Coalition for Culture

FAC

I love the music business. I think musicians are great. I believe they do amazing things that are richly deserving of great rewards, the lot of them. I think it’s appropriate that everyone gets whatever they deserve. It’s a hard world, a hard way to make a living and times are tricky.

As I’ve often said, most musicians spend more time training for their career than most brain surgeons – and most of them end up earning less than most supermarket checkout operators. And that’s both significant and important.

But the establishment and announcement of the Featured Artists Coalition over this past week or so has made me a bit cross.

It’s easy to have sympathy with their position – especially if you happen to like, as I do, many of the artists who belong. I have no problem with the fact that it exists. I have no issue with musicians forming collectives and arguing in what they see to be in their interests.

I don’t happen to agree that what they’re arguing for is something that will help them. I don’t think they’re deceptive or manipulative – I think they’re mistaken on this point.

And while it’s also easy enough to dismiss them as a bunch of rich and famous people complaining that they’re being unfairly treated because they’re not quite as powerful and greedy as the major record labels – there’s something noble and hopeful in the idea that they might be doing this for the little guy.

But while it’s cool that pop musicians have their lobby group, and just fine and dandy that major record labels have theirs – there’s a massive imbalance in values being represented here. Policy makers are being bombarded at all sides with persuasive arguments that, while they may differ in terms of whose commercial benefit is at stake, are predicated on the idea that music is, purely and simply, commerce.

To my knowledge, there exists no organisation whose purpose is to promote the interests of popular music as cultural good, rather than as commercial interest.

And as a result, politicians come away with the strong sense that every important stakeholder believes that the most important thing to do as a matter of priority is to extend the term, the scope and the power of copyright and intellectual property law.

But there are all sorts of reasons to contest that notion, and there are all sorts of important and intelligent sections of our society that do. Moreover, there are a bunch of other issues that become important and take on a different tone if popular music is considered from the cultural perspective as well as from just the commercial perspective.

Copyright is, of course, very important. Its purpose is to incentivise the creation of new cultural works, so that we can have a vibrant and rich cultural environment full of new inventions, helpful science, great music and interesting works. By setting it up so that the creators and subsequent owners of those works can have a monopoly over how those works can be used for a period of time means that businesses and sources of income can be found that will support the ongoing creation of those sorts of works.

It’s a great system. But it’s a system with a purpose. To argue that the function of copyright is to ensure that musicians and rightsholders can still earn off something they made 95 years ago is an interesting and often compelling argument – but it puts the cart before the horse.

Stopping people from hearing or otherwise using music unless they pay for it is not the way to ensure that new works are being created all the time in the interests of culture. It stops culture from being created and propagated. And culture is about people. It’s about having a good and interesting life full of wonderful things. Music has the potential to massively contribute to that. Sensible copyright encourages that. Absurd and draconian copyright prevents it.

It’s a bit like salt. Some salt on your food is good. Covering your food under a mountain of salt makes the food pretty unpalateable, even if it stops that food from going off.

A couple of examples. In the past year, I’ve done some work with the BBC and the British Library. Here are two cultural organisations whose good works are being hamstrung by rightsholders who (perhaps understandably) put their commercial interests before those of the citizenry of the country. The general public.

Despite being willing to negotiate and pay reasonable amounts of money in royalties, BBC Radio is forced into a position where they make podcasts containing no more than 30 seconds of music. So – speech radio is a viable public service media form – but there can be no music-centred public service online media, despite the clear value for public good that specialist music radio has.

The British Library have a sound archive that includes thousands of pieces of recorded music. Unfortunately, researchers and scholars are unable to use a great deal of that material in their research, as quoting or referencing that music infringes on the property rights of the record labels. There is no clear commercial reason for record labels to allow researchers to study their catalogue, and so the position is intractable.

And the public suffers. Culture suffers. Intellectual progress suffers. The people who vote for the politicians, and for whose benefit all policy – economic, cultural, legal and infrastructural – is set, suffer.

