Thursday, June 20, 2013

How to love music today

Note: this is again an article from a writing course I recently did. Since I've laboured over it, I figured I might as well post it! It's a tad long, but that's because it's a researched paper, so don't hold your breath while reading :)

How to Love Music today.

“Music is the fastest shortcut we know to the heart. Nothing builds emotion like music.”

Kevin Roberts, Saatchi & Saatchi.

It’s safe to assume that love for music is eternal and universal, right? If that’s true, why is music piracy such a big issue in the world we live in today (it may shock you to know that the average teen’s iPod has $800 of pirated music*)?

So should music be free or paid? If music should be free, what happens to the artist? Do we (the consumer) know what we’re doing when we participate in piracy, by ‘stealing’ the artist’s music when we illegally download their work?

I work in media, where music is indirectly, but surely, related to my bread and butter. So these are questions I have often asked several people – from friends to industry heads- and the answer varies all the way from a “NO WAY if you’re a true music lover, you’ll pay for the artist’s work” to “hello, it’s already free- just go online and you’ll have what you want in a minute!”. Every time I ask the question, I’m left feeling puzzled and even more perplexed about what the right answer might be.

Do a quick Google search and you’ll find the same confusion and debate reflected on the page. There are people on either sides of the line. In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, a campaign in Manhattan had a bill board screaming out, calling for artists to make a tough choice: Artists For Piracy or Artists Against Piracy. The idea came up through a low-profile two-man Brooklyn band that was given this billboard space as part of one of their music deals with American Eagle. “When we were offered the space on the billboard, we were perplexed about what to do with it,” said Josh Ocean, 27, the band’s lead singer. “Since we started we’ve given away all our music for free, so just telling people to purchase our music somewhere didn’t seem natural for us. So we said, ‘What if we take advantage of this and open up a discussion about the new music industry?”

Still, from the likes of Bon Jovi to Pink Floyd, major record labels like Warner and Sony, to the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), there are people shouting out from the rooftops for the piracy to stop. Iconic British band, The Beatles, even launched a video campaign in 2011 especially to communicate these sentiments.

However, in the ongoing debate, there are musicians like Norah Jones, Shakira, or Lady Gaga, who claim to not mind it. “"If people hear it, I'm happy. I'm not going to say go steal my album, but I think it's great that young people who don't have a lot of money can listen to music and be exposed to new things," said Norah Jones in an interview to Sky News.

Many artists even feel that the advent of digital music and the Internet have actually benefitted them. Whether it’s the spreading of previously unknown artists and genres through virals like Psy’s Gangnam Style or making cover bands like Walk off the Earth shoot to fame with their cover of Somebody, the Internet seems to have helped musicians greatly by liberating them from the chains of traditional recording companies. Some musicians, like FatBoy Slim even argue this from an artist’s wages point of view. In an interview, he says, “Artists get controlled by record labels. They make all the money. And today, we don’t need them anymore- to put it in simple terms, we can record the music, put it up on MySpace and it spreads like wildfire. That’s why most artists aren’t as worried about piracy as much as the big labels are.” It may be surprising to some of us to know that on a CD that costs around $16, the artist only makes an approximate of only $1.60**.

Still, some people think that it’s about choice- the choice that the artist has to release their music out in the open so it reaches lots of people quickly but not have it remunerated, OR charge for your music and possibly limit your audience. In an article by the New York Times, David Lowery of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker exaclaims, “Piracy is eliminating your rights as artists! Whereas, if you are for copyright, you have the choice to sell your work or give it away.”

But see, here’s the thing- I think we’re way off when it comes to the sides we’re choosing on this debate. Human nature is simple: we see something lying around, we claim it. If something is available for free, we almost never want to pay for it. The way I see it, the only way to battle that, is to work around it, not against it.

What I mean to say is, there is a step in between the extremes of paid and free, and we need to discover that. It may be important to note that for hundreds of years before the copyright law was invented we were doing just fine. We have a whole body of ridiculously beautiful art (be it music, paintings, sculpture) to show for it. So the answer really lies in understanding what art means to the artists and to their audience, and applying that understanding to today’s world.

As John Perry Barlow (lyricist for the hugely famous band, Grateful Dead, that defied all rules by letting people tape their gigs way back in a time when it was unheard of) puts it, “Art is a relationship. It’s not about property. It’s about the intention of your audience. There are a lot of ways to create value around that relationship.”

Today, more than ever, you’ll notice that this relationship is a two way street. Gone are the days when simply throwing out a piece of music at the consumer is satisfactory to them. Today, engaging your audience whether it’s through a live gig, innovative merchandise, collaborative music videos such as Miley Cyrus’s, and even twitter activity (don’t you love it when you can interact it with your favourite artists on social media!) seems to be an important step to building and maintaining a relationship with them. The idea is to make a fan out of an audience that is evolving, and to let your audience feel like they have a part of themselves invested in you and your art.

Once we have begun to understand the value of this peculiar and dynamic relationship between the artists and the consumer, we can begin to start looking for solutions to apply to this problem of music piracy. One such way of looking for a solution is to look for solutions based on access and ownership. According to a study done in 2012 by YouGov, almost 55% of young people (16-24yrs) today are satisfied with just accessing music and they aren’t really worried about owning it. This is less true for older people (only 12% prefer access to ownership), but then older people are also not so much the people who are downloading illegally anyway.

So keeping that in mind, solutions that allow for convenience and accessibility, such as (an online radio of sorts) and Pandora or Spotify (a peer to peer music sharing service) seem to be a step toward bridging that gap between legal and illegally consumed music. Says Sean Parker of the Napster fame (now on the board of Spotify), “The distribution model for music is broken. You have to accept that the war on piracy is a failure. Spotify allows for unlimited streaming on your device while the content is still locked- it can’t be moved to another mobile device. Still, you’re listening to a music library that you choose and love, and maybe even addicted to, so soon enough, you’ll want to keep some of it or all of it. That’s when you realize that if you want to own it, you’ll have to subscribe and pay for it, or buy it.”

So really, unlike solutions that say pay, pay, pay, ideas like Spotify allow the user now to choose between what they want to access and what they want to own by paying for it.

My point overall is simple. Music, now more than ever before is one of the most important parts of our lives (especially given the kind of access and exposure that we now have to it), and music consumption is also at an all time high. There is no need to convince people to have music in their lives- it’s almost a default setting within most of us. The love and need for music is already there, so it’s not really a case of the music lover (one who pays) vs. the music non-supporter (the pirate). In fact, the 'pirates' probably download as much as they do, because they love music much more than the average music consumer.

So there is no need for a war between free and paid. What is necessary is for the world to wake up and smell the coffee and realize that the way music is consumed today has changed. So really, the solution is to understand what people want, how they want it, and giving it to them in a way that is most fair to both the artists and the audience. If we, as a society, work toward opening conversations about how to make and spread music without imposing hard-bent rules on people, there might actually be no debate on how to love music the right way.

*Source: technology/
 **Source: Almighty Institute of Music Retail