From acceptance to accommodation

Speakers and attendees at MusicTank's Beyond The Soundbytes conference, 15 November 2006
So I went down to Carlton House Terrace for a MusicTank conference called Beyond the Soundbytes. Fascinating. There’s a sort of melancholy thrill to be had from watching an industry nervously coming to terms with its possible extinction. Media orthodoxy says that new forms don’t replace the old ones, they just amend and inflect them, adding to the rich tapestry and all that.

I’ve always assumed that would be the case with recorded music but this time I’m beginning to think the orthodoxy may not apply here. The music business – or at least the part of it whose income depends on the ownership and exploitation of rights, is seriously contemplating its own annihilation. Music will, whatever happens, survive and probably thrive in the networked environment. The music business, on the other hand, may really be doomed.

Here are the main points from my notes, some of which I found very surprising from a music business audience:

• Essentially universal acceptance of the failure of DRM and TPM
• Something close to an admission of defeat on illegal downloading
• Readiness to accommodate the old enemies from the technology world: ISPs, manufacturers, portals…
• No interest at all in copyright term extension
• Enthusiasm for proposals to rework copyright for the networked age
• Plenty of interest in a move to a subscription model of some kind (mostly out of desperation, I guess)

The event’s main purpose was the launch of MusicTank’s report on the state of the UK music business, written by Peter Jenner.

Here are some photos from the event and here’s the Irish Guards, performing Copacabana (no kidding) outside in The Mall.

Categorized as Copyright

Has the music business escaped the denial phase?

Fascinating evidence – in a paid-for supplement to this week’s New Statesman – that the record business has reached the acceptance stage of the grieving process. The Smith Institute, which is the Think Tank set up in John Smith’s memory, set up a round table for the industry to discuss ‘Copyright reform: bridging a gap between music and technology‘.

And a strangely hermetic event it was too: lots of intelligent and influential people and every one of them from the business (a couple of friendly outsiders are permitted). The result is unexpectedly radical (especially given the total absence of genuine copyright reformers). Speaker after speaker essentially accepts as orthodoxy that the era during which it was possible to defend rights in a recording is now finished.

The industry’s response is something called the Value Recognition Right (VRR), an intriguing attempt, if I understand it properly, to legitimise digital intermediaries like ISPs and P2P networks by creating a new class of contractual relationship that recognises the value of the assets carried over their systems. The most interesting thing about the debate, though, is the obvious ambivalence of the industry to the new measure.

Even while Emma Pike, Chief executive of British Music Rights, is busy giving the VRR its first public outing, others around the table are just as busy urging the industry to adjust to the impossibility of defending the value in a recording at all. Pike’s VRR extends the scope of existing copyright law and seeks new sanctions against ‘secondary copyright violators’ (the P2P toolmakers and networks, presumably). The music business seems ready to acknowledge that it can do no more than delay the inevitable.

Adam Singer, who used to run cable programme maker Flextech (now part of NTL), and who now runs The MCPS-PRS Alliance, makes it explicit:

“The conversation has to follow two lines. The first question is: “How do we use copyright now to buy ourselves some time?” The second is: “How do we use copyright in a world where recordings no longer have any value?””

If the music business really is finally ready to adjust to the boundaryless, post-scarcity world of digital music, then maybe it’s time for the rest of us – thieves and scumbags all – to return the favour by more generously acknowledging the value created by artists and their labels. Let the great reconciliation begin.

Categorized as Copyright

Warning – very long sentence about very boring topic

Stephen Newton, a Manchester PR guru, correctly points out (in a comment) that my long reply to Nicola Stanbridge’s long but slightly off-the-point reply to my long (and witheringly to-the-point) email to The Today Programme about her tendentious interview with disingenuous pop fossil Cliff about copyright term extension is actually quite boring.

That’s the thing. Copyright, the public domain, the history of hard-won access to ideas and all that is actually a real drag. Dry as dust. So, what we need, says Stephen, is better stories. Stories about actual orphan works and actual suffering amongst actual readers and learners or whole communities and nations denied access to their intellectual birthright by rapacious big media. Got any?

Categorized as Copyright

The BBC replies

I got a reply to my letter to The Today Programme – from Nicola Stanbridge, the reporter involved, in fact. I haven’t replied yet but will do so tomorrow. In the meantime, here’s her email:

Dear Steve,

Thank you for your email to the Today Programme. To answer a couple of points:

– I talk to a range of people, from all points of view, for background information in relation to every story.

– We were not promoting the industry position, we have no interest in doing that, instead we were looking at the Gowers review, which is hearing evidence until the end of the week, and picking up on a current campaign which highlights the disparity between songwriter and performer & other countries. We approached Sir Cliff because he has wide appeal and his main objective was to stand up for those 1950s stars who can’t get by and would like copyright royalties extended.

– My first question to Sir Cliff looked at when a recording is out of copyright, anyone can publish it , often at bargain prices which benefits the consumers.

– One point given some time in the piece was that some musicians want a “use it or lose it rule.” Horace Trubridge of the Darts explained how he felt his record company had let his band fall into obscurity, while there was a market for their records and while the band could’ve capitalised on that.

– On your final point if you know of historic, creative works under threat or an expert concerned about such a situation maybe we could do another piece on that. We are a very interactive programme with our email audience and always open to ideas.

