Who will pay the piper?
Ever since the compact cassette became a household item, the music industry has felt threatened by illegal copying. Is digital copying killing the music industry, or is it time for society to reassess its relationship with the artist?
The question is simple. In these days when people find it so easy to copy music and videos, how does the creative artist or musician earn a living? Do we continue along the technology route of trying to invent ever more complex copy protection systems (nowadays often called Digital Rights Mechanisms or DRM) which are well intentioned but often greatly inconvenience the legitimate buyer? For instance, if you buy a DVD while on holiday abroad, you may well find the DRM stops it working on your DVD player in the UK. Or do we follow the RIAA route, of seeking ever-increasing damages or criminal charges against people who have shared music? Or is there any other option?
Record companies have always come in for criticism that they make too much profit and have too much influence over artistic direction, but in fairness, the record labels are at least putting something back into the music industry. The same cannot be said for people who think that file sharing sites are their way of "sticking it to the man". They just make the file sharing companies rich. YouTube is one of the world's most popular file sharing sites, and it is working with some record companies to prefix their music videos with adverts, from which the record company receives a small cut of the advertising revenue, but we cannot continue thinking that there is an endless source of advertising revenue riches which magically pays for all things on the Internet and more besides.
One approach that is beginning to emerge is crowd-sourced funding, and an excellent model of how this works is found at the Belgium-based Sonic Angel. Unlike traditional record companies, a crowd-funding company like SonicAngel promotes a selection of upcoming bands or artists on its audition platform, allows fans to vote on each performance, and says how much money a band needs to raise to enable it to cut a disk, or go on tour. Top-voted bands can earn themselves record deals. In addition, people who like a particular band can pledge money to that band, sometimes as advance orders on the band's first CD or merchandise, sometimes buying shares in the band itself. In this way, the grass roots music fans, not the record industry moguls, decide the future of the artist. One of the recent success stories for SonicAngel is Alice Avery:
Over in Boston, Amanda Palmer is taking the whole concept of a fan-driven music industry even further, and in this lecture to students at Harvard University she talks about going back to basics. She argues that with the Internet, it is possible for artists to put out their music for free and to shamelessly put out the hat, ask for donations, and let people who enjoyed it pay whatever they want.
Radiohead tried this business model in 2007 when they made their "In Rainbows" album available as a download with a voluntary pay what you want scheme. As a publicity stunt it was a huge success. Most people who downloaded the album paid nothing, and as a result many people said the experiment was a failure. However, some people did pay and the people who were so critical of the experiment should remember that not everyone who downloaded the music was a Radiohead "fan" and I expect a lot of people played the tracks once and never again. The nature of the download was that you were asked to pay at the time of download, before you'd had a chance to appreciate the music. Nevertheless, it did make money. Eric Garland, CEO of the download tracking service Big Champagne said "Not everybody pays, and a great number pay very little, but a reasonable niche will pay far more than you or I would expect them to." Five years on and with more payment options available, such as Barclay's Pingit which allows transfer of money by mobile phone, perhaps people will now find it easier to "drop some money in the musician's hat".
So if you enjoy music and the arts, and want to support them, there are a growing number of options. In 2012, Skill Zone is sponsoring Josh Healey, an up and coming musician, singer and actor who has just cut his first demo CD, "When the wind blows":
30th May 2012
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