Crispin Hunt - Creators’ Rights In A Digital World

17 Mar 2014

This speech is reproduced by kind permission of its author, Crispin Hunt – artist and Co-CEO, FAC.  This was delivered at a Westminster Media Forum event – Next Steps For The UK Music Industry – streaming, social media and market consolidation.
With characteristic wit and incisive comment, Crispin articulates artists’ and creators’ concerns on ownership, rights and the monetisation of music in an increasingly complex digital landscape.
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The opportunities for musical innovation in the digital environment are countless: the imminent return of ‘hi-fi’ with ‘Blue-Ray’ music files on G4 mobile phones and solid state drives; apps to replace the long-mourned sleeve artwork; social media platforms that allow musicians unparalleled contact with their fans, (though I’m not convinced Prince would have been so thrilling an enigma if he had been compelled to tell us exactly which deodorant he uses each morning on Fake-Book); media statistics and mountains of data to better inform marketing budgets, countered by the opportunity to buy a million You-Tube views for $500 as advertised on Google; Merchandising, T-shirts and Mugs bought direct from streaming services; Crowdfunding (or busking at it used to be known); curation of artists’ playlists on Spotify (or DJ-ing as it used to be known), the digital world is our oyster…the only downside is that you seem have to do it all ‘on spec’.

The digital life of a musician directly mirrors that of most professional creatives; actors, photographers, journalists, directors, authors, artists…all are keenly aware of the opportunities offered by the digital environment, but most have yet to experience the promised rewards.

In fact, for musicians, the digital experience is probably magnified. Music was the first industry left behind by the digital environment. Or to tell the truth, music once stupidly disregarded the digital environment.  Be that as it may, tardiness should not be used as an excuse to damn the music industry as defunct, just as one shouldn’t damn a fat kid for coming last in an egg and spoon race.

Just imagine the excitement of working in Silicon Valley in the early 90’s…Open plan offices full of geeks singing along to 2 Unlimited’s Techno, Techno, Techno, Techno, There’s No Limit….Though whether those geeks foresaw that the band would have to completely re-think how to make a living in the aftermath of that Too-Unlimited Techno-environment, we will never know.

Just a decade ago a musician would work to create a piece of music…a tune, which hopefully communicated something beyond words, a work capable of making people feel happy, sad, comforted or generally less-isolated.  Then they’d play it to the world, hoping that the world might cough up the price of a packet of crisps to have that sensation at their disposal; and thus allow the musician to survive until he/ she had composed another likeable track.  It wasn’t a lot to ask, we didn’t feel, but apparently it was too much.

The Internet somehow confused the right to the free movement of ideas (a concept which I adhere to strongly) with the free movement of work.

I could play you the mumbled Dictaphone snippet of my ‘idea’ for my contribution to the chorus of Florence and the Machine’s Drumming Song, and you would, quite rightly, not pay a penny for it.  However, after of days of development and labour by dedicated musicians and producers, it’s an awesome tune.  And, though I say it myself, surely worth 99p?

So…why do the 1.9 million people, that Hulk-Share transparently inform us have pirated that tune, feel under no obligation to reimburse us for that service?  They seem to believe that music should now be on tap, for the sake of the common good, as if there were a right to others’ creativity, and seemingly, as if there were a right to profit from others’ work…by selling advertising next to it!

“It’s progress”, they say, “You can’t stand in the way of progress. Get with the times…start your own You-Tube channel, and we’ll give you a cut of the advertising revenue” is their ‘generous’ meme.

But what kind of progress is it that devalues creative communication for the sake of more manipulative advertising?  Surely, a good part of the joy of the human condition is deciding what you like and what you don’t like?  Life will be very dull indeed if we only see things we like.

But the moment you start to question ‘free’, you are labeled a Luddite. Legions of self-professed Nostradamii, (often funded by those that profit from ‘free’, who, it should be noted, guard their own software copyrights like Rottweilers), that denounce professional musicians as corporate whores and dictate to us that we should be “making music for the love of it”!

