When it comes to digital rights management, downloading music illegally isn't really the problem — it's our obsession with it.
At a recent dinner party, after several glasses of wine, and after house prices and public transport had all been done to death, the conversation turned to music. Someone casually announced that their teenage sister spends much of her time downloading music from the Internet for free — an uncomfortable silence ensued. Most of my friends know that, as a professional composer, I absolutely don't approve of stealing music, how could I? But instead of disapproving, I found myself being drawn along by the weight of youthful opinion. Was it because there were three very vocal teenagers in the house? Or was it, in fact, because they were right?
This issue has been hotly debated, but often only one side of the story is heard, and the focus of the problem has largely been on the impact of the Internet. While it's certainly true that the Internet has allowed album sharing on a previously unprecedented scale, and that software developments have allowed the growth to be accelerated faster than record companies could ever have imagined, we've heard the story so many times. Who's never borrowed an album from a mate and recorded it onto tape instead of buying it? Do you know anyone who bought both vinyl and audio cassette versions of an album so they could listen in the car as well as at home? Of course not! But if we thought that was acceptable, it's no wonder we apply the same morals to file sharing.
The problem with file sharing, of course, comes from the scale on which the illegal copying is happening. The bottom line is that the corporations could shoulder the cost of small-scale local copyright infringement, but not of major international infringements. Personally, I have little sympathy for the majors having overlooked earlier infringements, presumably because it wasn't cost-effective to deal with it — perhaps this demonstrates a lack of business planning? No doubt they would argue that they couldn't possibly have foreseen the Internet and the impact it would have, which might be true, but my point is that this has been an accident waiting to happen, and the record companies have either been too complacent, too lazy or perhaps too busy spending their wealth to do anything about it. You only have to look at EMI's recent troubles to see that it could already be too late, and to add insult to injury for the artists, some companies are refusing to release albums despite a clear, if limited, demand.
One of the first acts at the recently reopened Marquee Club was '80s rocker Joe Jackson. I visited joejackson.com to check the dates and discovered that, despite fans from all over the world wanting to buy his music, they're unable to do so because Universal won't release the CDs. Joe Jackson himself (who wrote and recorded the songs for A&M, since swallowed up and virtually wiped out by Universal) can't get the rights to his recordings, and so fans can only get them by file sharing and producing illegal copies. And there was me thinking that record companies existed to promote their artists!
I think the ultimate problem is over-supply of music as a whole, particularly in chart music. The A&R men think they know what the people want, and give us too much similar sounding music, swamping the market. When will they learn that their long-term future depends on providing quality acts with longevity? I also believe most people would ultimately prefer to own a genuine copy with all the sleeve information and pictures because it feels more valuable, but they'll only pay money for it, of course, if the content is good. Downloading just underlines the temporary, transient nature of the music: easily disposed of from MP3 and Minidisc players, only to be replaced by the next big thing.
It may seem a bleak picture, but I believe the situation can be resolved by the return of good, live, music — the experience of which cannot be canned and sold. The idea of going to a live classical music concert may turn many of you cold, but this tradition has lasted a long time, hasn't it? Our obsession with illegal downloading of music and with 'stopping the unstoppable' is distracting us from the real issue: let's concentrate on doing something more positive.
Carl Pittam has been a professional composer since 1994, writing mainly for TV commercials and TV programmes. When he's not working, he can be found racing sailing boats on the Thames or swearing at motorists from the safety of his bicycle.