Limewire taken down: Why I am cheering this blow against free downloads

This post was written by Reuben on October 29, 2010
Posted Under: Music,Uncategorized

And so another pirate platform has bitten the dust. I was 14 when Limewire first came out. I remember the excitement of discovering such an enormous gateway to free music. Yet unlike many of my generation – especially those of my political persuasion – I was gratified to hear this week that Limewire had been forced out of operation by a legal challenge from the record industry.

When the internet exploded in the late nineties, we were offered a grand, democratic vision of what music might look for in the future. Record companies had long been the object of suspicion and resentment (after all how dare anyone but pure creative types make a living from music), and many rejoiced that they were through. Instead, we would see an age in which independent artists could cut out the middle man and sell their music direct to the public.

Unfortunately, while many artists quickly made fantastic use of the internet, consumers of music, especially the younger ones, were none to keen on their side of the bargain. For they had now fallen out of love with the idea of actually buying music. Thus freebie downloading, for my generation, became not merely a matter of self-interest but a cultural marker, and a form of rebellion as popular as it was fatuous. The result is an environment in which it is difficult to see how many musicians, other than those with a huge market share, can make a living from their work (notwithstanding fantasies of a new generation of self-sufficient troubadours, with which I will deal later).

The record industry of old certainly had a lot to dislike about it. But, imperfect as it was, it did provide a means of supporting a relatively wide range of artists and enabling them to dedicate their lives to their craft, at least for a few years. Traditionally, only a small minority of records, around 20%, made a profit. Effectively, what this meant was that the huge profits made on the most successful albums would go someway towards subsidising the attempts of those who did not find immediate success. Young bands would be offered the means to spend a year or two focusing on writing songs and improving their music.

The response from some advocates of “new music” would of course be “so what? since when did good music need wads of cash?”. This line of argument indeed appears in Laurie Penny’s recent defence of illicit downloads (if you think this complex issue is cheapened by crass ageism then don’t click). In this article, a young music maker, supportive of current trends, opines that “People who say they’ll stop making music if they don’t get paid, clearly care more about the money than the music, so they should probably stop anyway”. Needing to do a day job, she says, does not make her any “less creative”.

This is fine if, like the young artist interviewed, one sees music as simply an outgrowth of “creativity. Yet more than that, great songs and great music, have always been a matter of great endeavour. Before (my hero) Leonard Cohen released his first album he was lucky enough to be able to spend many months on a Greek Island writing poetry as though it were his day job. He would hope he says, to generate one line a day that he really wanted to use. And to be honest, it shows in the quality of his songs, wherein every word is clearly chosen with great care. The question that the advocates of digital freeganism have yet to answer adequately is how today’s Leonard Cohen’s may get to enjoy a similar space in their lives.

The model advanced by many is that henceforth artists might give away recordings for free, but will make a living from gigging. As yet I am unconvinced as to how widely applicable this model is – especially beyond already established super-acts. I don’t speak from a position of complete ignorance here: since I was 18 I have gigged in many of the best unsigned venues in the capital and have met people who unlike me have very serious internet followings. For whatever reason the crowds still didn’t seem to be rolling in. And when the crowds do role in, the artists – especially unsigned artists – often get only a fraction of ticket sales (if you think record companies are exploitative, then you should see the “deals” some iconic venues foist on performers). So far I am yet to meet anybody making their living like this.

But more than this, it is simply the case that the model of giving away MP3s for free, and hoping to generate a sufficient gig audience to justify it, doesn’t and won’t work for everyone. One of the great benefits of the internet is that it frees us from the tyranny of geography. In the case of musicians that means enabling to build a geographically disparate audience across countries or even continents, peculiar enough to be small in any given location but large across the globe. Relying on gigging to build a career out of this is simply not an option. Yet the line coming from the the pirate advocates to musicians appears to be “my way or the highway”. Either they adopt this freebie-rich model or they can get screwed.

There are really very difficult questions about how music and musicians will be supported in the future. At worst, we could end up with a scenario not unlike the present situation for visual arts: in the absence of paying consumers it may be left up to arts-council like quangos to pick winners and decide who gets to go pro. The pwnership of Limewire has bought us some time. But our generation now needs to think seriously about how we might replace what we have torn down.

