Jack's been thinking...about online music piracy

Friday columnist Jack Davies considers free music streaming, in the aftermath of this week's Pirate Bay ruling.

Greenleaf Music's Jim Tuerk has written a thought-provoking piece discussing the pros and cons of streaming music for free “Why Spotify is the best, and the worst.

Jim quotes from another interesting piece by guitarist and singer David Lowery who looks at the implications of a small number of big technology conglomerates having become the "new bosses" of the music business.  “'The consumer wants music to be free!’ [the Digerati] shout as they pound their tiny fists on their Skovby tables," writes Tuerk."The consumer also wants cars to be free. And beer. Especially beer. But any market involves a buyer and a seller. A consumer and a producer.”

This all seems incredibly relevant in a week where a UK court has demanded that ISPs block the file sharing website Pirate Bay, and speaks to me directly and personally right now, in the week that my own record label V & V Music has gone live.

I use Spotify a lot – it's an incredible resource for learning tunes, as you can quickly access multiple versions in quick succession. For the same reason I also use it for checking out classical pieces I'm not so familiar with – in combination with the free sheet music on IMSLP, it's a powerful learning tool. I used to also use it for checking out bands and music I was interested in, before usually buying the record. However, this is one application I no longer use it for.

Why? Well, track previews on iTunes now give you enough of a sense of “do I want this record?” without giving the whole game away, for free. Moreover, the past year of learning what an incredible amount of investment it takes to make a record – in terms of time, money, all-consuming thought and mind-bending effort means I will never stream or download another piece of music by a living artist without paying for it. The process has been so enlightening I sometimes feel that if everyone on the planet made a record, we would have no problem with piracy or free-streaming.

File-sharing sites mainly harm the bigger labels, but our indie jazz labels do not escape the problem. A search of a file-sharing website brings up 10 Kenny Wheeler albums available to download illegally, as well as offerings from Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, Dave Douglas, Gwilym Simcock, and many others. The sad fact in a community as small as ours, is that these albums are being converted into bittorrents by jazz fans for other jazz fans. Each person that downloads these torrents is a sale lost, and for small scale businesses that depend on sales, that equates to real damage.

At the North London Tavern a few weeks ago, someone stole a copy of Josh Arcoleo's 'Beginnings' album, as well as a copy of Tom Harrison's 'Dagda' record. We were all outraged – shocking that someone could sit there, enjoy the music to the point of wanting the record, and then feeling that it was ok to to steal it. The consequences were clear: Josh and Tom would have to pay their labels for the missing stock, so not only was it revenue lost, but cost was incurred too. However, this is something that happens much more often in a digital format, and often is blankly accepted.

David Lowery goes on to ask the question: “Despite the loss of revenue to file sharing has technology allowed the artists to make up the loss of revenue in other ways?”

Personally speaking, my business model is very dependent on the internet. Twitter provides access to networks which would otherwise be unreachable due to huge marketing costs, and bloggers provide coverage which is much harder to come by in the traditional press. In my example, I'm sure that technology has been much more of a plus than a minus. Sales made through web-based publicity will far outweigh losses from ePiracy. However, for some artists that is clearly not the case, and I also think there is a bigger issue here.

Much is made of the erroneous argument that freedom of knowledge equates to the greater spread of that knowledge worldwide, and the greater potential for future development. One of the many reasons that this logic doesn't stack up is that in the music example these knowledge providers are businesses: you remove the income, and the business will fold. No more future knowledge can therefore be provided.

Anyone presuming that they can just walk into a jazz concert for free, where it is plain that entry has a price tag, would provoke justified disdain of everyone in the room. The same disdain should be levelled at those who think they don't need to pay for the music they download and consume digitally.

What really bugs me is the attitude behind this: the premise that artists have a duty to share their work for free. No, we don't. If you like something, support it - pay for it!

UPDATE: RESPONSE FROM JANEK GWIZDALA

For the most part, being an independent artist and producer of material under my own name, I couldn't disagree more with this post. I think you touched on something very positive when you started to talk about the ways in which the digital idiom has afforded more new artists an opportunity to connect with an audience that would otherwise have traditionally been out of reach 15 years ago, but telling people that they shouldn't give their music away and that everything should be paid for is something I find quite absurd. And I think it's an attitude that is not only out of date, but that will hurt the potential for continuation of art forms like jazz that currently occupy a rather small percentage of the market place.

I get that iTunes previews now give far more of a preview than they used to, and that you can get a pretty good idea about a track and whether or not you want to buy it or not. But what if the feeling for a prospective customer, who might never have heard your particular brand of instrumental ramblings before, that a forthcoming purchase was mandatory in order for them to enjoy the entire product was taken out of the equation?

You immediately give the listener a stress free environment in which to enjoy the music, and you give them an open and honest connection by declaring that you believe the music is worth paying for so much that you're willing to put it out there for free, and let them come to that same conclusion in their own time. Having a product that people connect and identify with is the key here. And where people get the idea that it costs a lot of money to make a record anymore, I have no idea. I just tracked my last album in one of the best studios in NYC with some of the greatest cats available. recorded, mixed, mastered and released the album for around $6,000. when you look at the potential revenue that a recording like that will have just in the first year, never mind over it's lifetime... it brings into perspective that recording is no longer expensive.