But culture has no seat at the table. There is no lobby group for popular music as culture. There are copyright reform advocacy groups, and their involvement would be very important. But that’s not all this is about. There are important decisions being made right now for arts, culture and heritage all around the world. These issues are more urgent than ever because of the opportunity afforded us by digital technologies.

Music IS commerce – and it’s important that voice is represented, and it’s important that every stakeholder with that interest is represented. But music is not JUST commerce – and it’s now a matter of extreme urgency that the voice of music as culture is expressed.

And aside from anything else – culture leads commerce. You make smart and profitable businesses by looking at what people want to do, and providing them with great ways of doing that. You don’t make smart and profitable businesses by standing in the way, insisting they behave differently or by trying to prevent culture from happening unless you continue to get a slice.

This is NOT a debate about copyright. We’ve rehearsed that argument over and over again on this site. Far be it from me to stop you continuing the debate in the comments section, but in my mind, it’s an argument that needs to be shifted to a different context – one in earshot of the actual policymakers.

Instead, this is a call for the creation of a collective group who can represent the interests of popular music culture stakeholders: academics, librarians, entrepreneurs, public broadcasters, community musicians, remixers, amateurs, curators, archivists, documentarians and citizens who wish to live in a society where music is part of the cultural fabric, and where artists and rightsholders are fairly rewarded – but never at the cost of a complete cultural lockdown.

We need a Coalition for Culture and we need it urgently.

26 thoughts on “Coalition for Culture

  1. this is a great article, and great idea – let’s do it!

  2. Marius says:

    I’d like to see the manifesto because this sounds great!

    What are the most pertinent issues for this discussion Andrew?

  3. Jim Offerman says:

    One question: where do I sign up?

  4. nb23 says:

    Well said. I think that you’re right about how this coalition essentially signals and supports the idea of music as commodity and not cultural asset, but as you said at the beginning: these musicians probably do not view it as being an either/or.

    I believe this could get off the ground with the right effort. I have no idea how to go about it, but I’d sign.

  5. kc says:

    Did you see #4 of their manifesto?

    4.Copyright owners to be obliged to follow a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to the copyrights they control.

    I think the FAC is a step in the right direction – most artists understand the cultural need and want to make sure that aspect is discussed just as much as the commercial aspect. What we’re asking for is *fairness* – something that isn’t happening currently. Fairness for fans, critics, media and the musician.

    Why not approach the founders of FAC with your ideas? Why splinter off yet again, rather than joining up? It’s this splintering that keeps us all divided…and conquered.

  6. Dubber says:

    I think it’s great if the interests of different groups overlap – but there’s a really good reason to start something separate from the Featured Artists Coalition – and that’s the fact that I’m not a featured artist. The vast majority of citizens aren’t.

    Their coalition speaks for the commercial interests of the named players on records. And that’s cool.

    I want something that represents everyone else – for reasons other than commercial ones. I genuinely think that’s a separate voice. Doesn’t mean we have to be at odds.

  7. Jezc says:

    I’m a colleague of Dubber and we are constantly talking about new music we’ve heard, encouraging each other to seek out new music, go to gigs etc etc.

    Never do we discuss the commercial aspects of a song, never do we discuss the copyright properties of a song, we discuss the music in a cultural sense, you have to hear this because it’s amazing or you have to hear this because it sounds like so and so or you have to hear this because it reminds me of that time such and such, oh and have you heard that song then?

    It’s a constant search for new music because that’s what feeds our cultural needs, it is what music is.

    Can you imagine the outcry if we had to pay every single time we wanted to see a Guernica or a Henry Cartier photograph, search them on Google now and you’ll be bombarded with images, you won’t own them but you can see them because somehow these constitute culture where music doesn’t?

    I think Dubber is right, there has to be a voice that doesn’t just equate music to money but as culture that billions of people engage and participate in and with, and that such a voice doesn’t have to be at odds with either the musicians or the record companies but should be heard in conjunction with them.

  8. Corin says:

    A fantastic balanced and well reasonsed post and very timely. I am increasingly dismayed by the fact that commercial interests are seen as the controlling factor in many things (not just music). This is definitely a coalition I would join!

