02 October 2010

On Ninjas and Downloads

Amongst the many ideas contained within Accelerando, a collection of short stories republished as a novel, Charlie Stross posits the ultimate trajectory of the music copyright enforcement skirmishes, with a near-future mafia buying out recording copyrights from record companies and 'taking care of' anyone who gets involved with unauthorised copying, distribution or performances, even by the artists themselves. And that's 'taking care of' in the 'friends of ours' way, not the 'kind to bunnies and other small animals' way.

Digital distribution and copyright protection is something that vexes many here in Ireland, as elsewhere, with our former national telecoms company Eircom signing a deal to voluntarily hand over download offenders to, and cut off Internet access to repeat offenders at the request of, the record companies, as a result of the merest hint of legal action being taken against the company. Our own national recording artists' rights organisation, IMRO, has taken action against music blogs such as Nialler9 for hosting music tracks, even when those tracks have been specifically given to those blogs by the artists themselves as part of their publicity drive.

We are certainly living through a transformative period where digital distribution should alter forever the way in which an artist communicates with an audience, with the real prospect that the Internet could remove the middleman from the musical equation and allow direct dialogue between musician and listener, wherein the artist controls their own means of production, and is remunerated directly for their work by the consumer.

But we're not there yet. Information is Beautiful has a fantastic graphic that illustrates how little artists receive from legitimate digital distribution platforms, particularly streaming services. A self-pressed CD burned for $2.00 and sold at gigs for $10.00 nets the artist $8.00; once signed to a label with a typical contract, a $10.00 cd sold through shops nets the artist $0.30, and the label $2.00; selling the album through iTunes for $10.00 nets the artist $0.94 and the label a whopping $6.29; Streaming services are even worse, earning the artist between $0.00043 and $0.0022 per track per stream depending on the provider.

So it is in the record companies' interest to move as much music consumption to legitimate digital distribution platforms as possible, but not necessarily in the artists' interest. What we are thus experiencing is the death of the analog distribution of music not because it allows the artist to directly dialogue with the audience by cutting out the corporate middleman, but because the corporate middleman can make even more of a profit from the artist when no physical media needs to be produced.

This is sad news not merely for the artist, but for the audience, and not simply from an economic position. I love the tangible. I love being able to hold something in my hands, to know that it is Real, to feel that it has a sense of permanence. Digital media, items that only exist as a steady succession of 1s and 0s with no physical presence, just don't hold the same sense of worth for me.

As an electronic musician (or attempted musician) I have lost many, many hours of my own compositions because of failed hard drives, corrupted files, and a stupidly relaxed attitude towards backing things up. I thus find it inconceivable to rely on a computer to be my sole repository for a music collection, even with multiple back-ups. There is an obvious element of irrationality here, for in the event of a fire my entire physical collection would be destroyed, but a cloud-based digital collection would survive any single location-based disaster (assuming the cloud-service is duplicated and distributed across multiple data-centres). But the recording industry has yet to embrace a cloud-based service for fear that multiple users would be able to access the same cloud-stored music instead of each individual purchasing their own tracks.

Herein lies my second ideological issue with digital media, the concept that you purchase the rights to use a single instance of that media, and not the rights to the media in all its formats. With physical media I can understand that the costs involved in producing that media prohibit any universal access to that item in all formats, just because I buy a cd I do not have the rights to demand multiple copies of that cd, or a further copy on vinyl, because there is a cost associated with physical production. However if I buy a track for download on iTunes, and accidentally delete that track after downloading, I see no reason why I should not be able to download it a second time, or a third, or as many times as I want, for free, as there is no additional cost to the producer (beyond bandwidth) for this action. Some of the smaller distribution platforms, particularly those associated with independent labels, allow this, but they are by no means in the majority.

The recording industry fears that the availability of digital distribution outside of its control, specifically anonymised peer-to-peer networks, will send it the way of newspapers. While this would not necessarily be a bad thing (removing the middleman from any equation always seems like an ideologically sound move to me), the actions they undertake to stave off their (inevitable) demise are retrograde and self-defeating. However a few recent actions by smaller labels and individual artists do offer a third way by blurring the lines between analog and digital, or quite simply adding greater value to the analog itself.

