How are we gonna keep 'em down on the farm?

Posted by Piers Cawley on Oct 10, 2006

Whenever I listen to old fashioned media business types, I find phrases like “Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”, “How are we going to keep ‘em down on the farm now they’ve seen Paree?” and “Pissing against the wind” running through my head.

The basic assumptions on which media companies are built - Talent is hard to find; distribution is hard - have become self-evident bollocks. Media have changed. Back in the “Home Taping is Killing Music” days, recordings were often passed around between friends, samizdat fashion, but the process was self-limiting. Quality degraded with each generation, and every recording required a lump of stuff that had to be paid for. An nth generation tape recording might well convince you of a band’s merits, but it sounded crap. Your motives for buying your own legitimate copy were both selfish - “I want to hear this properly” - and altruistic - “artists deserve to be rewarded”.

I have always been of the opinion that the truth is more like: “Home Taping is Enabling Music”. The technologies that let us pass around stretchy tapes of music that now embarrasses us allowed some of those very same groups to slap together the portastudio demo that got them signed.

The Big Change happened when things went digital. Once media turned into bitstreams, the commercial world changed. It became possible to have an endless chain of copies without any deterioration in quality. Once the cost of the substrate needed to store or distribute that content comes down.

Oh… hang on a minute… a CD is about 700Mb of data, and disc costs are falling all the time… and it’s possible to compress that data quite substantially even before you start having to chuck data out…

Disaster! The sky is falling!

But, this change in how recorded music works is enabling. For instance, I’m typing this on my laptop which is also engaged in wirelessly streaming a Bellowhead track to the hi fi. Magic.

It’s massively important for the musicians too. ProTools, Logic, Reason, AutoTune and the whole portfolio of digital recording tools have changed the game for recording artists. It is astonishing what you can do on a modern laptop with a copy of ProTools and a firewire audio interface. Ask Seth Lakeman. Or Momus. Or me.

Of course, the same technology also allows me, to make my music collection available to the world at virtually no cost via the magic of the internet.

Disaster! The sky is falling!

Well… yes. And no.

At the same time as digital distribution and the internet have been putting the boot into the gatekeepers, they have been doing some great things for the relationship between canny artists and their audience. The first band I gave my email address to was The Barely Works more than 15 years ago now; they’re far from being the last. A few months ago, Spiers and Boden organized a concert at the Cumberland Arms at very short notice. Promoted entirely through their, and the pub’s mailing list, they filled the (admittedly not huge) venue.

How do musicians earn a living when recorded music is so easy to copy and distribute? One approach is to add DRM and attempt to bring in draconian laws to stop people sharing music. Not necessarily a stupid idea, provided you can make it work and you’re happy with the idea of criminalizing your customers. But that horse is long gone and the stable doors are blowing in the wind. If you’re going to have encryption that people can decrypt in order to play the music, you’re going to have clever people like DVD Jon breaking that encryption. If you start mandating that new equipment be unable to play unencrypted content people will just keep using the old stuff, or hack the new stuff, or generally thumb their noses at you.

Or how about taxing the internet? Make everyone who uses the net pay an extra levy to be distributed to the artists. Because we know how well poll taxes work don’t we? Plus, how do you divvy up the money? I’m buggered if I want any of the levy I pay going to artists I don’t listen to…

Or, you could do what enlightened artists are doing. You could build a relationship with your audience, provide ‘em with added value for doing the right thing and paying for your recordings. The Bellowhead CD is a fine example in this vein - the CD package is just a nice thing; it’s presented like a small hardback book with the leaflet bound in. The leaflet has excellent sleevenotes and is scrupulous about crediting sources (credit is important in the folk world, it’s very like Free Software/Open Source in that respect), the whole thing is just classy. It’s a nice thing to have, as well as giving you the warm glow of knowing that your money is supporting artists you admire. Result.

I will always let friends riffle through my Music directory, and I’m happy to let them take copies of anything that interests them, or I’ll hand ‘em a CD with a big playlist on it. But I always add the rider that, if you like it, and it’s in print, buy your own copy. As a fan, it’s in my interests to see that the artists I like can continue to make enough money that they can keep performing and making new music. CD sales are one way of doing that. I don’t care if the artist is huge like REM or tiny like many of the folk acts that I enjoy. Everyone makes their living the same way that buskers do. If you like the music, you chuck some coins in the hat. It’s as simple as that. There will always be freeloaders, but so what? Surely it’s better to tolerate the few arseholes in favour of reaching the largest possible audience of people who are prepared to throw money in the hat?

I think that the bands and labels who will survive in the long term will be the ones that recognize this and reach out to a large audience of people who can choose to support ‘their’ artists.

But then, the media business has never been about the long term has it? The game plan always seems to be to milk the current boy band for all they’re worth and discard ‘em when the next lot come along.