Lily Allen’s thoughts on file sharing make for an interesting if mildly painful read. As a darling of the major label pop scene, she is naturally against it, but I’m not sure she’s really talking about music as such, hence the title of my silly cartoon on the subject. Talented as she may be, I believe she is very wrong about file sharing. Here’s why.
“In digital land pirated tracks are as good quality as bought tracks, so there’s not a need to buy for better quality.”
A large proportion of mp3s - certainly the vast majority of stuff I have downloaded myself - are recorded at 128kbps, which is generally the default setting for mp3 ripping software. Such mp3s use lossy compression, meaning they are lower quality versions than the full-quality track available on CD. Higher quality mp3 files do exist, as do FLAC files (a non-lossy compression format) but most people have no idea what any of this means, and aren’t bothered, until it’s time to play the tune through a decent stereo. At that point the quality issues of the average mp3 become apparent to the average ear, and if you actually like the music and want to support the artist it’s time to go and buy a CD.
Commercial pirates, of course, will peddle full-quality knock-offs of real albums, and it is obvious that this is not acceptable. But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about file sharing. That’s different.
Music fans who download stuff (most of them) tend to buy if they like it and can afford it, and not if they don’t. Non music fans who download stuff probably wouldn’t buy it anyway. The key point Allen misses is that a download is absolutely not equivalent to a lost sale. Even the Ferrari drivers at the FAC have worked that one out. It’s a shame, because without grasping that part of the story, nothing else makes a lot of sense.
“You don’t start out in music with the Ferraris. Instead you get a huge debt from your record company, which you spend years working your arse off to repay.”
This quote is telling. She is quite right that you don’t start out in music with the Ferraris. However, this business of the ‘huge debt from your record company’ does not apply to the vast bulk of musicians.
It might apply to Lily Allen, whose career trajectory has been pretty unique, but for most of us, we start with stuff like learning our instruments, learning to write and to perform, learning to do shitty gigs in front of three people and still play well, learning to deal with disappointment and being screwed over, and learning that making good music which people enjoy is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition at this time in history for success in this tricky field.
The ‘huge debt’ part only arises in the major label world, which as we have known for over fifteen years is, for most unfortunate souls who choose that route, a pretty guaranteed way to get fucked up. That’s one of a number of reasons why major labels are in trouble. Intelligent artists mostly don’t want to deal with them because they know that the days of Ahmet Ertegun or even Island Records are long gone, and the major labels are really not interested in music or musicians any more, just profit.
That’s no way to run your music career, at least, not if you are actually passionate about music.
“If this sounds like I’m siding with the record bosses, I’m not. They’ve been naive and complacent about new technology - and they’ve spent all the money they’ve earned on their own fat salaries not industry development. But as they start to lose big from piracy, they’re not slashing their salaries - they’re pulling what they invest in A&R. Lack of funds results in A&R people not being able to take risks and only signing acts they think will work, which again makes British music Cowell puppets.”
Why yes. Yes, the essay does sound like a lot she is siding with the record bosses. I’d go further. The whole thing reads like a covering letter for a speculative job application. The only thing missing is something like ‘and all you have to do to fix this is to put me in charge.’
The thing of it is that Lily Allen is not really talking about music at all, per se, she is talking about pop music as put out by major labels. That’s why the only alternative she can see to the problem of major labels slashing their A&R budgets is Simon Cowell’s world of really vapid crap. Or so she’s saying. She’s too bright to really think that, and I smell a rat.
Financially, the major labels are dead men walking - as everyone in the industry is painfully aware - and the future lies in some other kind of business model, populated by a largely different set of businesses. Whether you like her or not and whether you like her music or not, there can be no doubt that Allen is a highly intelligent and talented businesswoman. She will be as aware of the woes of the majors as anyone - more than most, in fact, as her career is currently locked into one of them.
Perhaps one or two of the majors may well survive the transition to the new model, whatever it turns out to be. This will require a bit of a clean sweep and some new thinking at the top. That’s what makes me wonder who this essay was really directed at.
Not her fans, for sure - see below.
“…saying file sharing’s fine is not helping anyone - and definitely not helping British music.”
Interestingly, file sharing helps me a great deal. Of course, I’m still very much struggling and unknown, but I have several thousands of mp3 downloads from my site alone and a further unknown number of downloads from elsewhere. If people like the music, they will share it, and - please do. That helps me, not hinders me. Apart from at gigs, I have had very few CD sales from people who did not already possess mp3s of my music. That’s why I put everything on the site to download, under a Creative Commons licence.
File sharing might not be helping the British divisions of the various majors, but then nothing is. Their time is over, and has been since they stopped investing in proper A&R, stopped nurturing and developing artists for artistic and not commercial reasons, and started attacking their own consumers directly.
This final quote comes from one of Lily’s own fans in response to her essay:
I downloaded your first album before I bought it and without downloading it or hearing you on Radio1 I would never of bought your second album or concert tickets to see you four times.
What further comment is necessary?
Wayne Myers is a London-based singer/songwriter with a chicken on his head. His cartoon about Rhodri Marsden’s ‘Futility’ article was reproduced here ages ago, but he’ll be damned if he can find it right now. Never mind
A quick update: The BBC is reporting that Lily Allen has now started an anti-filesharing campaign blog called ‘It’s Not Alright’. Messages of support have been received from people such as James Blunt and Mark Ronson as well as various artists signed to smaller labels. The central claim underpinning the campaign still seems to be that a download is equal to a lost sale.
And, presumably, that home taping is killing music.