It was ageing rockstar and notorious old person, Gene Simmons of KISS, who recently stirred my ire when I had the distinct displeasure of interviewing him for a magazine article. It wasn’t so much the suffering through 40 plus minutes of having my intelligence insulted by an almost 60-year-old man who fronts a glam rock band while wearing platform boots and clown make up for a living.
No. The nature of my ennui stems from the frustrating contempt that traditional media figureheads (in this instance embodied by the God of Thunder) stubbornly hold toward new technologies, for fear they will put them all out of a job.
"The music business is dead!" Gene Simmons had roared in my ear, among a litany of other self aggrandising statements which do not bear repeating. Yes Gene, as we know it, it is. "College kids file-sharing and downloading for nothing. The very same people that love and care about music so much are the same people slashing the throat of the music!" he raged on, while likely spewing rivers of fake blood.
There is no disputing this fact. File sharing has made a giant dent in the profits of record companies. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, record labels missed the boat when the opportunity arose to invest in new technologies in order to protect their assets. With a typically pig-headed stubbornness, they held onto the belief that theirs would remain the only way. MP3s? That’ll never work! Who will ever want their entire record collection at the push of a button? Nobody, that’s who! Nobody except everybody who invested in Apple shares.
Second to this is the fact that CDs were arguably overpriced for decades. Add to this the opinion that these profit margins were rarely if ever shared equitably with artists, but rather were used to further line the pockets of exceedingly wealthy record label executives (if or not this is explicitly true, it sure went someway to assuaging the guilt you felt at downloading an entire back catalogue for nothing.)
U2’s manager Paul McGuinness, set the web afire last month with an address presented to an industry audience, complaining essentially that internet service providers (ISPs) had "their snout in the trough" of his clients’ profits and should be hunted down and prosecuted for the same (which would entail under his model, huge invasions of user privacy). At least he admitted that prosecuting individual users for mammoth sums was ludicrous, but this tired old argument coming from the man behind the most ubiquitous brand in rock – because that’s what U2 is – was hard to take.
U2 – and Paul McGuinness in taking his 20 per cent – are obscenely wealthy. Essentially crying that they weren’t wealthy enough almost put paid to the arguments of people who think that Bono’s philanthropy is a sham (I personally don’t but there are plenty who do.) This is so dispiriting because U2 is in a prime position to take the lead in finding new ways to distribute music online. Instead, we can leave that to Radiohead, who achieved immense critical and financial success with the innovative pay-what-you-like digital release of their latest album, In Rainbows.
The anarchistic nature of the internet cannot and will never be held to account, and that is its breath-taking appeal to some and the source of its staggering injection of fear into others. For every new encryption code, there’s a nerdy digital rights genius cracking it immediately and posting the results online the following day.
The wondrous, and therefore threatening, thing about technology is that it has helped make success attainable for the truly talented, not just the financially able. There are people cutting records on $1500 laptops and hyping them through Facebook and MySpace; producing a video for seven dollars and uploading it to YouTube to get a quarter of a million hits in a day; releasing a novel online without ever crossing the floor of a publishing house.
The democratisation of media rewards smarts. It exposes frauds and fakes. It makes tired, ill-informed arguments look pathetic. It allows great ideas to stand alone. But none of it is new. These movements have always existed – from taping songs off the radio to producing fanzines – it is only the way in which they are delivered that has changed.
So what is the solution to the online piracy debate? The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a brilliant idea: a tax that ISPs charge their users of something like $5 per month, which will function as an artists’ services tax to be put into a fund and distributed evenly among the labels – with the hope they will invest that giant revenue stream in new talent. The amount of people connected to the web far outweighs the amount of people who bought CDs pre-file sharing – just think of them all paying $5 a pop.
As to what to do about the age-old fear of innovation? I think here I will quote another notable old person:
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
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