  9. Charo says:

    It’s so refreshing to have someone coming from this perspective. Everything I read at the moment seems obsessed with how to earn money from music. I feel surrounded by entrepeneurs when all I really want are new ideas of how to experience and enjoy music.

    We have so much to learn and so many ways to develop our cultural experience and our understanding of music culture. On the plus side, in the UK we do already have institutions such as the ICA who are actively promoting and supporting popular music culture.

    However, I agree that an association that could tie these things together and spearhead more initiatives could only be a good thing.

    Jez, I do think you have to be careful when equating other arts with music. It doesn’t work like that because music is relatively undefinable and it is abstract in that it isn’t as referential as most art is. Music is also consumed in a very different way to film, drama and visual arts. But that’s another conversation!

  10. I’m in! Where do we start?

  11. Ian Shepherd says:

    Great post !

    I agree with KC – the last thing that’s needed is another organisation – since the FAC exists and has momentum, better to bring this viewpoint to their attention and have it recognised.

    I think both viewpoints are important, and don’t see them as mutually exclusive – what’s needed is a balance between the two.

  12. I was AT the launch of the FAC and to be frank, this is exactly the sort of misunderstanding we anticipated and were prepared for.

    There were a whole range of issues discussed in that meeting of which copyright term extension was one, but I have to say, far from the most popular or important one. One of the things that was discussed, but that I have yet to see reported in the media, was the fact that artists are fed up with wanting to be able to share their music freely with as wide an audience as possible, only to be told by their labels that they cannot. They are fed up with being tied into long and unfair deals which work only to the benefit of the record companies, and most importantly they are fed up with paying for records to be made (through the draconian recoupment system), but then losing control of their own music… FOREVER.

    Its all very well banging on about culture, and I think you should be commended for hoilding such principled views, but you are in the fortunate position of having a job which pays you well enough to put food on your table – unlike most of the people who were at that meeting.

    Of the 300 or so people who were there, all but about 10 of them were people who either are, or would like to be, earning a living from writing, recording and performing music, and I am certain that every single one of them (successful or otherwise) cares very deeply about their art (and it is their art) and it’s place within our culture. I therefore fail to understand why on the very first occasion when the artist community stand up with one voice and rail against the long and dishonourable tradition of being abused by the record industry, you should take umbrage.

    The point is that the cultural debate already exists and rages all over the country, in pubs at gigs and on blogs such as this one. No one in that debate is being commercially abused in the way that this community has been for 4 decades or more.

    All the FAC want is the right to be able to decide how the rights that already exist in their music be applied, and the right to be treated fairly for once by a business that has raped and pillaged artists music for the best part of half a century. They are certainly NOT looking to stamp down on music usage in the way you describe. That is just misinformed and unhelpful.

  13. Dubber says:

    That’s not what I said. Nor is it what I meant. Have another read.

  14. Austin says:

    i liken the record industry to the sub prime mortgage industry, except its been left untouched for fifty years. im just glad that artists are finding ways to organize and get their interests out there.

  15. You said the following:

    “And as a result, politicians come away with the strong sense that every important stakeholder believes that the most important thing to do as a matter of priority is to extend the term, the scope and the power of copyright and intellectual property law”.

    My point is that that is NOT what the FAC is primarily focussed on. Never was, never will be. Unfortunately that seems to be what everyone else has picked up.

  16. Dubber says:

    Not primarily focussed on, but certainly in favour of. Who knows? It may even end up being one of the only issues on which the FAC and a Coalition for Culture fundamentally disagree on.

    A CfC would, I’d imagine, certainly be interested in supporting artists owning the masters of their works. And I certainly wouldn’t dispute the fact that there has traditionally been a massively unfair power relationship under the commercial agreements within the recording industry.

    But again – the ‘music is culture’ message is my point here – and it’s not one that will come through under the umbrella of an organisation whose mandate is to argue for the commercial treatment of a sector of the industry – artists or otherwise.

    Whether copyright extension is the main focus or not – it’s tremendously important – particularly for its impact on culture and the cultural organisations and institutions I mentioned. To say it’s not the main thing is to overlook how critical it is.

