Why UK Artists are Taking a Strong Stance on Music Piracy

Yesterday 100 UK based musicians got together in a behind-closed-doors meeting to thrash out their differences and agree on a position on file sharing.  This was done in the context of a deadline next week for submissions to the UK government on suggested provisions for tackling file sharing.  It also comes in the week that Lilly Allen closed down her ‘anti-file sharing’ blog after just three days because of the vitriol that came her way as a direct result of starting it.

After a reportedly heated debate the artists agreed on a statement to “alert music lovers to the threat that illegal downloading presents to our industry” and voted to support a plan to send two warning letters to file-sharers before restricting their broadband speeds that would “render sharing of media files impractical while leaving basic e-mail and web access functional”.  There is obviously a distance between this position and the record label position of termination of access on the third strike, but it still represents a massive change in artist opinion.  Compare and contrast with Travis’ Fran Healy stating that file sharing was ‘brilliant’ back in 2003, hot on the heels of Robbie Williams having said it was ‘great’ earlier in the same year.  (It’s worth noting that the Featured Artist Coalition of which Williams is a member was a part of this week’s meeting).

So what’s changed?  The decline in music sales can now be seen as a fundamental market realignment rather than the blip it looked like at the turn of the century and artists are beginning to get worried.  Many might not have seen much money from their labels once costs had been recouped but they recognize the marketing and talent development value that labels bring and that without them they wouldn’t be able to sell as many gig tickets or t-shirts.

It worth keeping a sense of perspective on this though.  Are we to believe that these 100 artists suddenly coalesced around this issue just as their paymaster record labels are nearing a pivotal stage of their lobbying efforts?  Probably not.  Also Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien said that the meeting got “quite emotional” and “a little heated at times” which suggests that there was strong diversity of opinion and that this statement is not a definitive representation of all artist opinion.

However, the fact remains that these 100 artists did attend and did bury their differences to deliver a powerful compromise statement at first time of asking.  This illustrates their collective recognition of the urgency and seriousness of the situation.  So even though artists and record labels will always have differences of opinions and agendas, they’re beginning to recognize that they have a lot of common ground. Together they can start to educate the marketplace that music cannot just be free.  Somebody somewhere has to pay else the investment in artists ultimately dries up.  It’s easy for a file sharer to say that music should be free and that labels and artists and labels are greedy, just in the same way it’s easy for a burglar to say that the owners of a nice house are greedy once he’s stolen from it.

A wholesale revision of music business models and practices is both necessary and is beginning to happen, but that is not an excuse to allow file sharing to go unchecked until that process has run its course.  Of course compelling and differentiated legal services are the best way to fight piracy, but there also needs to be a clear legal framework and, even more importantly, a shift in consumer mindset.  Most file sharers wouldn’t dream of stealing a CD from a music shop, but don’t hesitate to download tracks via BitTorrent.

If this shift towards artists being seen to take a stance against file sharing helps to start the requisite change in mindset then that will be a true achievement, more so than if they influence the legislative process.