Join the pirates, or walk the plank (Part I)


With the advent of Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ taking the world by storm, Linden Farrer investigates how internet downloads are being rapidly favoured by artists over CDs, and what it means for the music industry in this multi-part series.

Not so many years ago, people saved up for weeks so that they could buy the vinyl record they had heard at a friend’s house, a concert, or on the radio. Nowadays people can simply log onto a peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing network using a computer, and download whatever it is that they want for free. Although this has its risks in terms of attracting the attention of people who police ‘intellectual property’, it has proven a hugely popular way to acquire music and has been a thorn in the side of the recording industry ever since the late 1990s. But Radiohead’s recent announcement that their new album, In Rainbows, was to be made available via their website on a donation only basis resulted in the entire industry experiencing a convulsion, with one insider complaining that “this feels like yet another death knell…If the best band in the world doesn’t want a part of us, I’m not sure what’s left for this business”.

Coming from an industry that has consistently claimed that it is being killed-off, you might be forgiven for ignoring this latest gasp for breath. Indeed, industry whinings in the 1980s that “home taping is killing music” did very little to lend credibility to the recording industry as a whole. A series of conditions have now emerged, however, that really do indicate an unprecedented threat to the recording industry: a threat that undermines its control over production, distribution and marketing, and could result in an end to the industry as we know it.

The ticking clock of a doomed industry? Or just crocodile tears?

The development of the internet has always been a potential threat to the recording industry, but it is only now becoming clear just how much of a threat it really is. Replicating (copying) data such as an MP3 music file costs next to nothing using a computer, and what’s more, if that computer is connected to the internet then it can share files with a potential 1 billion other computers. With internet connection speeds rapidly increasing, it has become so convenient that in 2005 20 billion songs were shared by over 9 million peoplev. The number of people sharing music in this way is on the increase according to market research firm NDP Group, who reported that ‘illegal’ music downloads jumped 47% between 2005 and 2006. File sharing is reckoned to amount to about 37% of all of the data that travels around the internet every day, with email amounting to a meagre 2% in comparison.

Industry associations such as the British Polyphonic Industry (BPI) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) claim that $4.2 billion per year is lost to ‘piracy’, pointing to figures showing a 22% decline in world sales of CDs from 1999 to 2004, and a halving of the size of the British singles market in the same period as proof of the damage done to it by unauthorised file sharing. Others have a quite different take on such figures. I spoke to Andrew Bridge of the Brighton based electro-horror band Freudstein: “record buyers have been fleeced artistically and monetarily by the recording industry for years. Fact. Let’s take the CD for instance. From its outset the CD format was sold on the false premise of sonic superiority and indestructibility…I’ll shed no tears to see the CD fade into obscurity and become a future cultural curiosity because people just aren’t prepared to buy a CD for extortionate amounts”.

The potential costs have not only decreased for those wanting to obtain music; those creating music are also benefiting from technological advances that make it possible for them to burden the costs of recording and mastering their music using inexpensive (or free) software, and then distribute it to mass audiences using websites, blogs, and P2P networks. The net result is that the traditional roles and services provided by the recording industry are quickly becoming an irrelevance, encouraging a series of established artists to try out new models of promotion and distribution for themselves. The Charlatans, for example, released their latest single for free via the internet, Britpop artist Ash announced that they will no longer produce albums and will concentrate instead on releasing single tracks to the internet as part of a new era of “spontaneity and creativity”, and the Crimea, who were dropped by their label despite a popular first album, decided to self-finance their second album and give this away to their fans online.

Pieces of Eight

Viewed against developments such as these, Radiohead’s announcement doesn’t seem particularly surprising. Indeed, it has had so much more attention simply because the band is so popular. Nevertheless, it is a rude awakening to an industry that still thought itself able to survive living by the old model. This model, which involved almost total control over output, enabling the manufacture of ‘cutting-edge’ trends designed to keep shareholders happy, is now rapidly disappearing. The emerging situation – not really a model as such yet – is one where the costs of production and distribution are within a band’s reach, eroding much of the control that the industry previously enjoyed.

This is a recipe that tastes really bad to music executives who have spent far too long sipping their Pina Coladas on a Caribbean island, gazing idly at pirate ships emerging over the horizon. Andrew Bridge put it to me as follows: “traditionally it has been concert tickets and t-shirt sales that have provided revenue to the musicians themselves. This original model is becoming true once again as people download music and listening becomes democratised. Ultimately, good music has a greater opportunity of being heard irrespective of the marketing campaign behind it. We will be heard and will no longer be drowned out by the huge corporate roar of mainstream advertising. The playing field is being well and truly levelled”. Industry insiders agree. Alan McGee, who ran Creation Records and now manages the Charlatans states “it is definitely the beginning of the end of the old model. Trying to fight against these initiatives is like trying to close the stable door once the horse has bolted”.

To be continued…


1 Comment

  1. It’s nice to read an article about downloading that isn’t trying to demonise everyone in the world who owns a copy of limewire.
    I regularly download for free off the internet, but at the end of the day my ‘debt’ lies with the musician and not their label. And the whole ‘myspace revolution’ with music means that bands can still get industry recognition before they have a label. And there’s something very authoritarian about having to pay for all the music you own.
    For example, I bought MIA’s new album and I’m going to see her live next month (maybe), so I don’t really feel any guilt about copying some tracks off a borrowed copy of her old album.

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