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Minggu, 14 Agustus 2011

This half-baked, half-hearted

anti-piracy strategy

This half-baked, half-hearted, slow-motion anti-piracy strategy does music no favours

The creative industries need a proper strategy that would not favour film over music or computer games
If you have been listening to Radio 1 any time recently, Example is the rapper who has "never been afraid of the highest heights", which is useful enough when you've had a number one hit that has sold 1.7m copies this year. Contrary, perhaps, to received thinking about the state of the music market this is not a freak hit either; the all-digital singles market is booming – single sales are up 10% so far in 2011 (on top of a 10% improvement the year before), according to the record counters at the Official Chart Company.

So much for the impact of piracy – and singles are a cleaner business with lower overheads than albums, which must be promoted and marketed heavily. For singles, an artist and their record company can rely on radio airplay to do the job for free.

The problem with the music business, well apart from overpriced event tickets, and lousy summer weather, is, in a sense, physical. The endlessly plummeting CD sales, worth far more all round than a few 79p songs, mean that by value the recorded music industry was down by 8.6% last year and by a similar amount this year, according to those in the know. It could be argued that the core problem is not piracy, which would surely depress single sales on iTunes, but unbundling, where digital allows consumers to buy just the songs they want. For those who like analogies, newspapers suffer from the same problem: why pay £1 for your Guardian when you can read the three best articles, and possibly this one also for free.

Anyway, all of this is a good thing, when you consider Vince Cable's low-key, not-too-busy response to the Hargreaves report on intellectual property, as copyright is grandly called these days, last week. If ministers actually had an anti-piracy strategy they did a fine job of concealing it, as the government committed itself to a fearless further review of plans to introduce a banned list of pirate websites (without actually grasping the nettle of principle – that is, ditching the scheme because it is tantamount to censorship).

You may recall too the increasingly antique Digital Economy Act, a piece of legislation rushed through by the last Labour government, which included provisions for cutting off the internet connections of serial pirates. The Lib Dems even came out against the act, but that was in the days when they were an independent party, although since the election their plan to derail the idea has perhaps been more subtle.

Alleged pirates were to receive warning letters some time this year, before more ruthless measures would be applied in the form of traffic throttling and finally the great cut-off. Except the first wave of warning letters won't go out until next year; this compares poorly to France, which has implemented similar legislation and already sent out half a million threats, or rather warnings, to its citizens.

Instead, we have a nowhere-in-particular policy, that isn't obviously needed. It would have been far more coherent for Cable to come clean and say that the piracy problem is overstated – and that all these attempts at site-blocking and internet disconnection should be abandoned. Except, of course, that would not be a popular view with the record industry – even if this is a business that has combined spectacular mismanagement (think EMI's depressingly overleveraged buyout by Guy Hands) with moments of musical brilliance.

And if you think that's not enough, Hollywood is going to step up lobbying to combat piracy, in the hope of shoring up now flagging DVD sales (down 5.7% in the first half of this year). Politicians, after all, seem to go weak-kneed for film, which benefits from all sorts of tax breaks and other advantages denied to music, perhaps because the latter looks politically risky.

A proper industrial strategy for the creative industries, though, would offer tax break-like support on a media-neutral basis, rather than favour film over music and indeed computer games. Be in no doubt, however, the financial problems of the music business are having an effect on creativity. Fewer artists are coming through, only 17 British acts crossed the 100,000 sales barrier for the first time in 2010, (think Tinie Tempah and – really – Diana Vickers) compared to anywhere between 24 and 29 in the years 2006 to 2009. Fewer sales mean fewer sums available for A&R, where spending is down from £250m to about £200m a year according to the BPI, whose job it is to know.

Unfortunately, what is on offer is a half-baked, half-hearted, slow-motion anti-piracy strategy, that in practice is unlikely to meaningfully boost the music or creative industries. But we can console ourselves with the fact that Cable wants to make it legal to copy CDs on to the iPod, because we all felt we couldn't do that before. Oh well.

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