The Up Side of File Sharing

Record companies are quick to condemn the technology of the Internet, where files can be instantly and perfectly replicated and distributed to millions in no time at all, at virtually no cost.  There are standards that make this possible.  A file made on one computer gets to somebody else’s computer on the other side of the world, no matter what kind it is and it opens and plays.   They’ve been trying to stop the advance of this technology, control and regulate it for years.  They’ve demonised it and called it the reason for the destruction of their industry and for making it impossible to make music commercially.  To a record company, the ability to transport files containing music around the globe or even from room to room is “a bad thing”.

What they mean is they can’t control it and maintain their distribution monopoly, which gave them power over artists and consumers alike.

This morning, a video appeared in my timeline, which is worth a watch.  In it, there are some very interesting comments made:

This is an interview with Midge Ure and Warren Cann of the newly reformed (well, as of 2009) Ultravox.  They’re making an album; a new album, of new material.  Whereas once they would have stood around staring at each other in an arid rehearsal space, looking for inspiration and bickering with each other about whose precious part was left out of the mix, that’s not how they make records today.

Today, they pepper a house with laptop-based micro-studios and each member of the band uses software to capture their musical ideas in their own workspace.  They’re all competent producers in their own right, so putting their ideas down using the software tools is second nature to them.  Once they have an idea (and this is the important bit) they share the files with other band members, who take them and apply their own ideas to the work.  In this way, each is able to contribute musical ideas, while adding parts to other people’s ideas, but with relative isolation and peace.  The work comes together in this incremental way and is finally assembled as a finished work on the master server.  There is far less arguing.  No part is ever permanently lost, because editing is non destructive.  You can always make another mix, or remix and bring the discarded part back in again.  In fact, the technology which allows different versions of a song mix to be so easily constructed and retained provides additional revenue streams to the band, long after the official “release”.  Several versions of the same song can co-exist, for very little additional production cost.  The band gets more releasable product for their time.

But that isn’t where it ends.  Clearly, if a song is nearly working, but not quite, they can copy the files from one continent to another, so that they arrive before any of the musicians do (who still must travel by air).  By the time they land, the files can be loaded up in another studio, either for drum overdubs / replacements or for track mixing.

Of course, when they have a mix they can share the files with friendly record producers they know and get second opinions.  Indeed, they can employ a producer, to work as referee, who merely takes the stems and tracks and mixes them down to a final release.  All of this takes place at very low cost, relative to the old way of making records, with no loss of fidelity and no transcription or transcoding dramas.  It all works, as a music-making workflow, because of internet file sharing technology and file format standardisation – the very technologies that record companies demonize.

Meanwhile, they are already promoting their music, long before it is complete and released, via the internet.  The share a YouTube video file of the interview (whose link is above) and people like me watch it on a Sunday morning, over coffee.  In fact, unpaid but useful fools like me then blog about it and spread the promotional video file’s URL even further afield, thereby promoting this new Ultravox album even more extensively, for zero incremental cost to the band.  Midge hasn’t paid me a penny and never will.  In fact, small as the contribution may be, I’ve paid Ultravox more than they will ever pay me, through my concert attendances and buying their albums.  Yet, a few more people will know about his record, than if he had not shared the video of this interview with his Facebook fans and Twitter followers.

We’re doing the word of mouth promotional work that his record company used to charge him a fortune to do.  In fact, the record company isn’t even active in the process, as of today, simply because the album hasn’t been delivered to them to promote.  Because we have no dog in the fight, we’re also arguably a more credible endorsement of the album and the band, because what we write is not commercially rewarded.  We write about bands and music we love because we love them and because their music is good.  Ultravox, as is noted in the video, care a lot about the quality of their output, having rehearsed for their comeback tour for twice as long as the actual length of the tour.

The other interesting thing about the video is that they still get on planes to be collocated during the music creation process.  I wonder whether this is a hangover from the old way of doing things, or because the telepresence features of music creation tools are non-existent or embryonic, at best, or because getting together is a very human and inspiring thing to do.  I bet it’s a little of all of these reasons.  One thing, though, is that if telepresence worked well (and there would need to be much better bandwidth available globally for it to do so) and was integrated well with the music making tools, I bet a lot more musicians would leverage the technology to make music collaboratively, together, but without the air fares and travel.  I wrote about this kind of thing in my 2003 book “Streaming Media Demystified”.  Not much has changed since I wrote that book.

With the technology of file sharing transforming how music is made and promoted, one wonders why it can’t be sensibly leveraged as a distribution medium.   Of course it can be and I have written about that in several blogs on this site and my other blogging site, Innovation Fascinations.  It gets harder and harder to see what the role of the traditional record company actually is, anymore.  Certainly, signing your rights away in perpetuity for their services makes less and less sense, today, than it did thirty years ago, when record companies held a monopoly over music production facilities and talent, song writers, promotions and distribution.  Today, what they offer just isn’t worth losing your music over.

I wonder how the new Ultravox album will fare and what role the record company ultimately will play in its life as a musical work.  Will the record company perform their role as expected and will they be effective?  Will most of the promotion actually happen through fan networks, instead of radio play and product placement?  Will people buy the CD from a record store, or tend to buy online, as digital downloads, or CDs shipped from a warehouse.  How will the band reach newer audiences that don’t already know their back catalogue and will the record company play any significant role in extending the reach of the work to new audiences?  It all remains to be seen.  I find it fascinating.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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