a lot of UK and USA legislation.

In the past couple of weeks (when I got involved in this particular conversation) I’ve been thinking about a world without copyright. Those involved in the discussion range from artists wondering how best to use the Internet, to free-culture fundamentalists who demand you agree with them before they even talk about their reasoning.

Fundamentalists are confused between copyrights and licenses. Copyright is set down in national law and different in each country. Licenses—such as Creative Commons, soundtrack sync, a blanket performance license, or a record label territorial sales deal—are individual permissions based on the national law.

Abolitionists protest, often quite rightly, about the behaviour of Big Content interests (movie studios, Major record labels and publishers) and blame copyright. If a Major label rips off their artists or customers that isn’t the fault of copyright. If you’re unhappy about Apple’s commission on iTunes sales that isn’t the fault of copyright either. Copyright simply gives the artist the choice, it has no control over what happens after the choice is made; after the record deal is signed or the tracks are submitted to an aggregator.

We covered most of the points in comments on the previous post but here’s one angle that’s worth bringing together.

Copyright abolitionists imagine that without copyright, artists would still be able to earn a living from their art while wider society enjoyed their work for free. That alone is quite a tricky argument to sustain but it doesn’t end there, they also imagine middlemen would be abolished. Let’s examine those 3 ideas:

Without copyright, artists would be able to earn from their art

If everything was public domain, everything an artist made could be copied. A great T shirt design could be sold in supermarkets. A box set of their music with special artwork and booklets could be re-manufactured in Asia. It is sometimes thought this would just be great publicity for the artist, but it’s hard to see how unrestricted copying doesn’t take food off her table. And would the middlemen pay her a cent? Why would they? Culture is free!

(Incidentally, I’m in favour of unrestricted music file-sharing but I draw the line at commercial third parties copying unique art without compensating the artist, unless that’s what the artist wants.)

Society should have free access to all artists’ work

Copyright doesn’t stop that happening—enlightened artists do share and it does help them.

Without copyright there can be no middlemen

Unfortunately you can’t abolish middlemen by abolishing copyright, unless you also ban the sale of goods and aggregation of content. There will always be shops and superstores. They will always need goods. A free supply of art and design ideas would be welcomed by big retailers. Many Internet sites make their living by aggregation (Google, YouTube, Grooveshark, and many others including the lyric sites Drew Stephenson mentions). Just consider all the places that copy your stuff now, then add the other commercial locations prevented by current law.

Abolitionists seem to think a level playing field would allow buyers to seek out the original artist rather than using a middleman but they wouldn’t. People pay a big mark-up for aggregation in a superstore and inevitably choose Internet aggregators over individual artist sites. That’s what they do now—the absence of copyright wouldn’t change that, it would just make art cheaper for the middlemen.

If you have a solution to these problems I’d be pleased to hear it, but copyright is designed to protect the artist in a world of commerce and unless you can change the world it seems we are stuck with it.

Copyright is not really complex for individual artists. If you want to do business in your own way it should be easy to describe it to customers. “Pay what you like.” “Buy one share one.” “Pay what you like, or nothing.” “Virtual tip jar.” “Free music, buy a T shirt.” The possibilities are as broad as your imagination, just browse some artist sites or Bandcamp. Lawyers will go purple, and they do have a point but only a small one. You need to make sure your licenses (“Pay what you like” is a license) are coherent and don’t conflict with other licenses but that’s just common sense. Don’t make two exclusive deals in one territory for example.

You can’t transfer your ownership without transferring your ownership, so don’t think you are endangering your copyright by offering your stuff for free. Don’t feel compelled to add legal mumbo-jumbo: “Pay what you like to enjoy unlimited personal use for yourself and your immediate family, limited to the tracks you have chosen, in the territory where you are resident subject to copyright law.” I don’t need to explain why that’s bad, do I?

(Some artists also fret about their best track being stolen by Sony and making millions for an X-Factor runner-up. That isn’t really a problem of copyright either. If you make your stuff widely shareable and it does get stolen by a Big Content user you have the problem of suing them. Your best bet might be to shame them on social media.)

You may prefer to use Creative Commons licenses but they are limited to certain specific uses and although many people think otherwise they too are based on national copyright law. Creative Commons is a set of copyright licenses.

© is good for artists, ask them

Today I was copied into a Twitter conversation about copyright. It began with an interesting article about The Limousines and a rather badly informed interviewer taking issue with crowd-funding. From there it developed into a downer on copyright in general.

Let’s consider the Torrent Freak article quoted here:

tweet

140 characters won’t do it justice, so here’s my reaction.

Rick Falkvinge says gatekeepers take 99% of the money. That’s true. I’m well aware of the Tamla Motown story and how artists are gouged by the record industry but that’s a feature of the record industry not copyright.

I’m not interested in labels, especially big labels, and I see publishers as largely incompetent. The future—for creative music at least—is happening outside of all that. Independent artists (the ones I’m interested in) don’t give up 99% of their earnings to gatekeepers. They rely on their copyrights.

Rick Falkvinge says “Eliminate those gatekeepers and those 93% of the money go to artists instead – or at least, a significantly larger portion of it.” But if the artists have no legal claim to their work how can they earn from it?

We don’t have to guess how big business would behave in the absence of legal ownership. Sam Tarrantino (Grooveshark) makes money out of other people’s work. So does Kim Dotcom (MegaUpload). And so, of course, does Google and many others. They pay the artists nothing.

Tunecore screens uploads for tracks that are simply copies but they still get through and often appear on iTunes and other retail sites. Without ownership of their work how can the money “go to artists“?

Rick Falkvinge says:

The myth that the copyright monopoly is needed for any kind of artistry to make money, or even to happen in the first place, is an obscene myth perpetuated by those who have something to gain from skimming off 90% of the artists’ money by denying them an audience in an old-style racketeering.

But I can point him to hundreds of artists without any record label who say otherwise. Perhaps he can tell us how composers who write for TV and cinema would get paid (composers are getting a PRS distribution right now). Without copyright that money wouldn’t find its way to artists, it would simply stay in the pockets of TV and film studios. How would artists get paid by radio?

The old mainstream system was and still is corrupt but because of greed not copyright. The new technology companies want everything for nothing and would rather see the back of copyright. The old and new mainstream are both playing the same game.