Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/01/20/sanders_bono_no/

Why Bono is wrong about filesharing

P2P is fun: just let us pay for it

By Paul Sanders

Posted in Media, 20th January 2010 13:03 GMT

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.

Freedom, abundance, and a tenner a month

And with fewer companies in control of the cashflow, artists and songwriters have less bargaining power. While we enjoy watching popstars being created on TV shows, the contracts the contestants have to sign in order to participate are among the harshest in the business. Now Bono is asking us to accept that the cost of maintaining this control should be shared by us all: in the form of higher prices for an internet that we can do less with, and on which we can expect to be monitored by his business partners.

A Damascene conversion for Bono is presumably too much to ask for, but what of the efforts that are being made around the world to get the cash and music flowing without Bonoian snooping and filtering becoming part of the internet? ISPs in many countries in Europe and around the world stand ready to offer unlimited music services for a monthly fee, and consumers are saying clearly that they value music and are willing to pay. The Isle of Man has spent the last year in discussion with the music industry about using the island as an opportunity to learn what happens when you do take the restrictions off, in return for money.

In fact for the last three years we have been on the cusp of something rather wonderful - an age of freedom and abundance in music in which opportunity for new artists and songwriters is actually part of the system, rather than something only attainable with extreme perseverance and a huge amount of luck.

What is holding all this up is the music industry, throwing spanners, making unreasonable demands, being disorganised and confusing, and preferring to lobby for snooping and disconnection rights rather than getting on with the business of making and selling music.

So, Bono, how about it? Filling up a USB stick and swapping files in the playground should be one of the joys of youth, not something liable to get you cut off and in trouble with your parents. And does it really matter if a tenner a month is split with a few indie artists and fledgling songwriters? The big money will still be yours, as you rightly point out.

The kids are not eating your lunch any time soon. Because in so many ways you are doing much to deliver freedom and choice to a world which has treated you well, and especially to its children. Progress is surely giving more to more people, rather than restricting freedom to preserve the wealth of the few. ®

Paul Sanders is a founder of Playlouder MSP, the world's first ISP licensed for music file-sharing. He is also a founder of the state51 conspiracy, an independent digital music distributor, and founder and director of strategy at Consolidated Independent, a digital media technical service provider. He chronicled the music industry's greatest digital flops for us here in 2008.