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Why Bono is wrong about filesharing

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Guest Opinion Music entrepreneur Paul Sanders thinks Bono is wrong, and the music business should start being a music business again. We invited him to elaborate.

At a conference a few years ago IFPI Chairman John Kennedy said he had 'no problem' with China's approach to managing its citizens' use of the internet. It stuck in my mind for some reason. This Christmas, Bono pulled the somewhat cheap semantic and logical trick of suggesting that because China can suppress online dissent, and because ISPs can and do take some action to block child pornography, they therefore should also block copyright infringement. And that they should do so in order to help 'young fledgling songwriters' make a living.

I expect both would have a problem with the success rate in China; it is as leaky as a sieve, inside and out. Are the efforts of the IWF to block access to child pornography any more successful? Well, we do not know what we do not know. But that aside, surely all Bono's remarks, and Kennedy's, tell us is that people with strong incentives to do one thing generally don't do the opposite.

For Bono is probably the person least likely to say "we need to find a way to have many more artists and performers make a decent living, while allowing people on below average wages, and their children, to enjoy as much music as they like within their weekly budget". Or he might say it, in a sudden rush of blood to the head, but is surely least likely to do anything to make it happen.

The market, despite all the hot air about Long Tails, has spent the last decade relatively over-rewarding the hits. If ISPs have been leeching cash out of the record business, as Bono contends in another piece of sophistry ("rich service providers, whose swollen profits perfectly mirror the lost receipts of the music business"), then the studies are showing that it is the middle that is being slimmed, leaving a longer thinner tail and almost as fat a head as ever.

For the 'young fledgeling songwriter' - stick your hands up children, if you think that is you - success comes now as it always has, with either a breakthrough hit which nobody can ignore, or through the patronage of stars such as Bono, who can deliver a living wage to songwriters by performing their songs.

The politics of exclusion

Maybe it was a little political joke that the music industry gongs in the 2010 New Year's honours list went to the chairman of Universal Music and two members of Status Quo - because the big companies have every reason to keep things just as they are. That means trying to make sure that consumers spend as much money as possible on as few tracks as possible. So while in the best value deals the wholesale rate per track is hovering around 20p, you are not allowed to buy more at the same price - in fact with Sky Songs the price goes up if you want more than 20 tracks per month.

So perversely, if the pain of filesharing is felt disproportionately outside of the hits market, then the biggest companies have no reason to swap what they have now for a market that would give the smaller labels more chances to get paid.

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