Wednesday, 18 September 2013

His Dork Materials

Philip Pullman, author of fantasy fiction for well-bred teens and president of the Society of Authors, has decided that illegal downloading of books and music is a kind of "moral squalor". This media-friendly hyperbole originates in an otherwise polite joint article with Cathy Casserly of Creative Commons in the Index on Censorship magazine (whose strapline is "the voice of free expression"). Pullman is just doing his job as a trades unionist, but his logic is as wonky as a timber-framed North Oxford bookshop. Though he takes aim at the likes of Google for facilitating illegal downloads, and thus "theft" from the pockets of artists, he is chary of voicing more than the traditional author's exasperation with the unequal terms of trade, noting that when he produces a book the publisher will "collect the money it sells for, and pass on a small proportion to me" (my italics).

What actually caught my eye was not this conventional bleat, but Pullman's extension of his criticism to encompass digital music: "The ease and swiftness with which music can be acquired in the form of MP3 downloads is still astonishing even to those of us who have been building up our iTunes list for some time" (can't you just feel the anguish in those last few words?) At no point does he acknowledge that Apple are the real culprit when it come to the transformation of the economics of artistic content, presumably because the Cupertino corporation's prestige remains strong among Macbook-wielding creatives. Despite the popular history that holds the arrival of Napster and other P2P networks around 1999 as responsible for the implosion of music sales, it was actually the introduction of the iTunes Store in 2003, and specifically the decision to sell individual tracks at 99 cents, that did the deed. The change to the landscape can be seen in this chart (source here), showing the distribution of revenue by music format.

Albums were always where the money was, while singles were primarily promotional devices. In terms of the quantum of revenue, there has been a steady decline since the turn of the millennium, however this appears relatively worse because of the peak that occurred during the 90s when we all spent extra money duplicating old vinyl with new CDs, as this chart shows.

What the chart doesn't include is the growth in revenues from live performances and ancillary merchandising (US live ticket sales tripled from $1.5b to $4.6b between 1999 and 2009, when cumulative inflation was only about 28%). Digital media revolutionised the music industry, but this simply meant that the money moved to new channels and publishers, it didn't mean that we stopped buying music or related commodities. The claim that taping/downloading was (and still is) killing music is simply the special pleading of incumbent publishers whose lunch was eaten by newer, more nimble service providers.

In ways that would make a dialectical materialist happy, you can see the history of music culture in this progression. After the 8-track bump (a mainly US feature) and a flurry of big-selling LPs (Rumours, Hotel California etc), revenues began to drop in the late 70s as home-taping set off the first wave of "illegal sharing" (this mainly ate into LP sales - C46 and C60 cassettes were obviously designed for album length recordings). This was exacerbated by the increased market segmentation, and consequently lower profit margins, driven by the popular reaction to the overwhelming dullness of the mid-70s. Record companies attempted to offset this by pushing higher-margin singles, often with coloured vinyl and fancy sleeves, which produced a flowering of new music (notably Punk and New Wave) as bands that would never have got an album deal were indulged for a couple of singles or an EP, but this strategy proved unequal to the task and so we got the inexorable 80s trend back towards the superstar and the multi-platinum record, exemplified by Michael Jackson's Thriller, which was amplified by the effect of videos and MTV.

The invention of the CD brought in the golden age of music sales in the 90s, more than offsetting the losses experienced due to taping, but with the consequence of slowly killing off the once-more marginal single and the EP (and eventually Top of the Pops). The CD also allowed ageing artists to monetise their back catalogue with reissues and remastered versions. The birth of corporate rock and all-conquering global sellers, from Nirvana and REM to Madonna and the Spice Girls, was a product of the CD age. One positive consequence of the new format, which has a much lower per unit production cost than vinyl, was that it allowed for more short run releases. This encouraged the reissuing of rarities and the introduction of more foreign music ("World Music" is a product of the nexus of CDs, the feelgood end of Apartheid and cheap global travel), which in turn helped fuel the growing eclecticism of music in the late 90s.

