Last night I attended Universal Music UK’s ‘Digital Open Day’. The event was aimed at trying to get UMG’s vision across, to help them become part of the debate rather than sitting quiet whilst, as they see it, the marketplace conversation portrays them as prehistoric fat cats.

I don’t normally blog about these sorts of events, but I think it highlights a few interesting dynamics. The record labels are still hung up about how people view them. I think this is something of a red herring. People don’t download music for free because they don’t like labels. They do it because they just don’t think content should be paid for. Any label-directed vitriol by freeloaders is just after-the-fact pseudo justification. The big issue is not winning hearts and minds; it is undoing 10 years+ of music being thought of as free.

If any message needs delivering, it is that of the artists. Not the big established artists who’ve had years of record label investment and suddenly decide they want to go ‘free’ in order to drive sales concert tickets and merchandise. But the small artists who are just trying to make a decent living out of something they love, ideally enough to pay the rent and the bills.

A few years ago, I posted a couple of discussion pieces on "why music can’t just be free." Not free as in no cost to the consumer, but as in no monetization. (Regular readers will know I’m a big believer in music monetization models needing to embrace free-to-consumer pricing strategies.) 

I found myself on the receiving end of some pretty fierce vitriol. (My original post and many many comments can be found here.) The reason I posted back then was that the ‘free’ argument was becoming increasingly one-sided, and UMG’s current PR concerns illustrate that the argument is still pretty one-sided. 

The general gist of the "music should be free" argument revolves around:

·         Music has only been monetized for a relatively short period of time.

·         Music’s been free for ever and that artists don’t really want to make money; they "do it for the love."

·         Record labels are simply getting rich off others' creativity.

Of course, the people making these arguments were usually those busy downloading free music, not the artists themselves. So when I posted my original blog post, I was really pleased to find that I ended up giving a platform for artists to join the debate and make their opinions heard. Many of them posted their comments. Here are a few of them (you can see more of them and the counter arguments summarized here):

As an artist, it’s my choice whether to give my music away or try to force the common public to pay for it. Do I deserve to be forced to? No.

Not everyone fits the profile of an indie band. If every person on the planet wants to work for free, maybe the people in the music biz will join in. In the meantime, everyone needs to buy food, provide shelter, and take care of their families.

Composers and songwriters do not have “add-on services.” They do not have advertising revenue….not everyone fits the newcomer “indie band” model that can sell T-shirts and CDs at their next concert.

Good tunes aside, everyone who wants my stuff for free should also want to pay – UPFRONT – for the cables, gear, time, talent, etc. that went into the music they like.

I mean look, you believe free stuff is the way to go, too…
That’s cool if you pay my bills. When I can afford to be a philanthropist, I will.

Of course, the history of music and all the arts throughout history have depended upon funding as much as creativity. Where would Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci have been without the Medicis? Medieval minstrels without Eleanor of Aquitaine? And, of course, look what happened when the money dried up. Mozart, one of the singularly most talented composers to have ever graced this earth, died impoverished, buried in quicklime in a paupers’ mass grave.

Improvements in technology create more ways for fans to engage with their favourite artists. Artists should be able to feel that this should mean many more new ways for them to make a living as well — not just more ways for people to take their creativity without them ever getting anything back.

I’ll leave you with an account of the event which brought modern-day copyright into being:

"In 1847, the composer Ernest Bourget visited the Paris Concert Cafe Ambassadeurs in the company of his colleague Victor Parizot. At the time, Bourget was a popular composer of chansons and chansonnettes comiques. Among other pieces, the orchestra played the music of Bourget. When the waiter presented the composer with the bill for the sugared water that he and his colleague had consumed as the fashionable luxury drink of the period, Bourget refused to pay claiming that the orchestra had repeatedly played his music – without paying anything: and so [took the] sugared water in return for playing his piece. The dispute between the composer and the owner was brought before the court. On 8th September 1847, the Tribunal de Commerce de la Seine prohibited the owner from playing works of the composer without his consent. The exclusive right of the author to public performances that had been anchored in the French law of 1791 was thus put into practice for the first time. And on 26th April 1849 the Cour d'Appel de Paris sentenced the owner of Ambassadeurs to pay compensation – i.e. in this case royalties – to Bourget."