When Two Worlds Collude: Artists and Fans Hug It Out

BY Allison OuthitPublished Nov 21, 2009

Put simply, the music business is the commercial interface between musicians and fans. But when the industry lost control of digital music files on the web, the interface broke down. Fans are getting music willy-nilly ― sometimes without even paying! ― while musicians are reaching directly out to fans ― sometimes without even charging!

You might think having musicians and fans communicate directly can only result in a promotional paradise, but it actually creates a commercial hell for the industry. If artists and fans find ways to successfully transact between them, then, uh, what's the rest of the music business for?

Lucky for the industry, musicians tend to be a badly organized, somewhat apathetic bunch. The industry has taken advantage of that lack of self-representation to promote itself as the loyal guardian of musicians. Until the industry started suing music fans for sharing music on the web, artists were seemingly content to let that representation live.

But artists are waking up to a horrid reality: dirty Uncle Industry has been shagging them in their sleep. Record deals have rarely ever been pro-artist, and to this day many labels insist on owning the artist's works for the life of the copyright (in some jurisdictions, as many as 75 years after the death of the artist). In the early days of digital distribution, labels simply commandeered digital rights without clear colour of right, and in many cases, artists have not seen a red cent of digital revenue from their labels.

Making things worse, record labels went on a sue-crazy rampage against music's most dedicated fans, claiming it's all for the good of the artists they represent. The latest industry-supported assault on fandom has been a coordinated worldwide push to pass so-called "three strikes, you're out" legislation, by which illegal file-sharers who are caught three times will have their internet access cut off. For good. The legislation has passed in France and is making its way through a number of European jurisdictions, while versions of it are being talked about in the U.S. and Canada.

While criminalizing unauthorized file sharing has created public hatred against the music business, it has also seriously damaged the artists in whose names those initiatives are supposedly launched. Nice how that works out for the industry: keeping artists and fans at war with each other ensures they'll never band together against a common foe.

That may be about to change. With the foundation of a2f2a, a site that encourages file-sharers and musicians to debate as peers, a conversation has been started that could see musicians and fans hugging it out at last.

"Music is meant to be passed around and enjoyed, not owned exclusively by a small band of corporate pirates epitomized by the Big 4", says co-founder Jon Newton, who runs the file-sharing info site p2pnet. "That isn't to say it should be free, but it should at least be affordable and within easy reach of everyone. The cartels say sharing is exactly the same as stealing, and they're using this specious claim in their efforts to gain total control of the internet."

In early October, p2pnet ran a commentary criticizing an editorial by musician/activist and Featured Artist Coalition board member Billy Bragg that had been published in the UK's The Guardian. That kicked off an extraordinary correspondence between Bragg and p2pnet readers, in which a big-name musician took the time to address forthrightly the concerns of file-sharing music fans in a public forum. Newton and Bragg traded a few emails and before long, the idea to create a permanent forum for the discussion ― a2f2a ― was born.

"Billy and I share one bottom line", says Newton. "Artists need to be paid, and fans want to pay them. We have three main goals, as stated on the site: one, help each community better understand the other; two, help find a practical and workable system that offers artists fair remuneration in exchange for access to material by fans; and three, help set the agenda for discussions about the role P2P can play within the online digital record industry."

As Bragg sees it, there is a disconnect between artists and consumers that makes a2f2a a timely endeavour. "I think there's a lot of propaganda around file sharing. There are very few clear factual numbers about what's really happening. Talking on p2pnet we realized that I didn't really understand where they were coming from and they didn't understand where I was coming from. And there might be something to be gained in talking to each other, with the ultimate goal of trying to work out some viable models for artist-to-fan direct sales."

Bragg acknowledges that both musicians and consumers have previously been shut out of policy discussion around file sharing. "Previously the music industry mediated all our discussions. I've talked to legislators in Britain who are going to make laws about p2p who have never spoken to anyone who is a p2p user! It's really ridiculous. But that disconnect between artist and audience is a problem because the internet has brought us so close to one another and yet we are a little bit afraid of each other. We [musicians] are afraid that the audience wants to give away all our stuff and the audience is afraid that we want to put them in prison. We've got to get over this."

Getting musicians and fans talking to each other will help shape the path forward for independent artists. But ditching the "old school" music business isn't easy. "The artist is in a difficult position working out which way to go because there is no clear career path yet for the artist who wants to be independent," says Bragg. "I own my own back catalogue so I don't have to make the choice. But if I were a kid and I was offered a record deal where I wouldn't have to work in a factory... it would be hard to say 'I'd rather hold on to my catalogue and take a chance on the new frontier.' We need some pioneer artists to go out there and prove that you can make a better living selling directly to fans than you would with a record label."

Doing so in the current anti-downloading regime won't be easy. "In the unlikely event the labels ever wake up, there's no reason why they shouldn't be part of the new music in digital 21st century. But clearly, they don't want to be part of anything. They want it all," says Newton. "Forget the labels. The full range of corporate product is already out there and readily available to anyone who wants it. That can't be changed. The clock can't be turned back. Sooner or later, what's left of the majors will open their catalogues and drastically lower their wholesale prices. They won't have any choice. Meanwhile, artists should do their own thing and/or join independent advocacy groups such as the Canadian Music Creators Coalition."

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