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Reader Comments

Yeah, you really shouldn’t be cheering the take down. This American go-after of downloading sites has NOTHING to do with artists’ royalties, but everything to do with mega-corporations in the US making record profits year after year, while screwing consumers.

I don’t buy any DVDs, CDs, etc as it’s just giving more money to corporate America. No thanks.

Written By Leo Sigh on October 31st, 2010 @ 10:43 am

I can’t agree with much of this analysis I’m afraid.

Firstly it is possible to earn a lving through performance. Take a look at the classical music world – large orchestras face huge costs, they have limited audience and they can only perform on a few occasions (both because of logistics and because the audience isn’t sufficiently large to justify more performances). Record sales have declined, yet the number of first rate orchestras (few of which are state subsidised). Yet their members are virtuosos, they all need to practice for hours a day, if they need to work it will usually be as music teachers. But orchestras are organised, the work as small unions, they negotiate terms together – they aren’t paid much but they usually come out in the black.

Live indie music has a huge – live – audience at festivals. And festivals are far from cheap. The money coming into to a single festival is huge. But the performers are indpendent, have ultimately little concern for another, some even see themselves in direct competition with one another

For many performers the reality of working for record lable was anything but benign, they were coralled into work they didn’t want to do, they kept record prices artifically high (literally melting down records that didn’t sell) and they witheld new technology – the CD – for nearly two decades. Until late on in the industry, most artists paid a pittance even after selling thousands of records, and without a recording contract there was no way to expand your audience apart from constant gigging. And in conjunction with radio stations record companies often tried to determine taste rather than react to it (hence pirate radio). – If you want to listen to record company led music you still can on Virgin and Magic (with hideous adverts getting in the way every couple of minutes) and with the same few tracks cycling time and again – or indeed watch X-Factor – but I bet you don’t.

Musicians have larger audiences than ever before (even if many of them aren’t [yet] paying: it’s still a good thing – many of them don’t pay because they’re kids and have no money – to exclude them by making them paying would excude the audience who more than any other appreciate and benefit – they can’t go and watch live because they are too young, the Camden Blues Bar on Friday night is no place for a 12 year old).

Plus audiences are more knowledgeable, we live in a musical golden age, we are incrdibly lucky. And crucially there are far more bands than ever before. Is there any other art form with anything like the same number of performers? – How many contemporary painters and novelists can you name? Now name bands. The market has a saturation point no matter its funding model

But above all music shouldn’t have anything to do with the market. Music [and art generally] – if it is to have any meaning – has to set itself aside from a world in which value is always calculated by what people are willing to pay for it. Art is superfluous to the market, the quotidian and that’s part of what makes it necessary. And it is instantly subversive when it doesn’t give a damn about money. And that has to be celebrated – indeed it is celebrated but none other than Len himself:

‘We may be poor – but we have the music’

If you are sufficently dedicated to the process you can still spend the summer like Cohen sleeping on a beach in Greece or like Jim Morrison squatting and eating only oranges and tabs of LSD, or like Dylan busking for change in coffee shops and sleeping in beds only on the nights when girls invited him round. Or you could sit at home live off your giro and housing benefit [just, I'm not doubting it would be fairly horrible] and then at a friends house record a song that could be seen by thousands in just a few hours. And be much much happier and fulfilled than a city trader who has nothing to show for his life except his bank balance. Well hopefully that’s the trade off.

Incidentally Reuben I’ve just inherited a bunch of rather nice recording equipment – so lets cut a record and in true record company style I’ll be keeping 96% and forcing you to do an a capella cover of ‘Candle in the Wind’.

Written By JWA on October 31st, 2010 @ 11:04 am

Hmmmm just realised I got that wrong – Leonard sang ‘we may ugly but we have the music’ but I was assuming that ugly/poverty trope was played upon…

Written By JWA on October 31st, 2010 @ 11:33 am
Written By Buy Online on March 26th, 2011 @ 5:32 am

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