Networker: Why are musicians poor?

Issue 

Networker: Why are musicians poor?

Why are musicians poor?

In "No Remorse", a 1983 Metallica track, the heavy metal band sang, "We are ready to kill all comers/ Like a loaded gun right at your face." Seventeen years later, the band is still angry, but now over lost revenue due to fans swapping copies of their songs over the internet.

The case concerns the very useful song-swapping program Napster. According to lawyers, the way it works is this: One fan has a piece of music, which they share with their friend. All musicians then starve to death and the record industry collapses.

Anyone who has ever taped a song from the radio may wonder what all the noise is about. That is about the level of the "problem", but there is a more important agenda here.

The great majority of all privately held information, including films, books, song music and lyrics, photographs, research publications and the like, are held by a small number of very large corporations, who make a huge amount of money.

These are the same corporations which by and large dominate the world music industry, stealing whatever they can from performers and generally maintaining a regime under which it is very difficult for any artist to make a living. This is disguised by the relatively huge income of a handful of top stars, but, by and large, "It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll".

These corporations are currently engaged in a huge property grab. In the US this is partly codified in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In courtrooms across the US and the world, lawyers representing the intellectual property corporations are waging a campaign to privatise and tie down everything they (and anyone else in the world) can think of.

That doesn't make for very good public relations, and these companies are among the public relations kings. So instead of saying "we want to charge you for singing Happy Birthday To You" (which is still copyright), the message that comes out focuses on how difficult it is for budding artists to protect themselves from piracy.

What's the problem for artists? Forget the existence of an entire world industry which creates and destroys careers to maintain control of performers. Forget the fact that the world economy today is dependent on profit. The enemy of artists is teenage pirates swapping music over the internet. One music industry boss has tried to compare it to shoplifting.

Unfortunately this campaign has won the support of some musicians and writers who have become caught up in the "market" argument.

I say unfortunately, because if the intellectual property corporations are able to enforce their position legally, ban the development of technologies which allow and encourage the free exchange of information over the internet, they will be one step closer to privatising all content on the internet. That would represent a significant setback for all creative endeavour, a move towards the sort of monopoly position found in television broadcast networks.

It isn't surprising that Metallica fans have been at a loss to understand their heroes' action. Some set up a spoof charity site to raise money to help Metallica in their financial "distress". Others took a stand closer to the band's traditional roots: they smashed up some Metallica CDS when drummer Lars Ulrich arrived at the Napster court case.

BY GREG HARRIS