    Of course artists are interested in their art. And of course artists have been unfairly dealt with for decades. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

    I’m saying that music is also culture – and if that is not represented at a policy level, then all decisions made will be commercially led ones, which may be fair or unfair in different measure to the people commercially involved in the creation and distribution of recordings, but will largely ignore the wider issues that affect ALL citizens.

  17. Actually not even that. I was there. Very few of the people in the room gave a fig about copyright extension, and many of them (me included) are actually against it. Most artists (and most of the FAC people) view term extension as a BPI fat cats issue.

    The irritating thing is that because the media and guys like you jump on the term extension thing, the really important messages the FAC are trying to get across get lost. You say term extension is “tremendously important”, but its not – at least not to the bulk of the artist community. If it is important to you then take it up with the BPI, whose fight it is.

    I have no issue with the people who use/consume/listen to/talk about/lecture on music having a voice. In fact it’s a good point, but please, don’t beat the FAC with a stick which at best is a minor issue to a small number of their members.

  18. Jezc says:

    Hi Malcolm, I certainly don’t get paid for this activity, one day hopefully! two things about this:
    There doesn’t seem to be an issue of argument between these positions in how you are reporting the FaC meeting. To me it’s not about copyright extension but about making music more accessible and wresting control away from the major corporations or at least giving the rights to how and where their music is distributed back to the creators. I’m trying to build an archive that has as one of it’s aim the recognition of the breadth of music that has been made or originated from Birmingham and celebrates this artists. Not for financial or personal gain but fir cultural reasons – I believe my city had played a massive role in the evolution of popular music and culture. I want other people to hear and appreciate this but I won’t be able to put this music on my site without considerable cost. This is both wrong and for the industry self defeating.
    I think I would be on safe ground if I said that if you asked musicians about why they started making music it wouldn’t be about commerce and copyrights but would be about love of music, culture, having ad many people as possible hearing their music etc. We’ve lost sight of this and now more than ever we need to have a thoughtful, considered discussion around these issues.
    I really believe that we are not diametrically oppossed in this discussion but need to find a common ground here.
    I appligise for slack grammar etc ad I’m typing this on a iPhone and I’m struggling to check my text for such mistakes or lack of coherent arguement – I’m babysitting!

  19. platonist says:

    sign me up! if there ever will be one. this is by far the best idea i’ve heard this year

  20. I think you will find if you approach the artists themselves directly and explain what it is you are trying to do, the vast majority, if not all of them, would try to help you. This is exactly the sort of thing the FAC would like their members to be able to do.

    Unfortunately, in the case of major label signed acts, the label often gets in the way and can make things difficult – that’s precisely why the artists are trying to get more control with the FAC.

  21. jezc says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    As I’m sure you know, it’s very difficult to speak to the majority of signed artists directly, but I’d certainly be up for this and you appear to be close to the FAC – why don’t we take the next logical step and arrange some sort of meeting/discussion between both parties, notwithstanding no body has been formally constituted on this side of the discussion yet!

    There are a number of meetings/(un)conferences where this discussion could be kicked off, I do agree with you that if we got to speak to artists they would certainly describe their music in art/cultural terms and there could be common ground for both parties to take further.

  22. Hunter says:

    It’s not just the media and various bloggers that have picked up on the FAC’s stand on intellectual copyright. Here’s an excerpt from a bulletin from our local performance rights collection agency (APRA) this week,

    (snip) …… the emergence in Britain of a group of high profile songwriters standing up for the rights of creators against ISPs and those who think music should be free. The Featured Artists Coalition includes artists like Radiohead, Annie Lennox, Robbie Williams, Billy Bragg, Soul II Soul etc.* The website is: http://www.featuredartistscoalition.com/

    A statement from the FAC released this week says: “Google is hoping to bring to heel the last remaining outpost of resistance to the idea that music on the internet should be free – the creators of that music, the artists themselves. . . we want all artists to have more control of their music.” (snip)

    The FAC stand on copyright is the only aspect of the coalition that is getting any attention anywhere by the looks of it , probably because it’s topical and of interest to many stakeholders.

