The Wire

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In Writing

Collateral Damage: Chris Cutler

May 2011

Responding to Kenneth Goldsmith’s epiphany on filesharing in The Wire 327, Henry Cow founder and ReR label boss Chris Cutler counts the cost of free music to those who make and distribute it

“Epiphany No 4: As a result, just like you, I stopped buying music”
Kenneth Goldsmith, The Wire 327

And where’s the harm?
Surely uploading is just an extension of sharing with friends, an effective and commercially subversive way to promulgate the music you like? But friends are strangers now; a friend is anyone with a broadband connection. Search engines and P2P sites have turned the entire wired world into friends. And that changes things. You want the latest hit without paying; a bootleg of that Singapore show; some album that went missing in 1960 and was never re-pressed? No problem, a couple of clicks will get it because someone somewhere will have put it on a website and someone else will track it down for you. Of course that’s great. What kind of argument can you have with free?

Well, there’s always the second law of thermodynamics. Free always comes at a price. I don’t mean inconvenience to major record companies – though they’ve been doing all the shouting so far – but the likely and predictable repercussions for the music itself. What does free really mean outside of the purely personal effect of ‘I can get it without paying’ – a claim any mugger could make without scoring many argument points? What are the social, cultural and moral costs, the consequences? Sometimes it’s not only our attention span that has evaporated down to bug durations, but our future-directed thinking altogether. Certainly, as access has expanded, empathetic horizons have narrowed. We all apparently want better health, better education, better pension and social security provision, better transport networks, more police and safer streets – and lower taxes. We want to be paid for the work we do but, if possible, not pay for the work other people do; eat the seed corn now and let the future take care of itself. It’s a model inherited from politicians and careless corporations. So I’m afraid, in my book, the ‘all music should be free’ argument is just an infinitesimal fleck in the onward progress of this idiot wave.

Making a recording is not cost-free or work-free; it’s expensive. And those costs can only be recovered through sales. No sales, or sales so low that costs are not recouped, mean artists are forced either to cut the costs next time (with inevitable negative consequences for quality) or not to record so much – or at all. