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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