Such pronouncements would be easier to stomach if it weren’t for the fact that music is everywhere.  Huge profits are being made from music, just not by (most) musicians.  True, if recorded music had really become defunct, like Kodak film, then we would have to admit defeat.  But when music is relentlessly used to lure the public to view advertising, then the Luddite accusations feel a little harsh.

I love recorded music.  It is a different art form to live music.  Live is about impact; recordings are about getting it right so that it can withstand multiple listens.  If recorded music becomes just an exposure tool to get fans to gigs, then there will be no more Sergeant Peppers, no Kate Bush, no Daft Punk, no Sex on Fire and certainly very few people would know the melody to Dylan’s “You better start swimming, or you’ll sink like a stone, ‘cos the Times they are a changing”, as he probably only sung the actual tune once – on the record.

The ‘go out and play live’ mantra is another fallacious solution offered in lieu of the ‘free’ use of our work.

I know plenty of bands that have above half a million views on YouTube, and command audiences of more than 300 people, who find the promoter takes the lions share and the band walk away with little change from £20 each, after transport and fuel and the agent’s cut are deducted from a performer fee that is rarely more than £250.  Bands usually only make a half decent living from gigging as a result of expensive exposure and promotion by the industry.

Exceptions do exist, Fugazi, and a few others.  But even Psy, with the global phenomenon that was Gangnam Style, who enjoyed more than one billion views on YouTube, reportedly only made $8.8 million dollars from the exposure (that’s including income from advertising contracts).

$8 million dollars is good money, I grant you, but not if you consider that you may have entertained one in five people on the planet!  Surely you should be able to afford more than a semi-detached house in Twickenham on the proceeds?

Certainly the staff at YouTube could afford to live on Kensington Palace Road on the back of the attention Psy provided.

YouTube’s apparent aim is to strangle the entertainment industry in order to take over as the sole global distributer of creative content.  Preferring their vision of homemade proletarian art, free of any corporate bourgeois influence, to the professional products the creative industries supply.  The web’s very own cultural revolution.

It has always confused me why Britain treats culture as if it smells faintly of garlic.  Watching the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games, it seems clear that what Britain means to the rest of the world is The Beatles and Mr. Bean!  Not the delusional image of an iconic Kingdom of engineering and steam that we prefer.  Yet the world loves us for Macca and Rowan, and we should be proud of that reputation, not ashamed of it, dismissing it as cissy.

The Culture Minister, Maria Miller, recently referred to the ‘soft power’ that the cultural industries provide for the UK.  But we are myopic if we cannot see that institutions like the World Service provide far more ‘hard power’ to the British brand than even our ageing and dysfunctional trident deterrent.  Even the DCMS appears to be treated as a kindergarten, for those with naught but a fleeting interest in the arts, media and sport, from which to graduate to a ‘real job’ like education or health.

But wait a moment, isn’t culture at least half of education?  And isn’t health directly linked to quality of life, and quality of life is judged by access to culture?  Maybe we should, like the garlicky French, treat it more seriously.  Culture is not something sipped from a pot of Yakult; culture is the defining characterisation of our national identity.

We are not a nation of shopkeepers, we are a nation of inventors. Inventors, both creative and commercial, who have a basic human right to make living from those inventions.  So, rather than selling our creativity downstream in favor of a Silicon Valley dream, outside Oxford, that doesn’t yet exist and that we have, as yet, shown no real aptitude for, shouldn’t we corner the Digital Market in content and ideas?  Ideas are what Great Britain is great for.

Maybe it is a fortunate accident of our island geography that allows the British to take a step back from the world and distill what it is we see of life?

Our greatest currency, the English language, is mostly learnt by singing along to pop music, or by reading subtitles along to films and TV.  It is not only because of tax incentives that the oligarchy has chosen to make the UK their home; it’s because of our culture.  Indeed it is impossible to calculate the true value of that ‘soft power’.  But it is unquestionably more than the £70 billion credited to the creative arts in last year’s accounts.

