Alan McGee is not known for being shy of a good soundbite. Then again, he’s also not immune to being entirely wrong - this is the man who signed One Lady Owner, Technique, Ultra Living and Toaster to Creation, lest we forget.
His latest outburst was to proclaim “illegal downloading is murdering the music business” on an NME blog post, citing the decline of EMI as proof of this. (Sadly he neglected to mention some equally spectacular errors on the part of the label, most notably an £80m four album deal for Robbie Williams.)
Earlier this week I did a blog post for the excellent Big Brother Watch, on the promising news that an Australian court had ruled that ISPs could not be held legally responsible for every case of copyright infringement by their customers.
Some of the comments took issue with my assertion that the primary motivation of those in favour of using legislation to find and punish small-scale copyright infringers (or put another way, probably billions of under 30s worldwide who share music and films). McGee’s article also called for this, arguing the way to save the music business is to “change the legislation in this country and come down much harder on piracy.” Sadly, he misses the point. That wouldn’t save the music industry - it would save record labels as we know them, pining for the boom years of the 1980s and 90s when CDs still fetched £16.99 in the shops.
In China, 95 per cent of all recorded music is pirated. So how is the Chinese music business doing? Perfectly fine, thanks. The only difference is the money doesn’t go to businesses that look anything like the major record labels of the West.
For bands starting out today, accessing an audience is far easier - and much, much cheaper - than it has ever been. Sites like Myspace are the more high-profile examples, but the fall in cost of computers and the emergence of things like Apple’s GarageBand - a bundled piece of basic but professional recording and production software - have lowered the barriers to entry for emerging artists massively.
Equally, there are far more opportunities to monetarise their music - from brand-based partnerships to touring and festivals (both of which are a bigger industry than they have ever been) and retailing varied packages of recorded music, whether that be the deluxe packages or pay-what-you-like approaches.
This is exactly the driving force behind a very exciting deal struck by Carl Barat recently, which brings together the various income generating aspects of the modern industry, and combines that with the investment backing of venture capitalists. For Barat, the costs of production are an investment for the parties involved, arguably a far more equitable process than the debt-burden of advances.
So, to those who question the feasibility of new business models, Barat is offering an illustration of one possible way forward. Radiohead continued their own off-piste adventure with King Of Limbs, and I am sure this year will see many more experiments
The main point is simple though. The marginal cost of production for digital assets is as near zero as not worth measuring,and this is the pervasive fact that has driven a generational acceptance of piracy as neither wrong nor immoral. Neither the technology nor, I would argue the punishment, exists to reverse this trend.
Its time to stop seeing piracy as theft and embrace it as a marketing force within an entirely new way of working.