Trent Reznor says some things at a gig in Sydney that aren't exactly going to win him any friends on high but he is totally right. Over the last five years, I have watched with great interest the destruction of the corporate music industry and the loosening of its stranglehold on artists rights. With Nokia and other companies now rushing to converge on the iPhone's market space, it may be close to the end of the line for these parasitic leeches and I have little sympathy for them if they choose not to adapt their form to suit the current conditions of the market.
Anyone who claims that internet downloading is hurting artists clearly lacks appreciation for the long-wave of technological change. The record companies built themselves on the multi-billion dollar successes of 1960's recording artists and the LP industry. When cassette tapes first came out, the record companies cried foul for exactly the same reasons as they're crying foul now over internet distribution, but this fuss didn't slow the success of cassettes in the market. In fact 30 years ago, the availability of cassettes catalyzed the mix-tape phenomenon which made a major contribution to the revolution of hip hop by providing the first means for DJs to record and distribute their music directly on the streets.
It's these organic side effects that the corporate apologists would do well to pay attention to before they start jacking off flamebait and grandstanding over what Reznor has said. The best art is never judged on how many copies it sold, but unfortunately, the history of popular music is more than just the amazing story of extreme cultural innovation by disadvantaged youths. It is also the sad story of how that source of innovation was systematically ravaged by soulless scavenger capitalism. As the mix-tape culture was rising, slowly but surely, the recording industry made movements to subsume control of hip hop through rap music, and by the end of the 1990s they had largely succeeded. When someone uses the word "stealing" to describe freely downloading songs from the internet, they should consider what the word "stealing" means in the context of a record company signing away the rights of musicians, sucking up their creative output, forcing them on tours, and generally extracting and exploiting their talents for profit without even disclosing the details to the musicians themselves. I was shocked when I first discovered just how little artists actually got from the sale of a CD, and found it alarming that so many people were prepared to normalize and accept such practices. It's only fair to point out that some major labels do treat artists well and that it's not only major labels that treat artists like shit, but in general, the business of the majors is predicated on ripping off artists and consumers, extracting as much surplus value as they possibly can. These companies sell an unachievable illusion to up-and-coming bands and in return take total control of their creative rights. They have no qualms about crushing the rights of consumers either. (Note: It turns out that the security profiles of notable DRM programs match those of what we would normally label spyware - you wouldn't normally let this stuff anywhere near your personal computer, so how can it be acceptable for malware like this to be installed with prepackaged music sold to consumers?)
Today's consumer world is more marketing driven than ever. To be successful in any field of public endeavor a solid brand is a necessity not an option. But it is wrong to think that bands and artists must rely on the major labels to provide this marketing. We are the Star Wars generation: everything is a cross-media brand franchise. Successful publicity for a music brand now covers film, illustration, games, websites - the whole range and scope of media that exists. Audiences expect and demand this kind of immersive experience and as digital technology improves, more and more indie producers are delivering it with cheaper costs of production than ever before. That is the real worry for the music companies - it's not that their profits are being stolen, it's simply that they are not needed by artists anymore. All the talk up until recently has been that 'digital downloading may change the balance between record companies and song writers'. May change the balance? I'm afraid it already has.