Much as Walter Benjamins' seminal Marxist text explored the radical changes that were being exerted on the value of creative practice in the advent of mechanical reproduction, developments in technology in our time can undeniably be seen to imply similar paradigm- shifts with our own relationship to art, music and film. When last week, the FBI and other legal bodies coordinated a global policing effect to shut down MegaUpload and enacted the arrest of its bizarre proprietor Kim Dotcom, the reason was read out as being simple and straightforward enough to accept uncritically: Despite high profile endorsements from the likes of Will.I.Am, Kanye West, P Diddy, Alicia Keys and such, the site was responsible for allowing numerous infringements of copyright and had done little by way of removing these copyrighted works. But it would be reticent of audiences to simply accept this logic at face value and renege on the promise of new technology. Constant reevaluation of a society's structures and values are healthy standards in a modern democracy, and our society should not shy away from raising the difficult, perhaps even earth-shattering questions.

Arguably, these days of litigation and ignorantly one-sided file-sharing condemnation and praise have been coming for the past decade: A frivolous, decadent utopia for some, a nightmarish 'end of days' for others, a generation of 'entitled' P2P users, and an entire industry clamouring for continued relevance and profit margins. What, in light of digital distribution and an increasingly transient notion of 'album as product', does it mean to be a recording artist in 2012? Equally, how can audiences best express their love, respect and gratitude for creative works? How does digital reproduction and distribution affect our perception of what an artistic product might be?

The problem with the industry.

It has long been argued that record publishing companies do little to serve their artists' interests, only following the capitalist model of 'selling units'. Little interest is afforded by the larger labels to an artist's longevity or even integrity, yet these things seem of huge importance to an artist's fanbase. A record label's primary concern is the monetary return on their initial investment (or ‘advance’), but an artist's main passion throughout any negotiations is the quality of the music they can produce and their ability to keep making it. That is, of course, if they even get signed - with such low returns on investments, record labels are much less inclined to take risks on emerging talent, instead pumping their funds into either established or more malleable artists, whom they can fast-track to the spotlight through a process of characterisation and branding (cough, Lana Del... Oh, I can't be bothered). All the while, record sales are decreasing year on year, and the price point for audience consumption of these creative works, albums and such, remains at the same, fixed rate.

How is the record industry responding to these trends, declining record sales, their diminishing necessity? By changing the way they write record contracts. In traditional agreements- labels recouped their investment through record sales, leaving band’s earnings to be made from touring, merchandise and sponsorship. Now, 360-degree deals are the norm. Warner won’t sign anyone now unless it’s this kind of a deal- a package which is more akin to a management deal, whereby the label will take a cut from any future sponsorship, seeding, franchising, use of material, touring and merchandise. And while this may remove the need for an ‘immediate hit’, in real terms it means that bands will earn even less, and have less control over their image, presentation and rights. Labels traditionally made money from the process in which they were involved – namely recording and distributing records. Is it coincidence that now that recorded music sales are significantly declining, they change their business model? What gives them the right to impede on touring, merchandise, sponsorship or the use of music in films or adverts? How does this benefit either the artist or the audience?

Arguably a more successful model for the record industry to consider would be to focus on the quality of the product they deliver in the first place. For while it's telling that CD sales are dropping significantly, and no doubt digital has had an impact here- vinyl sales have risen steadily. The inherent audio quality to this format renders the slightly higher price point more acceptable, as does the generally beautiful artwork that can adorn such large format boxes. Indeed, notions of 'special edition' and such are becoming more dominant in the marketplace, and frequently albums will come packaged with small tokens of appreciation, or further means beyond the recorded work by which the artist expresses themselves. I think of the Montreal label Constellation, home to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and a host of other DIY ethic bands- whose 12 inch LPs are some of the most lovingly constructed objects I own. Hand printed, designed by friends of the label- there is a crucial emphasis on personality and quality, an ethos that defines the labels work, and ferments a sense of fondness and loyalty between the label and their audience. Crucially, they put out good product, so an audience can respect that and trust it.

A social contract.

In the wake of the Napster trials at the beginning of the last decade, there was arguably a moment for radical change in the relationships between audience and artist. Though instead of a significant paradigm-shift, record companies met with copyright agencies, and the biggest winner to emerge from this short lived era of entrepreneurial optimism was Apple. The iTunes store has singlehandedly catapulted Apple to the position of capitalist royalty, entitling the company 50p from every £1 you spend there. That, to a company which has had no part in the creative or production process, and doesn't even have to offset the outlay for actual, physical record shops in your town centres. Not even the former behemoths in this trade, the HMVs and Virgin Megastores, took a cut that large. Spotify is often touted as a more ethical means to access copyrighted music, without grand expenditure on the audience's part, and only suffering the ignominy of being advertised at every 15 minutes during your favourite concept album. But, when the ethical arguments against downloading copyrighted material from sources like MegaUpload rest on the artist's lack of reimbursement, how do these services compare, in terms of ethics and value? In truth, they're pretty shameful.

