Monday, 27 August 2012

The Legacy of the "Greats" and the Legacy of Piracy

Hello kids, today we're going to talk about piracy (I apologise in advance, longpost is very long).

I know every fucker in the music industry has a mouthpiece on this shit, and I also know you're sick to death of hearing about it, but I came across an article in a national (free) newspaper the other day that pissed me off.

Above is a photograph taken from a large-scale exhibition that uses artists' own CDs to create a likeness of the artists, in domestic situations. The artists themselves, Mirco Pagano and Moreno de Turco were quoted in the article as saying that "Piracy infects and destroys music, preventing artists to succeed and become idols as in the past."

My fury is two-fold: piracy of music prevents no-one from succeeding let alone infecting and destroying music, and also this (frankly outdated) notion that to be successful in music you have to be some kind of mega-stadium-level superstar money-machine. We'll come to the latter later and deal with the former now.

This first notion that music piracy crushes the dreams and streams of many an artist/band is outright false. It's safe to assume that these "greats" and "mega-stars" were on a major label - after all, that's how this media used to get heard primarily, through these labels doing a massive amount of promo work and shoving it in the public's faces enough for it to be heard, correct? If you look at the slice of record sales that the average record deal gave a musician, it's tiny. It's usually less than 5%, after the production costs, the advance, the A&R, the PR, the management, and the general profit is taken out, it's a tiny, tiny amount. Now, that usually goes towards just the people who made the album, not the individual. Then from there you've to pay performance artists and writers, producers etc (unless they were paid as part of a one-off from the advance) so that tiny slice gets shared once more again. Piracy just means that there's less of what is pretty much a pittance going around, and the ones who suffer most are major record labels (and who really cares about them, but more on this later).

It's long been known that an artists' largest revenue stream is from touring. Does piracy affect an artist, signed to a major (or major-ish) record label, in terms of touring? Generally not - usually their management will take take care of this side of things, and even the most basic of torrent sites have statistics on how many times something has been downloaded (you can tell from the amount of people seeding it and leeching it). So again, you can calculate your venue size almost as well as you could without piracy. It's slightly more of a gamble, but generally you know what you're doing.

But what about an up-and-coming artist with an indie backing and no management? This is the real concerning battle ground. Indie labels take much less money from record sales, and therefore the artist tends to get more of the sales revenue, so piracy would be a bit of a kick in the proverbial balls for an up-and-coming artist. On the other hand, paradoxically, a lot of up-and-coming artists are quite flattered if their work gets pirated, because it means they're liked and their work is good enough for someone to attempt to search for it around paywalls. Furthermore, altruism starts coming into effect at this level. Although rare, some people will choose to effectively donate their money to the artist after listening to and enjoying the album. Personally, as a bit of a technology-loving future-hippie, I think this model should be encouraged. It's satisfying to know that your work is not only good enough to buy, but to donate to even if someone already has it.

Anyway, I digress. The real money AGAIN is in touring. Can you still gauge, in this day and age, through an indie label/going independent, the size of your audience even if your album has been leaked/pirated?

The simple answer is no. At least, not safely. And not solely.

But this is why digital music, and the realm of the future greats is now spread across several devices. For better or worse (read: better) piracy is here and it's changed things. These days an artist has to have a presence over data-rich streaming sites such as soundcloud and bandcamp if they accurately want to gauge the size of their audience and tour efficiently enough to get money out of it and start building a reputation. And even then, it's risky, but it negates the main problems with piracy and money can, and will, still be made. I certainly wouldn't say that piracy is killing music. In fact, it's making a lot more music more widely available, which increases the amount of different breeding grounds there are, technically (though not necessarily) increasing the amount of interesting acts and artists out there.

In fact piracy of music software has broken down boundaries even further. Not only can people hear and experience a wider range of inspirational existing music, but now musical creation has become more widely available. The creation of music is no longer the preserve of the rich. And yes, before you moan, in many ways previously it has been a class issue. Again, though, I digress, and this argument is for another time.

So onto my second point.

The notion of music needing idols is, I think, a bit false. I have no doubt that we'll make them, though - the digital age has already given us several artists that people put on a pedestal, including Lady Gaga and Burial. But I don't think it's necessarily something we should be aiming and hoping for, as consumers, or as people involved in making music.

Putting musicians on a plinth to be worshipped by the "unwashed masses" I believe is massively condescending. For a start it means in some respect putting all talent and skill in an unreachable place, beyond people, which discourages the making of art by all except the dim or the ballsy, because to be frank, they're the only people who would choose to enter into such an artistic endeavour with those glaring god-figures looking down and figuratively pissing on your attempts at a bonfire. It's hardly sympathetic to growing a culture of varied types of art, is it now?

And this is one of many reasons I really appreciate how piracy has changed the face of musical culture (along with the internet in general, of course): it has forced musicians to stop the whole rock 'n' roll, "untouchable", get-the-fuck-away-from-me attitude that beleaguered "legends" for some time, and encouraged artists to interact with their fans. This not only creates entirely new platforms for interaction other than just through audio (more on THAT later too), but has also de-fangs and de-mystifies these people, which then decreases the amount of "artist anxiety" someone faces when looking to create.

My biggest gripe with the whole "legends" argument, however, is that there needs to be some form of monopoly on 1) record sales, and 2) the public consciousness in terms of music. The second point, I fear, is the impulse of monoculture - that same impulse that abhorred subcultures in times past (which is slowly also being eroded, thankfully - be who you want! choose your friends! etc. - another wondrous example of what technology can bring you). Either way the suggestion is that, the way musical culture has been headed for the past few years is utterly wrong. That you shouldn't have your specific tastes catered for by a small number of musicians who either work for a hobby with a few bonus bits of cash, or otherwise work for a modest living through touring and recording with only occasional holidays. Granted, musical culture and money are in a strange state of flux at the moment, but the trends have been leaning towards a more aware, more (arguably) moral state of business: that you pay for what you enjoy so that these musicians - who generally tend to be very thankful - get if not all the cash you gave them, then at least a fairly sizeable chunk. The key element is that it doesn't generally go to some massive faceless business that will throw pocket change at the artists and keep the rest.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: fuck your idols, forget the horrid "traditional" view of record labels and SUPPORT YOUR (LOCAL?) ARTISTS.

As a reward for sticking with me this far, here's a musical treat from a dear friend (it dropped last week and I'm finding it hard to listen to much else):

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