Short Fall to Freedom: The Free Music Insurgency

Dave Durbach - 19 Nov 2008, 00:00

(279 reads) Who says good music is timeless? Music as we know it today is fundamentally different to what it was ten years ago. Not the way it sounds, but the way we use it and the role it plays in our lives.

When was the last time you whiled away an afternoon in a CD store? When was the last time you even walked into one? When last did you have to wait ‘til your birthday to be given the album that changed your life? What are the chances you’re ever going to reminisce about having to save up your pocket money for those MP3s?

No longer the realm of anarchistic teenage ‘pirates’ or obdurate Metallica fans, Free Music philosophy is being embraced by artists themselves, most famously Radiohead. In case you didn’t know, “Free” denotes not a price but an absence of restrictions. According to Free Music guru Ram Samudrala, in granting people the freedom to create, copy, and distribute it, music itself is supposedly “set free” from the legal and financial constraints that prevent it from reaching as many ears as possible.

The very idea of copyright, around which most of the industry still revolves, has been scrapped. The only remaining constraints are moral rather than legal. They’re also difficult to enforce: music should only be for personal, non-commercial use, and there should be a voluntary donation implicit in the transaction. At least that’s what Ram Samudrala believes.

In South Africa, artists are starting to embrace the internet. To bypass the distribution rigmarole and get their music out there, some have even started giving it away for free. Teboho Rammile of Midrand-based T-Dee-R Entertainment explains: “The focus has shifted towards live performance revenue, and it seems all the other activities prior to the live event (including recording music) are now part of promotion.”

André Manuel, from Cape Town independent label Dala Flat, calls giving away music for free “a great promotional tool.”

“It's all about being visible today. Exposure is the currency to trade in. Due to technology, the making of music has become far more accessible and there is a lot of content out there. Getting people to listen to your material is essential.”

Major labels have been more reluctant to embrace this drastic change and relinquish their income from recordings. Regarding free music, Ana de Sousa at SonyBMG says she supports it in principle, “if it works to enhance a new artist’s career to a point where they can make money elsewhere - out of live shows and merchandise,” but in reality it depends on the specific needs of individual artists – it might work for some, but not for others.

Meanwhile, the suits at the Southern African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO), whose job it is to ensure that copyright laws are observed and royalties paid out, are sweating. SAMRO Marketing General Manager, Yavi Madurai (who joined SAMRO in 2007 after a career in banking) acknowledges “the fact that for a musician the world becomes a global market and this can only be a positive thing,” yet SAMRO remains fundamentally opposed to free music.

“This is obviously totally against our business principles, as we passionately believe in the value of copyright and the financial reward for creative works,” explains Madurai. It’s only through copyright, she feels, that musicians are able to earn a living, and their “beneficiaries” can receive loyalties after the artist’s death.

Presumably the primary beneficiary is often none other than the (major) label itself, who in employing this argument is simply looking after its own interests. Legendary producer Steve Albini (writing “The Problem with Music” for Maximum Rock ‘n Roll in 1994) helped debunk the popular assumption that new artists make money from album sales at all - even those in the conventional set-up before the internet. For the most part, records are cash cows for the label, often riding on the back of manipulative ‘advances’ that send even successful new artists into a cycle of debt to the label.

It’s easy to see why André from Dala Flat would say that, “The major labels, due to monopolistic and greedy tendencies, have given the concept of the record label a very bad name.”

It’s also easy to start questioning the necessity of labels at all.

The Death of the Record Label?

Do artists even need labels anymore? Before In Rainbows came out in October 2007, Thom Yorke told Time, "I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one…It probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say 'Fuck you' to this decaying business model.”

Yet independent label owners believe their role is even more important today than it has been in the past. The massive space provided by the internet and the explosion of competition have arguably made the job of promoting a band even more difficult and important, especially since musicians tend not to make the savviest businessmen.

Indie labels are sensing an opportunity to level the playing field with the majors. Importantly, it no longer takes money to make money. “For a little niche independent like Dala Flat,” says André, “it works very well. The relative costs of being a part of the industry are very low and, if solid and consistent, the returns could be very generous, both artistically and financially.”