Services like Spotify and the iTunes store can be seen as cynical, but ultimately successful attempts to revive the status quo for a digital age. Further models where companies that have nothing to do with the creation of music can get rich off the back of that very creativity, and seemingly, audiences globally are perfectly happy about this arrangement. In a statement released this week, the Vice President of the RIAA, Joshua P Freidlander, stated

“The evidence strongly suggests that the shutdown of illegal sites helps create a thriving and diverse digital marketplace. It encourages users to go to legitimate sites, and enables great new services to be launched - like Spotify, which launched in the US last year and quickly signed up millions of new users. It's always reassuring when the data we see in the market reflects what we thought was just common sense."

But whilst taking down a site like MegaUpload can be seen broadly as a straightforward protection of copyright issue, how is the alternative any more ethical or common sense? It was in light of these issues that Hackney-based rapper Akira The Don began tweeting his Spotify revenue for the last few months. Akira was formerly signed to major label Interscope before being dropped after only a year- and has since carved out a solid niche for himself through home production, a constantly updated website and a series of dynamic mixtapes and albums that, alongside his self-designed merchandise, afford him a living. In October, his songs were listened to on Spotify 643 times, for which he earned £14.42- and only because he is the rights holder. Artists with record deals would receive but a fraction of this. Is that to be considered a fair recompense, in comparison with previously controlled models of record sales and physical distribution? I don't know. It is up to us, as a society, to decide how much we value creative works, and in this instance, a musician's ability to survive from making music.

The commodification of music.

The recording studio enacted the most significant change on music, taking it from being a folk tradition, experienced when performed live to commodifying it and enabling audiences to hold in their hand the music, to play whenever they pleased. Perhaps the new technologies of digital distribution, instead of being used to reify and prop-up an already unfair business model, could be used to imply and force change on it- to bring about a more ethical relationship between artist and audience, and dramatically change our notions of 'art as commodity'.

The industry cites 'millions lost' as a critique of illegal filesharing on the presumption that those are films or albums that people would have bought anyway- whereas recent studies have shown that people who download music illegally are likely to spend over 50% more on music annually than those who claim not to. But to take this argument even further, into somewhat zany philosophical territory: why should someone's experience of and access to culture (music, film etc) be restricted by their economic circumstances? Society decides that albums and such are to be perceived as seminal, as artefacts of quality, that they can enrich your life through knowledge and experience- and yet to have access to these enriching works, you need to fork out a fixed cost, equal across all of society's social classes. I am perhaps playing a small advocacy on Lucifer's behalf, here- but on it's broadest level, I believe there is some merit, some beauty even, in this idea- that access to culture should be, by very necessity, free. However, this idea does not recognise the musician's aspirations to pay their rent, or indeed any cost incurred through production. We live in a world where everyone involved in production: musicians, tour managers, engineers - need to make a living.

Let us then explore this notion of music as valid commodity. MegaUpload and the like offered a flawed service, in that there was no relationship whatsoever between music consumed by the audience and reimbursement to the artists. Similarly, existing record contract models offer little more by way of ethics and direct connection between audience and musician. I would like to ask the question as to whether it can ever be moral or ethical to set a fixed price on a creative work, to question whether music, film or art can ever be valid commodities.

On the one hand, the post-structuralists among us would argue that the importance and value of any work is defined by the audience member. Whether you consider a particular album better than another one, and how you can express that value monetarily. You might consider an artists' latest record their finest, a towering achievement and the masterful realisation of their career- I might regard it as derivative, soulless and tired. And yet we've both forked out the same £11. How then to overcome this disparity? I can recall the model that Radiohead employed when distributing In Rainbows, the famed 'pay what you want' tactic that resulted in the band earning far more than they ever would have from a traditional record label release. Arguably this was only possible thanks to the band's pre-established success, a large and committed fanbase that was built up while the band was on a standard record contract. In any case, this account of the creative work's value is derived only from it's interpretive or aesthetic value to a listener- and does not factor in any of the production cost incurred by the band or the record label's advance. Studio time, session musicians, audio engineers, mastering and cost of instruments are valid costs that artists incur through production, and like with any other industry product, are included in the cost of the final product.

