Songwriters are at the bottom of the music industry food chain. They don’t get asked for their autograph at airports and, aside from cashing the infrequent royalty cheque at which at least the bank manager raises an eyebrow, they trudge along in their craft largely unheralded and anonymous.
So it’s interesting that these lowly folks now caught in the crossfire between file-sharers and multinational labels may have tapped into one of the most promising solutions so far to the entire downloading dilemma.
That’s the intro to a possibly historic meeting, Thursday, February 21, at Ryerson where the Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC) – to much fanfare, not to mention gnashing of teeth – debuted its version of a plan to monetize the downloading and sharing of music files.
The problem the songwriters are dealing with, indeed, the one plaguing the entire industry at a time when voracious Internet appetites demand instant diversion, is how to get paid while still making the peer to peer experience feel free.
Their solution: 16 cents a day– a little over $5 a month – tacked onto your ISP bill. In a household of four, that works out to four cents a day per person in return for legal access to every song available on the Web, from Britney to obscure Latvian polka remixes.
Incredibly, SAC’s math says those few cents, divvied up between artist, label, publisher and songwriter, would be enough to put the entire industry back on its feet.
Let me paraphrase Winston Churchill at this point: SAC’s plan may be the worst one – except for all the others. Because if new initiatives coming down the chute in the UK are any indication, we’re on the verge of an avalanche of Net advertising aiming to pay for your free downloads.
Music fans are at a crossroads: are they willing to toss in a few pennies a day for all the music they could ever want, or be force-fed ads with every downloaded song and endure the increasing encroachment of marketers in a creative enterprise?
But, oh, these are cranky times.
The consumer blog reaction to the SAC proposal was rapid and predictable. It went something like this: “Hey, you’re saying my grandmother, who sends the odd e-mail, has to pay five bucks a month so other louts can have all the music they want?”
At SOCAN, the performing rights org that collects perfomance royalties for Canadian songwriters and music publishers, general counsel Paul Spurgeon told me, “The plan has a buy-in problem not only from the record industry but from ISPs as well. I don’t see momentum building for this.”
Well, true, this isn’t a perfect solution. How the money gets split between labels, artists, songwriters and publishers would no doubt create an epic battle. Government would likely have to force ISPs to play ball, an unlikely scenario for the neo-cons running Ottawa these days.
There are privacy issues around how the files get tracked, and questions about whether the plan can live up to Canada’s international treaty obligations on copyright. And, of course, other content producers – Hollywood, to name the biggie – would want in.
Still, at least it would stop the major-label juggernaut of locking up content, suing fans and, most recently, the push to shut down file-sharers’ access to the Internet altogether. The fact is, while paid music downloads are increasing exponentially each year, they only account for about 3 per cent of all downloaded music.
“[SAC’s] attempt to move the debate beyond clearly failed policies is a step in the right direction,” says Canadian Internet law expert and general thorn in the side of the major record labels Michael Geist.
“The best approach would be to use this as a stepping stone for broader consultation and dialogue.”
It would certainly offer competition to the advertising model exemplified by Peter Gabriel’s We7.com, where you download tunes for free following a 10-second advert. I love you, Pete, and I admire you for being out there trying to find solutions for artists, but this idea sucks.
Another ad-sponsored initiative across the pond is Qtrax, launched earlier this year, which boasts a 25-million-song catalogue from all the majors. The trick here is that every time you download, you have to watch an ad from the likes of Burger King or Ford. (The service is currently unavailable in Canada.)
Aram Sinnreich, a music biz analyst and media prof at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, thinks ad initiatives raise some thorny issues about art and commodification.
“The idea of ad-sponsored music is very much in vogue right now, and it comes with a long history,” he says. “It’s called terrestrial radio and later MTV. But it’s a mixed blessing, because it comes with loaded questions about the corporatization and propertization of culture.”
Indeed the bottoming-out of the traditional music biz has revived questions about advertising and rock ’n’ roll at a time when we barely notice our favourite artists in ads. When Parachute Club’s beloved Rise Up was used in an ad years back, it created a shitstorm.
When alt-country gods Wilco licensed a bunch of tunes from last year’s sweet Sky Blue Sky to Volkswagen, the backlash was immediate in the blogosphere, but then things died down. The ad-cluttered landscape has no doubt numbed our senses, but also questioning a band’s decision to collect some dough on a car commercial misses the mark. Why should artists have all the responsibility to keep culture uncontaminated? Hell, they need to make a living, too.
“There is no question that the industry is moving toward licensing [of artists’ music] and advertising,” says Sinnreich. But he’s pessimistic about the actual revenue potential. “Advertising alone won’t replace lost CD sales revenue,” he says.
With ad-funded sites like Spiral Frog and popular streaming sites like Pandora struggling to turn a profit, Sinnreich says the entire industry is changing so drastically right now that it’s impossible to predict its future shape.
But he has his eye on the SAC proposal. In fact, he’s part of a group of industry insiders looking into a similar scheme in the U.S. “I think there is a lot of promise in a blanket licence, but of course the devil is in the details,” he says.
Indeed, it will be. But what I like about the proposal right off is less the answers the group has arrived at than the questions it raises: What does music mean to you? How important is it for a healthy society? What role do you want to play in nurturing it?
It invites Canadians to look at their relationship to music not as consumers but as citizens. This isn’t about “what the market wants,” because we know the answer to that – it wants unlimited access to the world’s repository of music. With the industry poised for restructuring, however, it’s possible to talk about more societal concerns.
“It’s really a social issue,” says SAC vice-president and Chilliwack main man Bill Henderson. “This is about the common good. After all, we have bachelors paying school taxes even though they don’t use the system.”