Why hasn’t this Government implemented the DEA?  All that huff about draconian penalties…where those thrice warned about stealing could have their broadband slowed to pre-modem speeds …It’s hardly a spell in Borstal, is it?  Perhaps this Government has been permanently influenced by Steve Hilton, it’s former Chief Policy Advisor, who was, perhaps permanently influenced by the propaganda of his wife, Rachel Whetstone, (senior vice president of communications and public policy for Google), who was, perhaps permanently influenced by her libertarian father – the business and intellectual partner of the inventor of Pirate Radio, Radio Caroline.  Is that a conspiracy theory or a conspiracy reality?  I dunno.

It’s a strange irony indeed, that just as Google is happy to take credit for the democratic revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’, that they appear to be enfeebling democracy in those states where it already exists!  Why should it be deemed that the Internet is above the fundamental laws of human conduct?  When cars were first invented there were no speed limits or seat belts, but when cars began to endanger society, limits were introduced.  No area of human activity should be above basic morality.

I believe in democracy.  It’s not a perfect system, but it is by far the best process humans have yet invented to protect individuals and society from each other.  Yes it’s slow, but personally, I would much rather have a group of accountable, electable, and transparent politicians overseeing the lawfulness of the Internet than a handful of megalomaniac, multi-billionaire, Californian, monopoles, who behave as arrogantly as the benevolent despots of the 19th Century, forcing their un-elected, un-accountable and un-transparent vision for the future upon humanity, with little discernible respect for the moral wisdom of millennia.

On the topic of which, I am far more comfortable with the concept of MI6 reading my emails in an attempt to protect me than I am with Google reading my emails in an attempt to commercialise me. Though both invasions of my privacy are abhorrent.

I live from copyright.  Copyright that was invented for the common good, it exists because promoting the progress of knowledge is advantageous to society.  We think of ourselves as fair-minded. We honor the idea of fair play and instill the ideal of fairness in our children from an early age.  So when someone uses the term ‘fair use’ as the basis for taking a copyrighted work without permission or compensation, you would expect that fair-minded people would think it is hardly ‘fair’ for someone to get a free ride on the labors of another.

No creator is against his work being used to help educate the children of the nation, but if you don’t compensate that author for the use of his/ her work, by allowing one copy of a book to be photocopied thousands of times, what hope will our children have of being inspired to become a writer later in life?  Imagine the Careers Advisor of a school in a land where content is free:
“And what do you want to be when you grow up”?

“I’d like to be a musician”.

“Don’t you mean a travelling T-shirt Salesman”.

“Not really. Ok then, I’d like to be a Photographer”

“That’s a hobby not a profession.  Have you ever considered a career in advertising?”

People have become complacent and feel entitled to the intellectual products of innovation without having to pay for them.  And though most people understand it’s wrong, their desire overwhelms their conscience.

The creativity that people are willing to pay for with respect to hard goods is ignored when the product comes in digital form.

But fast-forward thirty years to a future where 3D printers are installed in every household.  What will happen when the same ‘free’ logic is applied to ‘things’?

“If I can download the blueprint to the iPhone 25q on the dark net then it’s my right to have one for free.  It’s an abuse of my civil liberty to try to stop me.  You can’t stand in the way of progress”…and so on and so fourth.  If this happens, which it might, what products will there be left to advertise?  Printer consumables, that’s where the smart money is!

My incentive to create is fast disappearing.  As a songwriter, the carrot on a stick was always the dream of writing a classic, (or at worst ‘So Here it is Merry Christmas’).  But the closer I get to that carrot, the smaller and more decomposed it seems.

All right, already…enough of the bleeding hearts, and artists…. crap.  On a practical level, what can policy do to ensure musicians and creators have a future beyond ‘spec’?

Many of my friends, innovators who are starting SMEs, are also finding the propaganda of the web superior to the reality.  Tom Hodgkinson, founder of the Idler Magazine, a successful writer and boutique publisher in his own right, cannot compete with Amazon, who sell his own books cheaper than he can print them.  Tom applauds Areille Phillipetti, French Minister of Culture, for trying to bring Amazon ‘to book’, so that it may not discount domestic product beyond levels with which the domestic market can compete.  Why don’t we do that?