And if you're using any of the up to date cutting edge platforms (of which I do not consider iTunes to be one) for digital music or content delivery, you won't be giving your music away for zero return, even if the person who downloads it doesn't end up actually giving you any money. You'll be at very least taking an email address in return for the music they downloaded.

I think the key to the current climate of perceived piracy in online music is not the "illegal" downloading of other peoples music, but actually more on the artists end of creating compelling and engaging digital content. If your product is worth something, and you engage enough of an audience for your brand, then piracy will be the last thing on your mind. You will have so many engaged fans, followers and subscribers, that piracy will be as much of a thing of the past for you as it is for me.

I agree that it's a drag to see your hard work show up almost immediately on a torrent site. But I also think that's hugely motivational in terms of kicking you in the arse and making you more responsible for growing and nurturing a dedicated and engaged fan base who will pay for your products regardless of who else is illegally offering them for free somewhere. And who in their right might in this day and age seriously considers CD or digital sales as a major percentage of their annual income?

I think one of your last comments in the post mentions the medium in which there is incredible and ever growing amounts of potential for revenue far beyond the ability of record sales, and that's live shows. If your product, your music, your brand, and your personality is compelling enough of an event or a lifestyle, then people are going to want to be a part of that. You're going to find yourself with a tribe (big shout out to seth godin for that descriptive word) of followers to communicate with.

As an independent artist in this so called "younger" or "new" generation of digital, social and new music industry era, it really pisses me off when people talk about declining record sales being an issue for artists, and how piracy is to blame.

The only people to blame for their product not doing well, when you have the opportunity to take such immense control of your trajectory these days, is the artists themselves.

For whatever it's worth I commend you highly for taking on the responsibility of launching an indie label, I think that takes balls and a lot of hard work, and I think the world would be a better place if more people did the same thing. But why not use the momentum of the all-too-often neglected positive aspects of what the digital age has to offer? and spearhead a movement of artists and musicians who do make incredible music and give it away for free because they understand the bigger picture, and aren't stuck on a business model that has been out of date for over a decade.

I hope this might open up a discussion on the entire subject, and a sharing of ideas that can help everyone move forward in a positive direction towards communication and a better understanding of the reality of the business climate we live in.

7 comments:

  1. Jack, I'm fully with you on this.

    Now, I'm not perfect on this score: I have received through Dropbox a few ripped CD albums which friends have bought which I've listened to, but with over 900 albums on my iTunes I'm certain that 95%+ of the music I have I've purchased over the years, either vinyl, CD or digital.

    I wouldn't dream of going into a bookshop and taking books from the shelf and leaving without paying, which is just what pirated, downloaded music is in effect. I totally endorse your point that just because something can be reproduced and easily shared, doesn't mean that it automatically becomes free. Sure, the industry and artists will have to adapt; and the use of digital marketing and social media will increasingly mean many artists don't require the support of major labels, meaning they can keep more of the money that is received through sales. But the principle is right: nothing 'free' is every really 'free', if there's an artist or a producer behind it. Somebody loses in the free downloads scenario ... and it's rarely the listener!

    For people who say 'yes, but if I like the music I get off pirate sites, I might buy more of their stuff', this sounds hollow. Who follows that through, really? At least with iTunes, the pretence of 'try before you buy' is, as you rightly pointed out, a reality as you only hear a snippet.

    Spotify may be a slightly different case, but I suspect that because there is an increasing monopoly of supply by big-name digital content providers, they can dictate the terms. And I bet it ain't good for the artist!

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  2. I am copying the web address for this important post onto my website here in the U.S. I find the idea of ripping CDs that are available not only for sale on the Internet, but also at local stores, to be a travesty. Yes, if an artist or label chooses to allow downloads for free that is fine. But for the vast majority of music, this downloading amounts to theft. As the previous commenter noted, would anyone ever walk into a bookstore and out with a book? Do the same people who download music for free think all books should also be available for free -- somehow I think most people would consider that idea ridiculous. so why music?