As I've mentioned above I love the tangible, the Real, and place greater stock in it than the purely digital, but then again I am also in my mid-30s. For the generation after me, raised in a world where the digital was ever-present and their first introduction to music consumption was through ring-tones, the way to preserve analog sales is by making the analog more valuable than the digital, by packaging it in such a way that the digital could never replicate.

Two releases in the last month illustrate this perfectly, Underworld's latest album "Barking" was released simultaneously on download, vinyl, cd and rather nicely, in a limited edition box set. This Box Set contains 2 CDs and a DVD of videos, along with a 32-page book of notes and artwork, altogether a great little set that just feels right when you hold it in your hands (unfortunately the same cannot be said for the album itself, very, very disappointing after "Oblivion with Bells", they took the decision to hand production for each track over to a wide selection of contemporary dance producers, and the resulting mess loses any sense of the band themselves, the 'Underworld' sound is rarely in evidence, and many of the tracks are rendered bland and forgettable in a generic MTV Dance-esque way).

The second is the far more impressive Ninja Tune XX box set. This is, quite simply, one of the most amazing releases I have ever seen. Warp set the bar very, very high with their twentieth anniversary release earlier this year, but this set layeth the smack down in a way that is impossible to fully convey without unpacking the box in front of your startled and doe-like eyes. Six cds of new, old and remixed tracks, six 45s of rare and unique material, posters, decals and the coup de grace, a hardback 192 page book part-retrospective part-encyclopedia of all things both Ninja and Tune-y. Its not cheap, £100, and limited to only 3,500 sets, but once you open it up you have no doubt in your mind that it is one of the best music purchases you have ever made. And the value doesn't stop there, for each set has a unique code printed on it that when registered online gives you access both to two additional 12"s that will be mailed out to you, and additional remixes and tracks available solely for download.

This is the second way in which the music industry can maintain the analog, by blurring the division between the analog and the digital either through linking additional digital content to the analog, as with the Ninja Tune XX set, or by providing a digital version of the analog content as standard. Warp have been at the forefront of this approach, providing a digital copy of any analog purchase from their label through Bleep as an immediate MP3 download. They realise that almost the first action taken by anyone who purchases a cd from them is to rip a digital copy for their computer, ipod etc. Providing an instant download of the content while the customer waits for the analog versions to arrive in the post is one of those innovations that are so simple the question begs itself why isn't everyone else doing it?

Not every analog release needs to be as elaborate as the Ninja Tune XX set, but Underworld's 'Barking', Radiohead's 2008 release 'In Rainbows', or 'Radio Retaliation' from Thievery Corporation the same year all show what you can with a bit more imagination on the packaging front. Every release should include the rights to unlimited digital copies.

The same, I believe, should be true for films and books. If I buy a film on DVD I shouldn't have to pay separately for a digital version, I am buying the rights to view that film however I wish. If I buy a physical book, and I do this possibly a little too much, I should also be entitled to a digital copy of the book, or at the very least, at a nominal charge to cover any costs associated with the digitizing process (which should be minimal, given that the proofs for the dead tree edition begin as digital). The notion that after paying €20 for a hardback book I should pay a further €15 if I want to read that book on an eReader just doesn't make sense to me at all.

Which brings us back rather neatly to Charlie Stross and 'Accelerando', a free eBook of which is available for download on multiple formats from his website. His books can be hit and miss, and most teeter near the mass-market end of genre fiction (you can normally find something of his in an airport bookshop, which is how I came to be reading 'Accelerando' two weeks ago), but he is a great example of an artist who values direct communication with his audience and at this stage I will admit to being much more of a fan of his blog posts than his fiction. Nevertheless there were many things to like about 'Accelerando', and if you like the eBook, buy more of his stuff.

The universe will thank you.

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