Published October 10, 2011
Robert Levine recently released the book ‘Free Ride: How the Internet Is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back’. The title alone suggests that he would make a worthwhile addition to any ‘YOU ARE IN CONTROL’ conference panel (the YAIC conference is organised by the Iceland Music Export and aims to bring the best and brightest minds of today’s culture industries together to discuss ‘WTF is going on’). Indeed, Robert is coming to Iceland to partake in exactly such a panel at that conference! We at Grapevine figured there are plenty of hungry downloaders and starving artists in Iceland that might be interested in what he has to say on the matter.
Growing up in Iceland during the ‘90s, I faced a scarcity of good record stores, video rentals, cinemas and the like, so I jumped at the opportunity of free access to all this cool stuff out there. In 2011, I cannot access the iTunes music store, nor Pandora, Netflix, Hulu or Spotify. There are furthermore extortionary import tolls on, for example, Amazon purchases. How would you convince a young Icelander to reduce their illegal downloading and illustrate its negative effects?
Small economies like Iceland are going to be tough cases, but Spotify being in some countries and not others will eventually be a thing of the past, because EU regulations require all the collection societies to operate in all of Europe. So you won’t have as much of that in the future.
It’s hard to make a thing like Hulu legal in some countries. This is where illegal services have an advantage because, not only don’t they follow any laws, they don’t follow any contractual rules. If NBC sells ‘30 Rock’ to Germany, they’re not then allowed to stream it there also, so Hulu may be prohibited from providing these shows.
Personally, I could say that if something isn’t available legally in a certain country for a certain period of time we can’t enforce that law. If you say “This movie hasn’t been available in Iceland for five years, can I download it?” I would say…it’s hard for me to fault someone. But if someone were to complain that the tax on it is too high, then I would kind of have to say “tough luck” because it’s your government’s tax. Not to come off as unsympathetic. It’s just a different issue.
But if people don’t have a legal way to access it then they’re probably going to pursue other ways. What recourse do Icelandic consumers have in this case?
The thing is this creative culture also creates a lot of our prosperity in the West. If you pay for your computer or DVD player, but you take all the films, music and computer programmes for free, it creates an economic problem. Because people in Europe and the US by and large aren’t making those computers and DVD players, they are making that stuff that makes us enjoy using them. Those players are made in China and those aren’t nice jobs. The kind of jobs we enjoy, even your own, are decent jobs but those jobs are only possible with this system of intellectual property that we have.
But haven’t there been benefits from the way culture has opened up and increased accessibility? Couldn’t this have been a necessary catalyst to get rid of unnecessary middlemen and streamline the route from producer to consumer?
I reject the notion that it has cut out middlemen. I think it has just created new middlemen. These days if you want to make videos, YouTube will give you an advance on future royalties and split the ad money with you—that’s exactly what record companies did. You can say YouTube is a more benign middleman, but it’s also monopolistic. None of the big labels had anything close to the share of recorded music that YouTube has on online videos.
More broadly, there are enormous benefits to online culture but a lot of people see this as a dichotomy.” How can we stop this without hurting that?” But I’m not really sure that’s the case.
With YouTube: who should be responsible for distributing things you don’t have rights to? Should it be the uploader, the consumer, or should YouTube be responsible? You could say that YouTube has no responsibility at all and that seems to me like a bad idea. On the other hand, you could say YouTube has absolute total responsibility, and then you’d say there’s no more YouTube. You can’t have it. But that’s how I think Google presents the problem. I think YouTube has some responsibility and have to filter up to a certain level.
Dr. Dre isn’t very nice
But with regards to copyright, don’t you think the laws could be adapted with regards to, for example, remix culture? Say, how hard it would be for Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’ to emerge today with the existing copyright laws?
People say it’s too strong or too weak but they tend to be talking about different things. I recently started thinking about copyright in three dimensions. It’s maybe not the most elegant way of looking at it but it’s an interesting way of looking at it. The first is length—how long it lasts. The second is width—how much it covers. Does it only cover that song or does it also cover a sample of that song? The third is depth—how well you can enforce it. And what we need is copyright that is shorter, narrower and deeper.
I grew up on ‘Paul’s Boutique’, and I love it. ‘Paul’s Boutique’ was legitimately great art, but look at someone like Puff Daddy who was taking an existing song and rapping over it. Those songs were hits the first time around for a reason, and they will be the second time around. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he should pay for the use of those songs.
But fair use laws are pretty vague. Most of the decisions made in the US about sampling were made by juries. So when free culture sites say that this is record industry lobbying—it’s not lobbying, it’s just that the jury has made stupid decisions. A lot of good rappers lost important cases, but it wasn’t some big takeover by Universal music.
I’ve covered the music industry and I know the labels have done shady stuff, believe me. But even if you think the record companies are horrible and stupid, they still have rights. And I don’t know if you know, but some of the artists aren’t that nice, either. People could say Jimmy Iovine is a horrible guy, but Dr. Dre pushed a woman down a flight of stairs. You know what I mean, we can’t decide who gets paid based on how nice they are.
Creative culture has played a major role in the Icelandic economy and so we are definitely overdue for a spirited, intelligent discussion about this.
Well, I know that the two major areas of the economy in Iceland are natural resources and knowledge work. You know, arts, intellectual copyright, whatever. But an economy based on natural resources has some bad sides to it. It can get used up, it can generate pollution, they have all these effects that a knowledge-based economy doesn’t have.
I’m gonna use a cliché. You know Björk did this new album ‘Biophilia’ and there’s this great app presentation and I think that’s very cool and innovative. She tried to do something new. And as a fan of music you don’t just want to get music cheaper; you also want to encourage artists to do interesting stuff like that.
But to be fair, that may also have been a response to the changes in the business model—Björk may have been trying to find new ways of generating revenue.
No doubt. But in the short term, free music is great for everybody. My question is: are those only short-term effects, or will you regret them in the long run?