Complaints

Let’s, for one minute, play a little game.

I’m a reasonably successful indie-rock band, with a new album coming out soon. Knowing full well that singles don’t really sell these days, I decide instead to post a song on my website, and produce a swanky video to go with it. Anyone can go and download it, and before long, it’s all over Hype Machine, Elbows, and all those other lovely music blog aggregators, getting me lots of free publicity.

Then my new record label goes after those same blogs for posting the track and forces them to either remove the track, or if they are using sites like WordPress.com, to have them suspended.

Because the eagle-eyed amongst you might have noticed that this site was down for a few hours on Monday morning. That was because the lovely people who host my blog got a DMCA notice to remove the track, and because I’d been naughty before (one occasion for which I am very, very sorry), suspended my blog. Now, I have no issues whatsoever with WordPress. They do a great job, and they get threatened with legal action if a blog they host does something dodgy. But they, as all of us now are, are living in a world that is light years away from even five years ago.

Five years ago, it was possible to go and download as much free music as you liked from all sorts of dodgy places. Since then, the “free” music environment has coalesced into three main sources1:

1. Bit Torrent. Get yourself a Bit Torrent client and you can download as much free music as your hard drive (or broadband connection) will allow. Totally illegal, and totally immoral.

2. Album blogs. Search around Google for all of, ooh, two seconds, and you’ll find blogs that post whole albums. Often they are pre-release, often they post links to Rapidshare or one of the other file hosting sites. Sometimes they post obscurities, for which the immorality aspect is a bit hazy, but by and large they are also totally illegal and totally immoral.

3. MP3 blogs. These post individual tracks, sometimes a few a day, or one or two a week, along with a write-up of why they are being posted. Often it’s the writing that is key; and this is what makes MP3 blogs so special. Dig around Hype Machine or Elbows for an idle hour and you’ll soon find a whole community of people who like what you like, who’ll point you toward stuff you’d never heard but will love, and entertain and enthral. Often the tracks are pre-approved by a record label (or at least, they are in one country – well-known blogs have been wiped out due to this problem), but sometimes they aren’t. So, if you read the letter of the law, they might be illegal. But are they immoral?

No. By and large, people writing blogs are doing it for no financial gain whatsoever. They do it because they love music, because they love writing about the music they love (or sometimes don’t love), and they want to spread the word. And of course, many do it because they are opinionated loudmouths who like going on and on and on and this is a far more efficient way of wittering on about The Band They Love That If You Don’t Like You Are A Moron (perfect example: this site)2. But who cares? They love music. They want you to know about it. And this is the crux – people out there want to promote bands, for free.

There’s an obvious problem with this though. After all, if everyone started posting tracks of a band they loved, pretty soon most of their music would be available for free through the MP3 aggregators. And that wouldn’t do, because bands need to make money to be able to make music.

Now I have an answer to this. It’s going to take a cultural shift in the mindset of the record labels, and publishers, but they need to get it into their heads that we are their allies. Give us a free track or two from a new release; make them properly free, globally, so that we don’t get into that nasty “A track that’s ok in the UK is illegal in the US” thing (the Internet is international. Repeat: the Internet is international). Digitally watermark it if you like, we don’t care. But if a blogger likes the song, he/she can post it happily without any comeback from anyone. And this is the important bit – other bloggers can then post it too. The track is out there, it’s free to use, anyone can copy it, post it, whatever3. We’ll put links in our blog posts to buy the CD from Amazon, iTunes, the band’s own site, wherever. We’ll also agree to not post other tracks from the album, and anyone doing so should be contacted by the label (or publisher) and told to pack it in.

Once a record has been out for a while (maybe a few years), the rules should be relaxed a bit more. Bloggers should be able to post other tracks, as long as they don’t keep posting more than one more track from the record, and provide links to buy. After all, the singles aren’t always the ones that speak to the blogger. We ought to be in a world where music bloggers, as long as they are sensible, don’t have to live in fear of having their hard work lost as the result of trying to promote a band that they love. What’s more, if we build good relationships so that we can talk to each other better, with less of the “YOU HAVE STOLEN OUR PROPERTY AND WE ARE SHUTTING YOU DOWN” type emails, everyone can benefit.

This is the new world. Record labels and publishers complaining that people are “stealing” the music they have made freely available is like a 15th Century monk complaining that Gutenburg was putting them out of the Bible-printing business. When was the last time you saw a Bible hand-drawn by a scribish monk? Who won that battle, eh?

RIAA, record labels, PR firms, publishers: We, music bloggers, are there to promote the bands under your care. We love music, we love the bands we write about, we want them to succeed, for people to buy their records, go to their gigs, buy their t-shirts, and all that. What’s more, we do it for free. Help us help you.

Note: I am aware that “Compliments” was posted for download as a video, not an MP3. My point still stands. This is the Internet. It’s a digital file. It takes one person with the correct, freely available tool, about 30 seconds to rip that to MP3. You’ve made it available. What happens to it then is up to the masses. Whether you like it or not, this is the world we now live in. Going after people like me who are trying to sell the band’s records is not going to help4. If you’d been charging for the video, then that’s a different matter, and I wouldn’t be writing this now, as I wouldn’t have posted it.

Note 2: The track itself has been removed from the Hype Machine listings. Curiouser and curiouser.

Note 3: I am also in touch with Web Sheriff to discuss further. There’s always the possibility that I’m just going to piss off People With Power And Lawyers more and this might be my last ever post; or at least, my last post before I move to hosting it myself.

Note 4: Prizes for guessing correctly why I’ve chosen this particular MP3.5

MP3: I Am Trying To Break Your Heart by Wilco

1 I’m ignoring streaming music from this debate. Streaming does not work particularly well on a Tube train 20 metres below ground. And anyway, I *like* buying CD’s. I like a nice cover, nice sleevenotes, lyrics, and all that, and I know many people for whom this is also the case.

2 And their friends/partner/family/pets have got sick and tired of being ranted at about Furtive Chortle or whoever the new flavour of the month is.

3 There have been ridiculous situations recently where some blogs become chosen to be allowed to post a track to download, but if you’re not one of the chosen ones, you’re doomed *cough* Vampire Weekend *cough*

4 And this isn’t an age thing, you know. I’m turning 40 next year. I grew up with vinyl, taping songs off John Peel and the Top 40, videoing Snub TV and The Tube, and buying albums solely on a good review from the NME. If I can get my head round this new world, so can everyone else.

5 There is no prize.

Buy Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (CD/MP3)