C L A R K  S O R L E Y

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I have often wondered why a better case hasn’t been made for the cultural industries in their plight. These days the coherent voices seem to come from those arguing in favour of the changes brought about by new tech. They come less from those who feel its adverse effects. Rob Levine’s book “Free Ride: How The Internet Is Destroying The Culture Business” explores these adverse effects and suggests how the culture business can fight back.

It was a tough read. Levine knows his stuff and lays it out in exhaustive detail. Impressive though his analysis is, he is light on any radical ideas for how to fight back. Tighter regulation and better licensing of copyrights was about it. In other words: the way things were, but some more. That most of the responses I’ve read so far are unsupportive of the book’s message is hardly surprising. They indicate which way the wind is blowing. Though I respect Levine for his vigorous research when you see his case articulated you understand why it is generally not expressed more often. Not only is it short on innovation, it is clearly the losing argument and who wants to be on the side of the movement that didn’t prevail.

I think there are two crucial facts which pretty much kill off the case made in Free Ride.

The first is that, historically, copyright was lucrative for a relatively small number of successful people. The majority of us who were party to copyright deals made little if anything from them. Many were bruised from the experience. It should be remembered too that the greater number of artists - poets, musicians, novelists, songwriters, photographers et al - never even got near such a deal. They were effectively off the copyright radar. The upshot was that much so called intellectual property was economically worthless - and invisible.

That’s the first point: copyright was irrelevant for most of us.

The second fact is the more devastating one for team Levine. It is simply that history has overtaken them. It was probably inevitable. A system based on exclusive rights to copy could hardly survive a new technology whereby everyone carries highly efficient copying devices in their pocket, devices which are permanently connected to ever more sophisticated communication networks wired for sharing. All the moral arguments in the world can’t get away from that. Culture moves with technological and social change. The Reformation was a direct descendent of the printing press; symphony orchestras emerged from urban growth and bigger concert halls; the phonograph was progenitor to rock and roll. Many noses are put out of joint with even the most peaceful of revolutions. It is understandable that those heavily invested in the conventions want perpetuity. Their arguments are thus forgivable. But that the old dies to make way for the new is as sure as day arising from night.

So, history is moving on and there is no turning back.

Personally, I welcome the changes and have been anticipating them for a long time. They serve me better than did the old system. I’ve spent over three decades making a living entirely from producing recorded music and only a small fraction of earnings came from copyright contracts. Whenever I was attached to one it was usually loss-making. I survive in a tough industry without having to bother much about rights ownership. People pay me to make music recordings for a variety of reasons not just commercial. Some of them do so for the same reasons they might do other things like play golf, go to the gym, take piano lessons or practice yoga. Whether for art, recreation, life-style, business or pleasure, the list is long. Music is a complex phenomenon and the recording of it has never been only about its commodity value. Indeed its future may well lie in these more prosaic pursuits.

It is likely that music recordings will lose the kind of economic value they had for much of the 20th Century. To repeat: most never had any economic value anyway, so no change there. What will probably be consigned to history is the phenomenon of the global hit, the massive blockbuster which dominated the stage, creating great wealth in its wake and allowing a few privileged people to live like medieval monarchs. These are already days of yore and phenomenal as they were their passing will make little difference to me as an artist or a professional.

How the new landscape will be is anyone’s guess. I think the possibilities have barely started to be discussed. They aren’t discussed because they are still coming to life, still in embryonic form, being created by people who aren’t in the picture yet, the doers rather than the talkers. They are the true creative forces, not technologists necessarily, or business people, or analysts, but initiates from nowhere driven by the base impulse to invent. This is as it always was. With radical change no one imagines the precise outcome, not even the ones who are making it happen. Who in the 18th Century when the industrial era was underway imagined motor cars, aeroplanes, telephones, radio, television, movies, rock music, computers, the Internet? Even the main events of the last ten years alone weren’t predicted by pundits. They never saw a Youtube or a Facebook coming. The next ten are likely to be the same. The next hundred...?

With all of that I think Rob Levine’s battle is a losing one. Short of creating police states throughout the world I can’t see how the culture world as it has existed for past generations can maintain its way of doing business. With its demise will come an entire restructuring of the firmament. Free Ride does nothing to anticipate that and is thus lacking in imagination. It is better read as a history book, an excellent study for students of its subject matter. Beyond that it doesn’t help much being more about where we are and how we got here than where we’re going. It was the author’s first book and I suspect will be his last unless he grasps the nettle of change and embraces the future.

written 2011 in response to Levine's book about the problems

the culture industries were having in the wake of the Internet