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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thank you for the music

For over two years now we have been able to download music online - and by music I of course mean music that you have rights to, music that you own, music with no Digital Rights Management (DRM). In fact the trickle of real music download sites became a flood when Amazon stepped in, and this year even iTunes decided to let you buy music online.

This is great news. DRM technology was the result of small-minded pernicious thinking, and I am glad to see the back of it.

I'm not sure where we got the view that technology should replace social responsibility, we don't seem to be keen to do this elsewhere in our lives (if we did our cars would all have speed limiters and we'd all be wearing electronic tags), but hopefully now that the media companies have grown out of this view we can start to have a sensible conversation about piracy, funding models and the criminality of file-sharing.

(don't worry, it didn't and it isn't)

Perhaps the first step is to move the conversation about piracy into reality. The image above is from the 1984 campaign to save the music industry from home taping. Twenty-five years later the music industry seems in rude health, and you might think they would be sheepish about their tendency for exaggeration. Sadly, while the technology has changed, the overstatement lives on.

Hats of to the Guardian newspaper for challenging the figures and for looking at the real evidence about how we spend our disposable cash. To summarise: if you unpick the industry figures they assume that every download is a lost sale, and that each lost sale is worth £25 (if you follow these figures through that would mean that each UK citizen would spend a third of their salaries on music and movies were it not for piracy - this is clearly a fallacy). In fact the Guardian points out that the amount of money spent on media items over the last ten years has actually risen (its almost doubled to £8bn!) but that music as a proportion has fallen (the increase is in DVDs and Games).

So if piracy isnt the problem that the industry makes out then what are we to make of file-sharing and of file sharers? In his latest podcast Steven Fry made an impassioned call at the iTunes festival for a change in the way that file-sharing is viewed, and called on the industry (he is the first to point out that it is his industry) to stop prosecuting and criminalising ordinary people.

He makes a number of interesting points, top of which is that piracy is not the same as theft (they are demonstrably different processes, whatever the ad-men say), and that casual file-sharing should not be criminalised as piracy, but as a natural part of human behaviour that self-regulates across different social and financial circumstances, ultimately harming no-one. Although it's far from proven, the sales figures we have already mentioned seem to support this hypothesis - that in general people buy what they can afford and act within a sensible moral framework.

This does not mean that the industry should not be looking at alternative funding models. Spotify is probably ahead of its time (let's see how their mobile apps pan out), but advertising and subscription is certainly one approach. There is also money to be made from live performance, and the sale of rights to other media that has a more secure funding basis (such as pre-pay TV or movie ticket sales).

The music industry is not a sacred cow, it has no right to make money hand over fist, and while I respect the rights of musicians, singers, producers and writers to make a living and have their work protected from abuse, this does not mean that things should not change. Simple economics dictate that if music/media is more available then it will also be perceived as less valuable.

As long as it's still viable, I'm not sure why the rest of us should care.

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