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  3. I have to agree with Janek. WE have to move forward - we can't stand Canute-like against the wave of new technology. It's simply not true that people don't buy what they can download for free or stream; Steve Coleman did well out of making a huge part of his back catalogue available on a pay what you like basis as does Steve Lawson.
    I have bought three of Janek's CDs despite them being able to stream and I can say the same of many others - even records that I have first heard via copies. Is it really that different to listening to the radio Jack? IT's all about cultivating that relationship with listeners and having a product of sufficient quality that people want to buy it. I'm not a follower of hers but Estelle has currently sold more records than Michael Jackson - despite a great number of her records being illegally downloaded.
    When I was between 11 and 18 I must have taped hundreds of records from the library. What is the difference? They weren't lost sales. The ones I loved I bought eventually (mostly on vinyl) and the ones I didn't I wouldn't have bought anyway. I probably taped over them. This is a very similar scenario to downloading.
    That was part of my jazz and musical learning experience. What was the alternative? I didn't have money to buy the music. Jazz would have lost another listener. And we cannot afford to alienate listeners at this time. Just about every jazz gig in London has an audience comprised mostly of other musicians. We can't afford to be fussy. We need the kids to be wanting to torrent our music - that would be a good sign - and you bet we would be selling more records if they were.
    And it is kids, on the whole, illegally downloading. If you're too young to have a credit card and mommy and daddy aren't loaded then you're going to download it, share it from friends or just watch it on youtube.
    The other main reason for illegally sharing or downloading music is availability. If the record is no longer available and unlikely to be re-released then what does the artist lose by one of their great unavailable records from the past being shared?
    Like Janek, I find your emphasis on iTunes a little disingenuous. Many musicians now have realised they can
    record music at much lower cost than before, release their own music on Bandcamp or the like, publicise and then take almost all the money paid by the customer. This is quite unlike selling a record through one of the majors where you might get pence back or selling through iTunes.
    The brilliance of iTunes though is in it's development as an idea at the right time. Musicians and small record labels need to be similarly ingenious now to someone benefit from the changes while the major labels
    wallow around like dinosaurs unaware of their inevitable demise. Read Steve Albini's blog from the 1990s if you think that their demise will be bad for music. http://www.negativland.com/news/?page_id=17
    I do feel sorry for the small independent labels. You guys do so much for the music for so little reward and I hate to see you lose sales. But it's a different ball game nowadays. The expendable income that people had is used up on ridiculous rents and mortgages, computer games marketed like crack and mobile phones and associated accounts deemed essential in modern life.

    But you have an advantage or two. You are niche, you know your market (and to tell the truth is is not one rife with illegal downloading is it?). You have massive untapped markets for jazz among kids, working class people, ethnic minorities, hipsters who don't know who Coltrane is etc. Get out there, get the great music made and released. Reach out into the communities, schools, council estates etc as well as well paying gigs. Then maybe in a few years people might be streaming and torrenting your music. Then, and only then will you know that jazz has a healthy audience then because many many more would be paying for downloads or paying to go to gigs.

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  4. To anonymous commenter 17:07 today: Thanks for takeing the touble to write in. Please don't take offence, but if you want to criticise people like that you will have to declare who you are so that there can be a dialogue. I decided quite early on I wouldn't make LondonJazz a forum for anonymous sniping. I hope that this can be a place for civilized interaction.

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  5. I agree with Jack, although Janek makes a very good point - however I think the most important thing is having a choice. Whether you think the music should all be free (and people can pay for it if they think it's worth it), or you think no one has a right to take your music for nothing (because of the hours and hours that have gone into making it), that should surely be your choice.

    I think giving out free tracks/albums to people in return for following/email subscription etc. is a very good idea, however having all of your records made available for download by someone you don't know seems unfair to say the least.

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  6. How much new jazz is on the radio to listen to? Does everyone play in my town? If I read about some guy that looks interesting I don't intend to pay first and find out if I like it later. I've bought particular albums on vinyl, rebought them on cassette, cd, remastered cd, complete sessions, DVD audio... All at full price. Who's ripping who off here? And many jazz musicians particularly have infamously been exploited by record companies in the past. Many record companies have, in my view, completely failed to get to grips with mp3s and digital delivery, or taken decades too long to sort themselves out, by which time there has been a healthy infrastructure in illegal supply. If I hear a bit of music and want to get it right away, sometimes I can search, locate, download and open an illegal source quicker than finding it legitimately. As others have said, downloading isn't a lost sale - I wouldn't have bought one tenth of the music I've downloaded - I just wouldn't have heard it. This isn't only about money - it's about control. There is a demand for music that record companies haven't satisfied over the years - You've never bought a bootleg lp? How many great live albums have been made from what were originally illegal recordings? (Quite a few). The recorded careers of many fine jazz musicians have languished because the record company has decided that there's no market for that kind of stuff anymore...
    Home taping is killing music we were told in the 70s. Well it survived me, and millions like me, making thousands of tapes. I was never going to buy that stuff so it wasn't lost sales. What was killing music in the 70s was the awful choices for releases made by record company execs. Downloading is not like sealing a book - the book is still on the shelf. It's more like recording a radio station where I can choose what I want to hear. It isn't music that's being killed by downloading, it's record companies, and that's a big difference, though they would like you to think they are the same thing. A major proportion of stuff I've downloaded was out of print recordings anyhow. And the equipment that's available today makes it possible for musicians to record live or studio performances to a higher quality, mix and issue for sale more easily than ever.
    The SALE of illegal recordings and illegal copies of cds of course is pure theft and piracy and indefensible.

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  7. re Anonymous 31 May/
    Now that is food for thought - grey areas and fine lines identified and tackled head-on from the standpoint of the genuine enthusiast who has been frustrated by the limitations of the industry - very important points about careers that have foundered because of lack of exposure/support, and that out-of-print can be impossible to find if they gave not been reissued (which is very often, although becoming less the case these days with the advent of some dedicated reissue labels putting out CD and vinyl) - and your closing sentence is crucial.

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