Yes, I know: a blog about file-sharing. Whoop-de-cocking-doo. But before you bark “meh” so violently your larynx explodes, bear with me – because this topic, which has been trundling on inconsequentially forever, of real interest only to techies and Music Week reporters – has suddenly become Properly Exciting.
The government, responding to intense lobbying from the music and film industries, is considering severe new measures to punish illegal file-sharers, including cutting off the internet connections of repeat offenders. This is not some woolly, far-off abstraction. Lord Mandelson wants it to happen. A crackdown is coming. The threat is real.
Meanwhile, the moral argument for outlawing file-sharing is gathering pace, thanks largely to the uncharacteristically reflective remarks of Lily Allen. Now, you could argue that Lily Allen is not really equipped to wade into any debate unless it involves drugs, Grazia magazine, or wheedling, babyish self-obsession. Even so, only a coal-hearted psychopath would deny that her argument – essentially, that successful artists like Radiohead and Muse can afford to be relaxed about downloading, while emerging artists genuinely suffer and need to be protected – makes an awful lot of sense.
Trouble is, demonising downloaders is not a cool or edgy position to take. The moment you say File-Sharing Is A Crime you sound like a tedious finger-wagging reactionary, the journalistic equivalent one of those tranquilised Middle England matrons who writes to Points Of View to heap praise on programmes about badgers and hedgerows (“More please, BBC!”). But perhaps it’s time we left such concerns behind.
Ever since Metallica’s Lars Ulrich sued Napster in 2000, the terms of the debate have become hopelessly simplified into David Vs Goliath: plucky outsiders challenging Major Label Scum. This in turn has enabled berks like The Pirate Bay to portray themselves as Robin Hood-style radical libertarians, thumbing their nose at authority, when in actual fact they’re sneering, self-promoting chancers with deeply dodgy politics, who got rich leeching off other people’s creativity.
Indeed, the issue has been muddied to the point where even a peerless rationalist such as Charlie Brooker can get confused. In a recent column he argued that file-sharers are not thieves; they’re enthusiasts who just “bloody love music” – and in any case probably can’t afford 79p a track because they’re mostly students. Hmm. I’d argue that anyone who “bloody loves music” ought to be willing to pay the people who create it.
At this point you’re probably thinking: boo-hoo, Lily Allen’s not getting paid. Who cares? But while Lil’s not likely to develop beriberi any time soon, for a lot of the bands NME writes about, music piracy genuinely means the difference between them being able to support themselves via their music, and having to get a day job at Chessington World Of Adventures. And let’s face it, the thought of Frank Gallows manning Roger The Dodger’s Dodgems is too tragic to contemplate.
So what’s the solution? First, before we start punishing illegal file-sharing, we need to reward people who purchase music legitimately. That can be done via bonus content – ie. buy a song and get extra stuff, artwork, liner notes, etc. with it, as iTunes are doing with the new Muse album – although that’s ultimately only of interest to nerds. It’s not a mainstream proposition.
More likely, the answer lies in a broader shift in people’s listening habits, from downloading to streaming. According to Spotify founder Daniel Ek, “80 per cent of Spotify users say they have stopped file-sharing”. There’s a reason the major labels all have shares in Spotify. The site represents the industry’s only real hope of defeating piracy.
Trouble is, as we pointed out last week, there’s no evidence people will pay to stream music, and the ad-funded “free” model is shaky at best, so we’re left with the same problem: how do artists get paid for the music they record?
The whole thing, of course, is utterly hopeless and intractable, and blogging about it is as useful as bellowing at wind. But we ought to at least try to find a solution to the piracy problem. Otherwise history may one day show that Lars Ulrich was right all along, and that – from the point of view of musicians, and the media, and pretty much anyone who creates ‘content’ as well as consumes it – the past ten years of unrestrained online free exchange have been a catastrophe.