The Greater Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.

So. Farewell then, Malcolm McLaren, one of the best trolls of the twentieth century. With splendid synchronicity, last week also saw the passing of the Digital Economy Bill, railroaded through in Parliament’s pre-election wash-up in front of a pathetic forty MPs. The legislative enshrining of this particularly sweeping and short-sighted sop to failing business models shows up the UK government as shills to the interests of industry over democratic debate.

Take 1980. McLaren’s chosen wheeze that year was Bow Wow Wow, a fusion of Burundi, Latin, punk and épater la bourgeoisie which saw Adam Ant’s band backing child star Annabella Lwin. Bow Wow Wow have the distinction of releasing the first ever cassette single, a gleeful paean to empowerment through home taping:

In 1980, famously, home taping was killing music, and was definitely illegal. We kept doing it. And yet record companies somehow struggled on, charging exorbitantly for CDs and picking up and dropping bands unable to generate fast enough revenue as they did so. The reactionary blustering over home taping at the dawn of the cassette era parallels today’s filesharing debates, and today’s anti-internet arguments are more transparently disingenuous. The big-money industry model which has held sway for the past fifty years has been a blip, not a fundamental cultural cornerstone without which all popular music will collapse into dust. Artists themselves are adapting to the new opportunities offered by digital distribution and online word-of-mouth – go here for one obvious and shining example – it is an industry grown bloated on its previous parasitical lifestyle that can’t or won’t. It’s more than unfortunate that the latter is where the majority of money and string-pulling power still resides.

Discovering new music, and sharing your own, is and will remain one of the most fantastic, altruistic and mutually beneficial things that culture has to offer. The Digital Economy Act is not necessary to ‘prevent Britain’s creative industries haemorrhaging money’; it is a flailing, ham-fisted attempt to prevent Britain’s creative industries advancing to their next evolutionary stage. Death-throes are never dignified.

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4 comments

  1. Jenni Hill

    ‘The big-money industry model which has held sway for the past fifty years has been a blip…’

    Yes, yes and yes.

    To talk to some people you’d think that this was the way music’s always been!

  2. Michael

    I’m one of the last people who’d leap to the defence of record labels so I’m not going to nor am I trying to endorse any legislation. Nor am I a Luddite, I don’t support the view voiced as late as the 1980s (seriously) by one old musician that “Cinema Organs” were where “rot” set in.

    What you’ve posted has led me back to some musings though (sorry if it’s a bit long-winded!).

    “…home taping was killing music, and was definitely illegal. We kept doing it. And yet record companies somehow struggled on…”

    The UK is one of (I think) less than half a dozen European countries not to have responded to this by introducing a blank media levy which dealt with the legality bit and has a measure of fairness since the hardware manufacturers were making money out of a product which was of almost no value to anyone save musicians themselves without home taping. It’s worth remembering that other countries found a way to deal with it that didn’t harm listeners and rewarded creators. Proposals around some sort of internet levy are of course far more fraught with practical and moral issues…

    “Discovering new music, and sharing your own, is and will remain one of the most fantastic, altruistic and mutually beneficial things that culture has to offer.”

    When you say sharing “your own” do you mean stuff someone has bought or actually created themselves. Surely, the creator of a work should have some rights over how the product of their labour is used and/or consumed?

    “Artists themselves are adapting to the new opportunities offered by digital distribution and online word-of-mouth…”

    Yep, which is fantastic however, all of the discussion around ‘new models’ seems to focus on distribution. I hear very little about how they deal with the costs of production. In turn, falls in investment have a knock-on effect on the physical and ‘talent’ infrastructure jeopardising creativity in the future. It’s not helpful (or correct) to simply ‘blame the internet’ for the roll call of lost studios, fall in real-terms earnings etc but these are issues that need to be addressed.

    The second thing is, and this is not a defense of the DEB, how can new models flourish if they’re always ‘competing with free’?

    In response to Jenni’s (hiya!) point, calling the current model a ‘blip’ isn’t correct since prior to that there wasn’t much in the way of recording at all. The world of music was very different and indeed the growth of recorded music led to massive changes which took time for people to adapt to. Along the way we had things like ‘needle time’ which people now would find unimaginable (both as a concept and in terms of Union power).

  3. Pingback: Musicians and authors in the digital world. « Velvet Coalmine

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