Thursday, 29 May 2014

The soundtrack of our lives

I was quite irritated by a recent discussion on Radio 2 about the rights and wrongs of illegal downloads of songs or illegal copying of CDs. Some people could see absolutely nothing wrong with it, with one saying loftily, "Music is the soundtrack to our lives, therefore it should be free." I know there has always been copying of music, and LP inner sleeves used to have dire warnings that it was illegal. We all knew that anyway, but for my part, if I liked an album that someone had taped for me, I'd go out and buy it.

What irritated me was the sense of entitlement, which may derive in part from the fact that we do get a lot of free music on TV, the radio and on-line, but the broadcasters don't get it for nothing; they have to pay royalties. CDs that I've been involved in usually have a run of about 50 or 100. In the case of our band, our keyboard player has a recording studio. He provides his facilities, expertise and time for nothing, but after we've paid for copyright, duplication and printing costs, we don't get much change out of a fiver per unit. If we'd had to pay for studio time and for an engineer to record and mix it, it could be double. While there are economies of scale for a large company making tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, they have additional costs: studio, engineer, publicity, staff wages and all the usual business expenses.

I'm not a professional, so such things rarely affect me, although I wasn't entirely happy to learn that someone had burnt off several copies of one our CDs and handed them around, especially as at the time it was still on sale. If everyone took the view that music should be free, you'd have a lot less of it. It's not enough to pontificate on air (or elsewhere, for that matter) that the soundtrack of your life should be free: you then have to explain how the costs of being a recording musician should be met and, if the people whose music you're helping yourself to aren't global superstars, how they should pay the mortgage and put a meal on the table. 


  1. I don't think it'll ever be possible to 'go back' now. I work with Uni students every day and to a lot of them the act of 'listening to music' is not something they will directly pay for. It's either free downloads or Spotify / youtube.

    But that doesn't necessarily mean they don't value music, only that the act of listening has no monetary value. They'll buy the Physical product if it appeals - T-shirt, the gig ticket.. even CDs or Vinyl.

    But listening for free may actually engage people with music so that they will spend money. There's more than one analysis which shows 'downloaders' spend the most on music. But maybe the total sales won't equal the high point of the 90's..

    Personally I'll give the new Led Zep remasters a download and listen, just to check them out. But pay £21 for the vinyl? No chance.

    Music is also uniquely vulnerable to file sharing on the internet - small files with high quality. Movies & TV have suffered but less so (it's arguable that Game of Thrones has benefited from mass downloading). Games have tied in very tight DRM or moved to 'free to play' models.

    Unfortunately for a band trying to shift a few hundred CDs - the present and the future look tough.

  2. As I say, there has always been copying of music: it was the attitude that we are entitled to free music, exemplified by that pompous "soundtrack of our lives" comment. Free to the user doesn't mean there are no costs involved, but I know you're aware of that.


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