MarComedy: Don’t make me laugh

For what tickles my fancy in media, communications and life in general.

DRM and the Fight for the Future of Music

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Those of you in the GTA will likely have noticed that BBC World has replaced CNN Headline News on your TV dials. While I’ll admit to occasionally missing Glen Beck and Nancy Grace spit bile at anyone who comes across their path, this is clearly a change for the better.

One of BBC World’s programs is Click. Click is weekly review of web/tech/media issues and news. This past week’s edition focused on Digital Rights Management (DRM). In short, it took a look at the technology/software behind DRM and how it is being used by major music companies as a way to fight piracy and protect intellectual property (you can find the bulk of the episode on the website).

Though I’ve recently seen examples of how new media tools have allowed independent bands to establish/connect with an audience (here and here), I have a number of reservations about whether this really indicates a sea-change in music distribution or merely a couple of good examples of what can be done (not, I should add, what we can expect to become the norm anytime soon).

– Most acts sign on to major labels because they help off-set production and marketing costs. Studio space & time, recording & production equipment, distribution, promotion and so on are very expensive activities and beyond the reach of most independent, small or just-starting-out bands. Though improved technology and new & powerful distribution channels are making independent production more realistic.

– When bands sign on with major labels, their contracts (typically) are not for a defined period of time but rather for a certain number of albums. This makes it very difficult for the artists to sever ties with their label without long and drawn out legal battles. It also means that the only way to break the contract (barring, I suppose, gross mismanagement by the label is to pump out a couple of albums in quick succession which could ultimately harm the artist if they are concerned with quantity rather than quality).

– It will, I believe, take a number of major artists adopting direct-to-consumer distribution for there to be any real pressure placed on the majors to change their tune (pun intended, but sheepishly offered). You see, even if artists are able to break their contracts with their labels it is highly likely that the label will retain the copyrights for any material produced while the artist was under contract. This was famously demonstrated when John Fogerty (the voice, guitar and songwriter behind CCR) was, for many years, unable to use the name of the band he created or in some cases even play music that he wrote as his previous label owned the copyright. There is so much money to be had through back catalogue sales that the labels will not simply release the rights to the artists, nor will the artist likely want to lose the revenue associated with their creations.

– It is true that artists have much to gain from going direct-to-consumers (ie. the lion’s share of revenue vs pennies per sale), but the loss of the back catalogues will temper those moves.

– Frankly, many artists (particularly established artists) are too lazy to take a stand and start the revolution. It will take a major artist with a social conscience (say, Radiohead or U2) to even make music executives consider alternate approaches to their business..

What is encouraging is that the tools exist  for artists to take greater ownership of their creative output and deliver their work directly to consumers. In time, I’m sure we’ll see more artists (particularly those starting out) taking this approach. The will and interest certainly seems to be there in some quarters. It should be encouraged. But it will be a long time before that becomes the norm and an even longer time before old favourites will be available in this fashion.

PS. I should note that my claims about the music industry and its artist contracts are based purely on my own observation/reading. If I have misrepresented how these things work, I’m happy to be corrected.

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Written by Jonathan Dunn

March 20, 2007 at 2:50 pm

Posted in Blogroll, Music, Soap Box

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