I think the move away from DRM (Digital Rights Management) is a big thing, and although some companies are resisting very hard at the moment, I think it’s a little bit like King Canute sitting in the waves as the tide comes in. And similarly, for musicians to try and fight free music, I think that one’s gone past them too. I think the statstics are that in a lot of countries record sales have gone down 30% a year over the past couple of years. Retailers are closing every week. Record companies, including the majors, will have to act differently, and I think they’ve been a bit slow or nervous in accepting that the old model is going – if not gone.
New models haven’t yet replaced that old model – certainly as income sources. But there are fantastic opportunities: never before has someone with something to say – wherever they were born in the world, whatever language they speak – had the chance to get to a global audience as quickly, freely and inexpensively as they can today. Many of the barriers to reaching an audience, which included the taste-making (or censorship ) of A&R departments in record companies, those in a way can be challenged. If you have a good focus and a good database of fans, however small, offer the potential for an economy that will allow artists to survive.
The other thing that you have to look at is, if music is all out there and available for free, whether there are any ways of deriving an income from that recorded music? I’d argue there are two ways. One is an ad-embedded approach, advertising at an informational level so that its digestible and not so painful: actual useful stuff to hear about that doesn’t go on too long. That’s why I was attracted to the We7 model. The other aspect I think is to offer filtering, helping people get a better selection of stuff – with all the stuff available, how do you really get through to the stuff that’s useful to you ?
A lot of people under the age of thirty don’t buy music any more: I think record executives are noticing their kids doing the same thing as every other kid is doing. Along with their artists. they have to say ‘OK, how to deal with this?’ Established artists like myself are going to find all sorts of ways and you shouldn’t worry about us. But you should worry about young artists coming through – and I can speak for the field of world music here. A lot of those artists have had 50-60% of their income from record sales and that’s gone – so that’s a huge thing. In lots of ways advertising is really getting in bed with the devil. But if we can find a way to make it useful, entertaining and full of information, perhaps that model will secure an income flow to be shared with musicians or the rights holders.
Like all the people involved in this venture are, I’m a believer that there’s enough of an audience, enough music that will become available and enough advertisers that will believe in it. We’ll put it up there and see if it flies. All sorts of models are being explored – I like this one. In commercial radio, artists are very used to having their music surrounded by advertising. We performers have no control over that advertising or access to the income from that advertising. In this We7 model, if we can get it to work, there’s a real source of income for artists. It could be a real nurturing source of income in an area that doesn’t currently exist. If you think of it as a podcast/radio model – rather than just sales – then it’s occupying new territory.
When we set up the European digital distribution service OD2 – which did very well before iTunes – it took about two and a half years to get all the major record companies on board. This time around I don’t expect it to take that long. You can never be sure, people are people. But I think there’s more willingness now that will allow us to hold a full-blooded experiment. The majors are opening up in all sorts of ways and looking at all the different models and seeing what they think might work. EMI’s move with iTunes to offer DRM-free music a couple of months ago offers people something they want. Ultimately, if those involved in selling are not giving buyers essentially what they want then they’re failing.
I understand how some people feel it’s payback time for the labels; they’ll share music willy-nilly because they feel the labels have shafter them for so long. But if you go up to anyone in the High Street and say, ‘We’ve got this great new concept. You’re going to work harder than you ever did before, and the great new idea is that you’re not going to get any money for it.’ I know what the response will be. Why should artists be any different? We need an economy that supports talented people not having to go out and get a day job – being creative should be their job. If there’s great stuff that people want, whether it’s films, video, music, then why shouldn’t they be asked to pay somewhere along the line? If we can’t do it in the old way, let’s look at all the new ways.
There’s been a fundamental shift away from property and possession. We used to say ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’. Distribution was based on physical copyright and real tangible goods. In the digital world, that’s gone: it’s dead easy to copy and shift things out to millions of people. Access and filtered access are what’s valuable now. Companies are valued on the number of eyeballs (views per page) rather than on the number of sales.
I can look up Wikipedia or Google at any time, rather than have a huge library. All this stuff is moving around freely and that’s really important: a great leveller for the world. At the same time, I do think it’s fair that people who generate content should get something for it. Where there’s some general flat rate payments for goods, time after time we see artists are right at the bottom of the feeding chain. It’s only when there are incremental payments according to usage that we have something recognizable as a flow of income – and that’s the model I tend to believe in.
It’s still really hard – and always was really hard – to break through as an artist. But the opportunities do now range from zero to global overnight with a smart YouTube video. At the same time, artists probably have even less control now in terms of what happens to the content they’ve created. You like to have some feeling of control over these little babies you’ve brought into the world. To have them ravaged and shared around is not a good feeling unless it’s something you’ve voluntarily opted for. If someone comes into your house and takes stuff in the night it feels different from looking at what you have in the daylight and saying, ‘this stuff here can be for free and this other stuff I want to earn from.’
I was part of a struggle for artists to get more control over what happens to their work – originally in competition with the record companies. The whole sixties Beatles’ revolution was part of a movement which allowed people to control how their music was seen, heard, used etc – and I really don’t want all that to be eradicated. In some areas, like concerts, people pay more and don’t seem to have a problem with that. They pay absurd amounts for ringtones. Yet the basic commodity is now seen as something that’s going to be for free. As musicians we need to accept that and try to eke out new ways of getting a livelihood.
Transcribed from an interview for the BBC News Click service