Nicola Stanbridge

Categorized as Copyright

More excellent PR from the record industry

The BBC’s flagship daily news programme, Today, has, over the last few years, been a reliable mouthpiece for the music industry. Yesterday morning, Nicola Stanbridge interviewed Cliff Richard (yes, Cliff Richard) about copyright extension. Cliff advocates an extension of protection for recordings (like his Living Doll) to 95 years.

Stanbridge’s item advanced the case for extension without once mentioning the industry’s over-riding economic interest in the matter and managed to caricature opposition to extension by including no public domain advocates at all – just the rather sad voice of a member of Seventies chart-toppers Darts whose position is informed by the fact that his record label deleted all his recordings years ago. Here’s the email I wrote to Today:

Dear Today,

Nicola Stanbridge’s piece about extending copyright protection for musical recordings (Tuesday 18 April) suggested more than a little music industry spin.

Cliff and the handful of artists whose recordings are still selling after 50 years will not be the main beneficiaries of an extension of copyright protection. The music industry will benefit most because copyright protection takes in entire catalogues, not just a few recordings.

Might I ask Ms Stanbridge to declare any contact she had in the preparation of her piece with music industry PR departments? I ask because her piece essentially promoted the industry position while, strangely, not quoting a single industry representative nor more than obliquely mentioning the industry’s evident interest in an extension.

Meanwhile, the principle victims of an extension – the general public – were not represented at all, despite the fact that all of the best arguments against extension come from people who think that copyright extension directly impoverishes the public domain by reducing public access to historic creative works.

Best wishes,
Steve Bowbrick

Here’s an MP3 of the interview.

Categorized as Copyright


Oumou SangareKathleen Ferrier
From the tenuous links dept. (Singers, women, National heroines…). Lovely, long, quite slow-paced and admiring portrait of Mali’s Oumou Sangare from fan and world music expert Lucy Duran on Radio 3 at the weekend (yes, it’ll probably be overwritten by next week’s show so you should drop me a line if you want an MP3). And, if you’re going CD shopping next weekend, remember that everything Kathleen Ferrier ever recorded is now out of copyright (she died in 1952) so you should be able to buy it all in really cheap new editions. This is what copyright time limits are for. The labels have had their fifty years to exploit the Ferrier catalogue and now it’s someone else’s turn. If we’re not careful, record label whinging (remember the fuss about the fiftieth anniversary of Callas’ 1953 Tosca?) is going to close off recent work like Ferrier’s from the public domain forever.

Categorized as Copyright

Can you commoditise a commodity?

G Beato in The Guardian laments file sharing’s commoditisation of music. The piece is heartfelt but unhistoric. Music is ancient – older than language – but has changed more in the 75 years since recordings became available than in most of its history. More still in the fifty years since the 45 became pop’s day-to-day currency. Commoditisation began when songs could first be pressed into wax on an industrial scale. Music has been a commodity ever since.

File sharing, at worst, commodifies more efficiently. At best (and this is just me speculating), by ripping music from those nasty physical tokens, it may improve its status. What I like about the article, though, is Beato’s rhetorical alignment of the file sharers with the record labels against the increasingly marginalised artists. If he were honest with himself, though, Beato would admit that we have no idea how artists and music will really be affected.

Categorized as Copyright

PR Works

The recording industry has the best PR. Evidence: a quite startling suspension of balance on The BBC’s agenda setting morning news show The Today Programme today. An item, by Stephen Evans, about the proposed extension of European copyright protection for music recordings from 50 to 95 years (to match American law) was breathtakingly skewed in favour of the record labels.

“There’s a good argument to be made that the greatest male singer of all time was Tito Gobbi and the greatest female singer Maria Callas and that the greatest opera recording was made by EMI when the two sang together in 1953. That Tosca is now one of the jewels in EMI’s treasury. Under European coyright law, though, its a jewel that’s about to become legally available to any company with the means to burn and sell a CD.“

The impeccable industry PR line, reproduced without question by Evans, is that the treasury of European recorded music is about to be “made free to all comers”. The PR ‘hook’ is the fiftieth anniversary of this famous recording.

No mention was made of the powerful arguments for the rolling back of copyright protection, no mention of the effectively unlimited protection offered by Digital Rights Management systems, no consumer voice, no artists, no mention of the potential damage to the public domain, nothing. Just the undiluted record industry line.

Evans failed to note that a 45 year extension to copyright protection necessarily means the removal from the public domain of substantial parts of the recorded legacy. Did he ask if the labels would agree to keep their entire libraries in circulation in return for this near doubling of their period of exclusive ownership? Not likely.

Worse, the labels were allowed to play the part of the earnest defenders of the musical ‘treasury’ and the indefensible idea that record labels might actually be depending on the profits from those extra 45 years was tried out (speaking from my experience running businesses, I’d like to shake the hands of the board of directors that signed off on that 95 year business plan – admirably long-term thinking).

Stephen Evans is an admirable reporter but this was PR cut-and-paste of the worst kind. Incidentally, I wonder if Jim Naughty’s well-known passion for opera can have anything to do with the way this story has surfaced?

The Real Audio file is here (not sure how long it will be available)

Graeme Payne has put a transcript here (thanks Graeme!)

Categorized as Copyright