In the long term (though I am aware of this Government’s reluctance to European Federalism):  Please, let’s work with the EU towards making sure that the basic laws of humanity are upheld in the digital realm. With the UK’s help, Europe could become a civilized superpower, with the experience and wisdom essential, to mediate between the established global super-powers and the emerging superpowers of India, Brazil, and Google.

In the short term: Policy makers could help influence industry to make sure creators receive an equitable share of the revenue from the digital market: creators’ remuneration has suffered in the digital age due to rights owners illegitimately charging artists for manufacturing, distribution, and packaging costs that clearly no longer exist.  Digital business is different with radically different costs, and artist royalties must reflect the industries’ savings.

The UK Government should ratify the Beijing Treaty on Audio Visual Performances.  Copyright transfers should be licensed only for a maximum of 35 years.  Assignment of copyright should be illegal as it is in Germany.  Creators must be allowed to confidentially audit commercially sensitive non-disclosure agreements that feature their works.

Any income stream should be able to be audited anywhere in the world.  Licensed or assigned rights should be subject to fair ‘use it or lose it’ provisions throughout term of copyright.  Creators should share in all income streams that feature their work.  Including advertising advances and share options (in the spirit of John Lewis) based upon the value of the artists’ catalogue.

By allowing creators a greater proportion of the revenue from digital music services, not only would it encourage innovation in an independent sector that has always been at the vanguard of adopting and developing new models, but it might also prove valuable to the UK economy: after all, musicians pay their share of taxes, whereas corporations, allegedly, don’t.  And, I must remind policy makers that of the £3.5 billions contributed to the UK economy by the music industry last year, £1.6 billions of that was from musicians themselves.  Granted £1.6b is but a fraction of a successful banker’s bonus, but nevertheless, by upholding the value of creations, the sector will continue to flourish, and the so-called ‘soft power’, that attracts bankers to the UK, will be enriched accordingly.

By way of which, it would greatly enhance the productivity of musicians if we could spread our tax over 2 or 3 years.  A facility that is currently available to book authors, (in light of the advances they have to survive on whilst writing).  Please note many musicians also live on advances…

Policy must help remove the monetisation of illegal copyright theft by stopping commercial enterprises from advertising on digital sites that allow or encourage pirated material.  The excuses that it’s aggregated net advertising facilities that place the ads on such sites, hold no water.  NB: Pepsi and Coca Cola advertisements somehow never appear next to porn sites, it can be stopped.

Perhaps artists could invoice companies for the use of their work to advertise a product or service without permission from the creator?  I have a screen shot on my computer of an MI6 recruitment advertisement on a pirate site that shows 46,000 illegal downloads of one of my tracks.  If there is anybody in the audience from the Home Office, perhaps I could present you with an invoice for the exploitation of my music in your advertising campaign?

There are so many other suggestions I could provide but for now my time is nearly up…

The music industry must now pull off another ‘Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’.  Like the marketing of bottled water, we have to persuade people that streamed music is fizzier and tastier and more convenient than tap music.  That our product, (which we have expensively packaged and bottled at source from the freshest studios and the highest artists, with added features and deeper bass) is sufficiently better to listen to than music that has passed, like tap water, through the bladders, or in this case, the computers, of several other people before it’s heard.

Thank you very much for listening, and thank you to all those whose words I have sampled in the above.  The opinions were my own but I hope I may have helped iterate some of the issues I have with creating in the digital climate.

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Speech first presented 28 Feb 2014

Crispin Hunt is Co-CEO of the Featured Artists Coalition, a not-for-profit organisation with some 4,000 members, who seek to provide a much-needed collective voice for Musical Artists in the Digital Age.

He’s also a songwriter and record producer, who’s worked for/ with Florence and The Machine, Jake Bugg, Ellie Goulding, Maverick Sabre, Newton Faulkner and many others.

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