So, another week in the music business and the hot topic is copyright again; that’s surprised everyone hasn’t it? Apple announces its new streaming service and a great introductory three month deal which it proposes to fund by not paying any royalties to artists. Predictably enough the Anne Robinson of digital rights management rides to the rescue. After taking on Spotify last year, Taylor Swift took aim at Apple this time with an open letter which has forced Apple to rethink its strategy of giving away other people’s earnings. Predictably again, it sparked off an online debate about hypocrisy when a photographer sent Ms Swift an open letter about photographic rights. It’s amazing how quickly these ‘debates’ descend into playground name-calling and tribalism; have a look for yourself but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Anyway, it’s all happy now because Apple has backed down and the artists will be paid.
While all that was going on centre-stage, you could easily miss another bit of copyright news being made which wasn’t attracting the attention of the popular and powerful Ms Swift. Various British music industry bodies, Musicians Union (MU), UK Music, and British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) if you must know, have combined to request a judicial review into the creation of Section 28B of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Now that’s a real headline grabber isn’t it? In really simple terms, the government has inserted a clause (Section 28B) in the legislation, to take effect from June 2015, which made copying of CDs legal for personal, private use although you probably thought it was fine to do that anyway. The judicial process is far from over, but Mr Justice Green has upheld the review application.
On the face of it, these industry bodies are using the same principle as Taylor Swift, claiming that artists are losing royalties and that the industry shouldn’t allow this to happen, which is very noble of them, but if that’s true, then why take twenty years to decide that we shouldn’t be allowed to rip our CDs so we can listen to them on the train or create playlists for parties. Unless it isn’t just about that.
One of the remedies suggested by the music industry is a levy on recordable media (CDs, hard drives and so on), which has been tried in other European states. So call me an old cynic if you like, but surely their real concern is that the blank media industry is reaping the benefits of digital copying and the music industry isn’t getting its share. The UK proposal is a levy on blank media collected by an agency and shared out with artists. You don’t need a PhD to see that there’s absolutely no link between which songs are copied and the money coming in, so a huge and unnecessary bureaucracy has to be created to work out the collection and distribution process (supervised by the UK music biz). Anyone think that’s fair? And there’s an assumption that all digital media sold is being used for copying music; you can call me paranoid, but I have several hard drives and countless DVD-Rs full of original photos and there’s no way I’m paying duty on those so some chancer can copy Celine Dion’s Greatest Hits to flog in the market at Elephant & Castle. It’s like the whole class having to stay behind because the teacher doesn’t have the bottle to take on the bully.
So, how about an extra charge on every CD to account for a certain amount of ripping and copying? Well, one side of the argument is that no-one wants to pay for something that they can’t play on a device they use on the move, while, on the other hand, why should you pay extra if you have no intention of copying a CD? You could apply a charge when a CD is copied (or format-shifted) but who’s going to be happy about buying a CD from the artist’s website or at a gig to maximize the artist’s cut only to find that you then have to pay someone else for the privilege of listening to it on your media player. It’s equitable, but music buyers are going to be reminded of the cost every time they rip a CD (which is why MU, BASCA and UK Music don’t like it; they don’t look like the bad guys if you pay extra for a hard drive, rather than your music).
If the CD format is dying, and I’ve already bought a black tie, is this an attempt to accelerate its demise? If you’re buying a physical copy mainly to listen to it on a mobile device, why not just get rid of the middleman and buy it in a format you can load on to your media player? If there isn’t a physical copy you can eliminate the costs of artwork, packaging, storage and distribution and companies don’t need to worry about size of production runs when they sell on demand. If your album’s aimed at that hardcore who still want a physical package, then you can sell it on vinyl at a premium price and you can even throw in a digital download code, because it won’t increase your costs.
Let’s be completely honest about this; the music industry is going for the soft target again. Rather than try to take on organised counterfeiters, they’re trying to recoup their perceived losses by hitting, and alienating, music fans who have no objection to paying for a product. The business was quite happy to reap the benefits of digitisation in the production and distribution process but doesn’t like to see the customers using the same technology to shift formats for the user’s convenience. It certainly puts the eighties ‘Home taping is killing music’ campaign into perspective.
As always, the UK music establishment is frantically trying bolt the door when the stables have been empty for years while. Perhaps it’s one last cynical attempt to cash in on the punters who realise that they need to copy their CDs before the indestructible format vanishes and, ultimately, so do the CD players. So, if you’re one of those strange people that still believes in paying for music, you’ll have two choices: cheap and cheerful download or premium price (currently about twice the price of a CD) vinyl copy. As for streaming, well no artist I know is happy with their level of reward from Spotify, but the establishment’s comfortable with a lower percentage of an increasing volume for very little investment and the big players are now buying in to streaming services for their mass market activities.
Are there any alternatives to accepting the lower sound quality of MP3s and the high price of vinyl (and something to play it on if you didn’t save it from the first time round)? You could try uncompressed audio; Neil Young’s been touting his Pono format for a few years (other formats are available) and better internet bandwidth and bigger hard drives are making that more attractive now. Sound purists love it, but it’s a digital format and there’s no tactile packaging, photos or sleeve notes, and you could see it as just another way to resell back catalogue (again) in another format. Or maybe Cooking Vinyl MD, Martin Goldschmidt was right five years ago when he predicted the CD ‘will actually become a minority (non-mass market) format in the way that vinyl has’. Wouldn’t that be ironic?