Monday, January 30, 2006

Canadians stepping up to the copyfight

Nettwerk records + artist management, the largest independent Canadian record label, has announced they will be picking up the legal fees for a man who is being sued by the RIAA for his daughter’s downloading of music. Interestingly, she has downloaded some tunes by Nettwerk’s own artists such as Avril Lavigne, although it’s not clear if she downloaded their artist MC Lars’ song “Download this song.” That tune was the impetus for the daughter to write to MC Lucas and mention she was being sued, which called their situation to the label owner’s attention. In what turns out to be a very intelligent and also (I’d say) more moral statement than I’d expect from many a record label, Terry Mcbride says “Suing music fans is not the solution, it's the problem.”

So in an interesting turn of events, we have our first instance (that I know of) of a record label legally counteracting the RIAA’s “sue-downloaders” plan. This is a smart move by Nettwerk for several reasons. From a copyfighters angle (or for a company who may want to be viewed well by copyfighters and people feeling targeted by the current legal environment around music), it's a case of a company whose job it is to represent artists is challenging the RIAA’s assertion that they speak for all artists. This is a nice challenge by someone with more institutional significance (not that Nettwerk is all that huge, but they're in a different position from fans) : a challenge to the first and silliest assertion that has gone unchallenged in a formal way: lawsuits against file sharers help artists, and the RIAA’s motivation and effect is to help artists.

The character of the Recording Industry Association of America has been explored in greater depth in many many places, but to start with as they define themselves – they represent the INDUSTRY, not the artist. The most powerful part of the industry are the people who own the mechanisms of manufacture, marketing and distribution. These people are not the artists. And only in the most pie-in-the-sky economics sense can the artists' interests be conflated with the interests of the largest players in this game. Contract law is the name of the game for most artists in the recording industry, not copyright - if your contract is good, then you earn money (off copyrights or off merch or off something else), and if it's bad then you're screwed. Focus on copyrights is hiding the ball, for people concerned with artists rights. What Nettwerk has done is simultaneously pointed out that artists rights and the RIAA are not the same, and that some other folks in this story have some right.

The second really nice point coming out of this is suggested in several parts of the press release: the idea that fans have rights as fans, and that labels and artists may own them something. Although I’d also suggest that often the conceptual distance between fan and artist is not so far as many seem to assume, the recognition of the importance of fans to the music industry is usually taken for granted, or treated as a sort of intractable problem for marketers to solve. Not so! Fans are the industry - on the small scale they sustain artists directly, on the large, statistical level they sustain the distribution networks that feed the industry.

So far, the news hasn’t reached the mainstream press, or the music industry press. It’s early days yet, as the press release is from January 26th, but if by the end of the month there is no mainstream coverage, I’m going find it a bit more suspicious. Come on – classic david-and-goliath story, right? What’s to lose by covering the story father of a family of four kids who have downloaded music, being sued by the RIAA and threatened with thousands of dollars in fines, now being backed up by Canada’s largest independent record label, who are the label for even some of the artists that the kids downloaded? And in terms of the music industry, it seems worthwhile to report on a new development in the copyfight.. one that could perhaps inspire more labels to grow a spine, and more importantly, develop some business plans that actually make use of the new technologies and, erm, networks that are growing themselves.

Recognizing this, Nettwerk are not necessarily stepping up for purely altruistic reasons. It appears this is part of a larger strategy on their part, to take advantages of the different shape the music industry is going to have, with the new technological possibilities and cultural shifts that have been occurring. Along with recognizing and investing in a good relationship with fans, they are also recognizing new nexuses of music fandom: Nettwerk recently announced a partnership with EA (Electronic Arts videogames) to release music from EA’s video games online and as ringtones via a ‘label’ called ‘EA Recordings.” Nowadays there are so many new vectors for music to spread – video game music is a growing force, not only for mad chiptunes creators, but just as the soundtrack to hours of people’s lives (spent in videogames). People will likely spend money to own (or license temporarily?) music that they listened to ten thousand times when they were blowing up tanks, building their sims-home, playing golf or interviewing actual famous people in avatar form.

I know the good people at the SIMS* are looking at these new nodes and networks for human relationships, mediated by technology, but it's nice to see people who make things that can directly affect how we relate are starting to get on this (to be fair I think a lot of graduates go start businesses like this). Of course, from a social science perspective, I'm not as interested in what kind of brave new technological world it is, because as usual, I see people bringing the same ol' problems into whatever cyber space they move into.. but that's another post.

*which is soon, apparently, to be the School of Information, which may be a less unwieldy name but makes a crappy acronym. What am I supposed to say now, the people at SI? at sih?


  1. Nettwerk is a great label. I just posted an interview I did last week with Nettwerk's director of Sales and Marketing, Erin Kinghorn. Erin talks about the culture at Nettwerk, as well as the careers of Sarah, Avril, and other Nettwerk artists. Check it out!

  2. Good for Nettwerk Music Group...I wish I were a cute and fuzzy kid instead of a college student.

    I have to try and fundraise for my settlement:
    Maybe you can do a post about me?

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