The question then, is whether music (or indeed film) has an acquired value borne of its production cost, or an inherent value in and of itself by means of it being a creative, artistic work. Or indeed, does cost and artistic value have nothing to do, at all, with what the copyright owner deigns fit to charge for a product? The economics of whether the thing would sell, whether a successful career would materialise, are the price-setters' own concern: supply and demand, always. If we as audiences decide that reimbursing production costs is a valid and ethical thing to aspire to, then can the cost of an album or single not therefore be seen as a kind of faux-compensation? Here again, the model can be explored and alternatives reached. UK rock band Mansun recorded their last album release through crowdfunding the production costs- a tactic that, as with Radiohead, could only be realised through a pre-established fanbase. Conversely, this method can often bring humorous results- as with the 2011 online crowdfunding campaign that targeted disaffected Weezer fans, resulting in a giant whip-round to pay the band $10 million to split up.


What is most interesting about the MegaUpload arrests, is not that a filesharing website has been taken offline- but the announcements by Kim DotCom prior to his arrest. In December, Mr DotCom outlined that his company would be launching a music download service to rival iTunes, but where artists would receive 90% of earnings. MegaBox had beta listed partners in 7Digital, Gracenote, Rovi and Amazon, had fully designed software, and apparently had been tested on over a million users. So far so good, you hear- another entrance into a very saturated market of online digital distributors- but where DotCom's service altered radically from the pack was that the service itself was, to its users, entirely free. "We have a solution called the Megakey that will allow artists to earn income from users who download music for free," Dotcom explained. "We will pay artists even for free downloads.” Quite how this is possible has not been fully explained, but for the presumption that Megakey enabled a targeted advertising system that therein paid for the artists' revenue.

Whilst the conspiracy theorists might look at the timing of the arrests in light of these venture announcements, it is also worth stating that; as Megakey had “exclusive deals with artists who are eager to depart from outdated business models”, then it was an essentially legal service. The same cannot justifiably be argued for MegaUpload. Like Radiohead's 'pay what you want', does the success of Megabox rely on a pre-established audience created by Megaupload?

Perhaps we'll never find out. What is interesting about this development though, is that it represents a drastic re-imagining of the relationship between artist and audience- using digital technologies to distribute content in a way that cuts out exploitative record companies and to an extent, retailers. And whilst this offers no insight to the argument of how music as a commodity should be valued- individually set or with fixed price, art as meaningful commodity or production cost solely, it does seem to represent a more justifiable means for an artist to be reimbursed and rewarded by their audience than either illegally downloading music gratis or accessing it via Spotify and the iTunes store.

The economist and later music theorist Jacques Attali offers, in his seminal text Noise, four stages of music as it has existed and could exist. The age of mechanical reproduction is cited in his third stage, the epoch we find ourselves in though perhaps leaving: Repetition.

This is characterised by the emergence of sound recording technology at the end of the 19th century. Prior to this moment, music was experienced only live and as a spectacle. Under the mode of repetition, music becomes an object and its experience turns private. The initial intended use of recording- the preservation of performances- rapidly vanishes, so that "the live performance is only successful as a simulacrum of the record". Attali's fourth stage, Composition, is characterised by a return to the immediacy of music in its former stages and is brought about through the cultural crisis of overproduction and over-repetition. Furthermore, it is through democratising advances in technology that we are allowed to see beyond the 'top down' approach to discovering music, and the alienating nature of making it. Home studios enable artists to record professional quality music at a fraction of the cost of studio time, and software like Ableton and Reason empower even the most untrained to become musicians. In Attali's fourth stage, music is created by individuals and communities for immediate use- art which attempts to create and address a community, without mediation between artist and audience- such a dichotomy would be consigned to Repetition.


The vision of a society of free access to and creation of culture is an undeniably utopian one, and one not without it's drawbacks with regard to the cost incurred by those involved in production. But here, I'm reminded of the American comic Doug Stanhope, and his routine about employment. For while we all have to get by and pay the rent, shouldn't a civilised society be aspiring for more, and not less, unemployment? He waxes about robots performing all the necessary tasks and such, somewhat self depreciatingly- but the idea holds weight. There is much campaigning for a 'living wage', which can be described as an above-adequate amount of money given to every citizen of a society in order to sustain their existence. And still this would leave room for capitalist endeavour, if you wanted to sell your records, repair shoes or drive taxis, of course you could- but this notion of a society where noone has to work is attractive. The alternative to work here is but creation of culture itself, free from the compromises of having to be paid, or indeed having to pay for it.

This conversation is by no means over, despite the willingness of governments to set in place global digital copyright accords. The onus is on societies, that is you and I and everyone we know, to engage in debate about how we value our own creativity as well as that of others in an age of digital distribution and production. The injustices and disparity of wealth seen under 21st century capitalism are not things that the music industry has been immune from, indeed companies have profited extraordinarily from a business model that exploits artists and audiences alike. New technologies offer an opportunity to reimagine our world, our relationship to artists and audiences, and the potential of our own creativities. Whether such potential will be realised, is entirely up to us.