The decline in cassettes was sparked by the introduction of dual tape/CD players in the early 90s, accelerated by PC-based media players (and the start of digital sharing), and finished off by the shift from personal tape-players to digital music players (the iPod launched in 2001). Illegal sharing via cassette was always a fiddle and prone to poor quality, but the biggest drawback was simply getting access to the source. I, like many others, would make mix-tapes of tracks off the John Peel radio show, jumping up and down to stop and start the recorder (he had good taste but his chat was incidental), and often missing the first few notes. The purpose was not to rip off the artists, but to have the ability to play songs of interest on demand. Once I'd decided I particularly liked a group, I'd go out and buy the vinyl and/or go to a gig.

Radio was a conspiracy of music company-endorsed playlists (Janie Jones was just the louche fringe of this) in an era when the opportunity to hear new music was relatively restricted. The actual liberation of the Internet was the chance to find and sample a vastly larger range of music than before, not the chance to steal it. It was about "everything" rather than "free". I still buy music, but I also download "illegally shared" tracks, which I consider to be a form of browsing, or "user-directed sampling", if you prefer. The music industry has accommodated itself to this new marketplace, both in its acceptance of Apple and Amazon's insistence on individual track sales, and in its support for the "new radio" of streaming subscription services like Spotify (again, I use the free version to sample music of interest before buying elsewhere). The idea that "digital piracy" is impoverishing musicians is no more true than the earlier claim that home-taping was killing music.

That said, the changes in the means of production, distribution and exchange have certainly affected some musicians more than others, leading to the polarisation familiar from the wider economy. It's now much more difficult to make money as a musician at the lower end of the popularity scale. This is partly because publishers and distributors take an even larger slice of the pie (hence the furore over Spotify's terms), partly because gig opportunities are reduced as older bands seek to monetise their back catalogue (in the CD era they could sit at home and watch the royalties roll in - now they hog the festival stage), and partly because wannabes giving it away for free on YouTube undercut the market for new music (the dominance of parent-funded upper-middle-class musicians is partly a consequence of this).

Meanwhile, at the top end of the income scale, a small number of rights-holders have become even richer (and in this regard Simon Cowell counts as much as Lady Gaga), as the enforcement of copyright and the profusion of distribution channels delivers ever greater scale economies to superstars. As with job polarisation elsewhere, the "middle class" of bands that could once make a living gigging in pubs and midscale venues, and even pay off the mortgage with a top-100 album, has all but disappeared. With the ability to reach economic viability as an independent increasingly difficult, and success in the industry increasingly dependent on corporate channels, more and more market share is being taken by existing rights-holders, which is not unlike where we came in during the mid-70s.

In contrast, the world of fiction remains little changed. Few authors have ever been able to make a real living from writing, even before the arrival of e-books and the chimera of long-tail sales. Success depends on co-option by the small coterie of author/critics that dominate each genre, the big money comes from film and TV rights and other commercial spinoffs, and you must build a personal brand if you want to monetise readings and appearances. "Bestsellers" are, by definition, atypical, and increasingly subject to superstar economies of scale as the same content is spread across more channels and commodities (e.g. JK Rowling and EL James). In this context, the idea that the chief challenge to writers is spotty kids downloading files in breach of copyright, rather than the predatory pricing of online retailers and multinational publishing houses, is laughable. As SF writer and blogger Cory Doctorow says (quoted by Cathy Casserly), "My problem is not piracy, it’s obscurity".

The central, revealing flaw of Pullman's argument is that he blames the consumer: guilty of "moral squalor" and little better than a thief. This is the classic, intemperate language of the property-holder, demanding that a yokel be hung for rustling a sheep. I sympathise with Pullman's desire to secure a larger share of the rewards accruing to the product of his members' labour, but his target ought to be closer to home: "The editor, the jacket designer, the publicist, the printer, the library assistant, the bookshop manager, the PLR administrator, and others, all earn a living on the back of the fact that I and my fellow authors have written books that people want to read". This list excludes the shareholders of Scholastic Inc and Random House, Pullman's publishers. He also omits to mention Amazon, which provides the online shopping facility for his own website. Nothing morally squalid there.


  1. Timber framed North Oxford bookshops? I hate to say it but that's a good phrase taking over facts. There are no bookshops in N Oxford, timber framed or otherwise. Thorntoms (timber-framed, Harry Potter like) closed years ago, and wasn't in North Oxford.

    On a substantial copyright point, see Plumbum blog. Cleverer than me, and has interesting points on copyright (and should be fncpuraged to post more).

  2. If Pullman can write fantasy fiction, so can I.