Well, not just Paul McGuinness. U2’s manager was joined in a Midem panel session this morning by Robert Levine, author of Free Ride, as well as entertainment lawyer Pierre-Marie Bouvery and Qobuz president Yves Riesel. The full session title was Commerce of Chaos: Why Copyright Still Matters Online.
Levine kicked off. “If you go back to 2002, there’s a clip of me arguing on CNBC with Hilary Rosen that the future of music would be more in the hands of bands. I thought technologies on the internet would give bands more control. Ove the years, what happened was I realised that these technologies were not giving bands more control. They were giving technology companies more control.”
Levine pointed to Google making “twice as much in the US last year as all four major labels combined… we need to change the way we look at these issues”. And he reiterated that – for him – the key point is that artists should have more control, particularly over whether their music is distributed for free.
Over to McGuinness, who famously lambasted ISPs and technology companies in a keynote speech at Midem in 2008. Does he still feel those views? “Yes, by and large… The thing that really puzzles me still about this huge question is why the tech companies – to describe them in a generic way, but I include the ISPs, the manuafcturers of the machines, the Googles and so on – why are they not more far-sighted, why are they not more generous?” he said.
“Why are they not trying to solve the future in a more generous way. Ultimately it is in their interests that the flow of content will continue. And that won’t happen unless it’s paid for… And I don’t think we can rely on politicians who are afraid of being unpopular to accomplish this without some willingness and generosity on the part of the tech area.”
McGuinness also referred to the recent anti-SOPA campaigning in the US: “Never underestimate the ability of a monopoly to defend itself“. Expect that quote to be creating some online debate later today…
Levine also talked about not seeing all technology companies as parasitic. “A blog that’s reporting news is a good thing. A blog that’s only aggregating news and not doing any original reporting is parasitic.” And he went on to relate this to the recently shut-down online storage site Megaupload.
“Megaupload were not funding artists. They were not giving any money to artists. This guy Kim Dotcom ate all the profits!”
Is this turning into all-out war between Silicon Valley and the content industries? “In some ways yes, but I’m not sure tech companies’ best interests are served in the way they’re fighting,” said Levine. He cited Apple and Google, talking approvingly of the former. Apple have been “tough bastards who respect copyright” according to Levine.
McGuinness: “The ruthlessness applies to the quality of their products… so you can kind of put up with it… It was always challenging to negotiate with them but ultimately worthwhile. The problem with the way in which Google and their allies… they turned the political environment on its head in the last few weeks. They were using viral marketing techniques that are now commonplace in American politics – Obama was the first person to do this in a very big way – and the fact that Google were able to turn their entire network into a lobbying device, a petition, does not mean every person who ticked the box understood the argument… It wasn’t really a debate, it was a demonstration really.
Qobuz’s Riesel suggested that “there is not enough music in those tech companies… they do not have music people”.
Levine stressed that he loves technology and the internet. “So much of this technology we’re talking about has made things cheaper and easier, but rarely better,” he said, referring to audio quality as one key area. “All of a sudden all the innovation went to getting stuff to people cheaper. I think there’s more to innovation than that.”
And he had another blast for Google based on the anti-SOPA battle. “In the US, every self-respecting progressive person hates Wal-Mart and loves Google. Why is that?”
McGuinness: “It amazes me that Google has not done the right thing. The experience of people when they go on Google and look for U2 music or PJ Harvey music is a shopping list of illegal opportunities to get their music,” he said.
“They have done nothing meaningful to discourage that. I hear rumours that they are planning a worldwide database that will – if it is successful – in many ways compete with the rights, the collecting societies worldwide. This ought to be the golden age of the collecting societies… they ought to have become dominant forces in our industry, but I’m sorry to say they seem to have missed that opportunity… Those institutions have not moved with the times, and it will not surprise me one little bit to see Google move into that area.”
And? “Maybe that will produce at least… a significant way in which they could give back. Nobody doubts their ability to generate information and collect information on consumers around the world.” And he looked forward to a day when people will pay for their music through their ISP and telephone bills, “and we’ll look back and wonder what all this fuss was about, and why it took so long”.
Levine suggested that the framing of the debate as been one of “civil society groups versus big companies”, and put his view that too many of the former are “lobbying groups” who may not have the best interests of artists and the creative sphere in mind.
“A lot of these groups get a lot of money from the technology business… this is two sets of businesses with consumers in the middle. Consumers aren’t on one side… There’s no moral superiority: companies on both sides want to maximise revenues. I don’t think Google is evil, I don’t think record companies are good.”
McGuinness was asked about the role licensed services like Spotify – which include free tiers – will play in the battle against piracy, given that several big artists have withheld their latest albums from these services.
“I think Spotify is ultimately a good thing,” said McGuinness. “Is it a means of monetising the distribution of products, or is it a promotional medium? At the moment, I’m inclined to treat it more as a promotional medium. And if we have to choose where to put records on their debut, we’re unlikely to give them to Spotify. I’d rather give it to a DJ on a great station.”
But he suggested that the company has work to do to bring artists back onside.
“Spotify has yet to become popular with artists because artists don’t see the financial benefit of working with Spotify. That’s partly the fault of the labels because the labels partly own Spotify, and there is insufficient transparency. But I see no reason why the basic Spotify model shouldn’t be part of the future. It is essentially honest so it should be encouraged. I’d like to see it everywhere.”
Levine chipped in. “Spotify is a legal service that operates with legal contracts. You can negotiate with Spotify. Like Apple they might be tough negotiators, and there’s a lot of complexities… But the fact that it’s legal and operates with licences makes a lot of things possible. You can give them your music, you can not give them your music. You can give them your music a couple of months out. It offers artists more control.”
McGuinness: “I really don’t understand how the SOPA thing was so badly dealt with. The ball was going to go into the back of the net, it seemed to me, until the lobbying was mishandled. The politicians did not understand the force and power of the internet that could be unleashed in a very simplistic way. It wasn’t a debate; it was a rally.”