Teboho from T-Dee-R reiterates, “The independent record label is better placed to provide the flexibility required by the market, including artists. The indies remain attractive due to their personal touch and opportunity to tailor-make deals for artists sooner.”

While major labels still have the financial resources and back-catalogues that were once enough to ensure a measure of success, at the end of the day it comes down to the music. According to de Sousa at SonyBMG, “It all depends on who can generate hits - music the public wants to consume. Both will have a role dependant on who’s at the cutting edge of popular music.”

Just as things have opened up for labels, the internet has made it easier for artists to tap into international markets. André from Dala Flat agrees that now, more than ever, it comes down to content, and believes this is where SA is ultimately lacking, being largely derivate of international sounds.

“We need to get our content more uniquely right. The business and making money will automatically follow.” While SA may have the technological upper hand, “the rest of the continent is light years ahead in terms of content and creative means of distribution and consumption. We need to look more towards Africa than to the West.”

Looking to the West is exactly what the majors here are doing. The attitude that the internet is not important in SA has led to complacency. Says de Sousa: “We have way fewer active internet users relative to our population than Europe or the US. It allows us the opportunity to bide our time a little and watch what is working in the rest of the world; we can then go with the most effective solutions.”

And while the majors sit and wait, SAMRO, according to Madurai, have spent most of their energies concentrating on drawing revenue from cellphones.

This wait-and-see approach typifies the shortcomings of the majors. With a host of broadband cables currently under construction on both sides of the continent, Africa is set to join the global broadband boom by mid-2009. Intelligent independent labels are using the time to stake their claim.

Teboho sums it up, “The digitalisation of music is inevitable and out of our hands. The South African music industry, and probably the African continent as well, will continue to reap the fruits of 'the analogue era.' But those of us who will climb on the digital bandwagon soon, and restructure our business models to talk to the changing environment, stand to benefit in the medium and long-term. This future gain may be at the expense of recorded music, and this is a hard pill for most of us to swallow.”

A victimless crime?

On the one hand, we have those who say music has the right to be free, and that we have the right to free music. On the other, we have those who try to tell us its piracy.

While selling counterfeit CDs and DVDs is undoubtedly illegal, the Free Music movement is only about personal, non-commercial use, a vital distinction that SAMRO and co, whose interests clearly dovetail with the major labels, don’t seem too bothered about. The Recording Industry of South African (RiSA) has spent big bucks on trying to scare us into thinking that “internet piracy” is tantamount to theft: a simplistic approach that largely misses the point.

De Sousa stands firm: “It’s worth telling people it’s illegal to steal music. At the end of the day most people acknowledge artists should receive income from people who consume their music”. Yet, as André is quick to point out, “Piracy is more than just common theft. It is the proof that word-of-mouth, viral, lateral and other unthought-of methods work.”

As a result, says Teboho, “The anti-piracy message has currently not hit the ground, especially in markets that 'buy' music.”

Another important distinction that no one seems to make is between using the internet to catch up on old music versus doing so to stay abreast of new stuff. Downloading an entire catalogue of T-Rex, Lucky Dube or The Kinks in a matter of hours, gratis, makes no difference to their established careers, other than actually prolonging them by introducing them to new listeners. But when it comes to staying abreast of current bands directly dependent on your financial support to keep afloat, it’s not always such a clear win-win situation.

The internet ensures that people are consuming music faster than ever, and presumably discarding it just as fast too. Already, we are saying goodbye to sound quality, production value, album art, and liner notes. It’s been a far greater jump than from vinyl to CDs. Further down the line, how long will it be until our MP3s are made obsolete by a new industry standard? In short, music is becoming disposable. Long gone are the days when how/where/when one got one’s hands on the music was important. Much of the emotional and physical connection that draws listeners back to their music is disappearing too.

Ironically, the drastic overhaul of modern music ensures that there will always be a place for “old” music in a tangible format, the superiority of which grows more evident every day.

For musicians, the challenge remains the same: to make enough money to keep playing. As before, those artists dedicated to their craft will find a way to make ends meet. Meanwhile, record labels struggle to accept the internet as a harbinger of change rather than a threat. For music fans like you or me, who simply want to listen to the music we love, the benefits of the internet far outweigh its pitfalls. South Africans know it better than most: just because freedom comes at a price doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

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