    The FAC is full of people who know how the media works and are very successful at manipulating it – if they had a hunch this issue might dominate their campaign from the outset it seems strange they didn’t leave the the hot potatoe alone until they got the ball rolling on their other agenda items.

  23. Julian Moore says:

    I was there too. For some inexplicable reason we were name-checked at the start of the meeting as an example of lesser known bands who had not signed a deal of any sort, but also needed a voice.

    On the whole I was impressed just how up to speed the speakers were on the issues that often come up here and on other blogs and forums. I must admit, I was surprised.

    The meeting was a statement of intent to try and do the right thing, and if first impressions are anything to go by, I truly did get the impression that it’s heart is in the right place. The main focuses were on fairness and transparency for us as artists who have to deal with majors and other aspects of the ‘biz’, while nurturing the fan relationship and not forgetting that the audience is the most important part of the chain.

    I can tell you know, if it deviates from it’s core principles over time I will be standing in the middle shouting blue murder while throwing books by Lessig around.

    So I would say, give it a chance and stop trying to figure out ‘what it all means’, just for now. They haven’t even found an office yet, and although a few key people are in place, they have yet to gather a large board of representative artists from across the musical spectrum and career levels to get their opinions across. That may take a little while.

    I have high hopes for it. But then I’m an optimist. And don’t forget dubber, that pretty much every musician that was in that room has been following your blog, and other notable thinkers on these matters, for what is quite some time now. Hence the formation of the FAC, which thinking such as yours and other futurists may have prompted in the first place.

    It just took a few years longer than expected.

  24. Howard Mills says:

    I think this is a great article, and judging by the comments, it has done a good job in eliciting some strong responses: always a good sign.

    I have to agree with what dubber is saying, though perhaps the starting point of being angry about what the FAC are doing was not the best thought out (or, maybe that was the goading that was required?).

    I would have liked to attend the FAC meeting, but with it’s date being moved around (and held in London), it ended up being the same day as I flew out to Toronto for CMW. As far as I am aware, the coalition was instigated by a group of managers in response to discussions at the MMF. However, the long term goal is that the coalition should be run for and by the artists themselves. No labels. No managers. No representatives other than musicians.

    As such, the FAC can only represent the wishes of artists, not the music community as a whole. Malcolm’s points are valid, but they do miss the point a little. I am as strong an advocate as anyone in the artist vs the label debate, but the re-balancing of the status quo from the point of view of artist remuneration is not, I believe, what dubber is getting at.

    What dubber is presenting is the idea for a coalition to represent the rights of culture itself. This is a much wider reaching ideal and one that crosses boundaries outside of music and into the fabric of social structures worldwide.

    There are, of course, many existing bodies which purport to represent culture – right up to government level. I think most people would agree, however that these are often inaccessible ivory tower organisations where the small voice has little chance of being heard. And that’s where a coalition might come in? A simple platform to represent and discuss the intrinsic values of culture, beyond mere economic considerations.

    I would be interested in how a Coalition for Culture could be set up, and I’d certainly be joining if it were to be.

    And I’ll also be very interested in the development of the FAC, and will advise all the artists I represent to have a good look at joining.

    I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, but I do think they are different enough to warrant coexistence.

  25. Julian Moore says:

    @howard

    I agree with you. And agree the starting point was a bit off this time.

  26. Hello, I’m a postgrad student in Popular Music Studies in the UK.
    It’s a great article. FAC seems to go on a bit wrong way. I’d love to take “cultural good” campaign on board!

    I’ve got this article today which was very dissapointing:
    http://www.cmumusicnetwork.co.uk/htmldaily/090327.html#22
    It’s great that musicians have formed a group and talked about how their works are used, copyright, a contract with a record company or whatever. However, as far as I read today’s news, they presumably don’t see their musical work as cultural heritage. Once FAC said they want to represent music fans. But, so far, they appear not to be able to do so. Their support for the extension of copyright was especially dissapointing. As Dubber stated, academisc, students (including me), the library, many musicians in local communities….they will all suffer from the extension of copyright (we, students and academics have already suffered due to fair-use exception). Their 3 priorities lack of fans benefits….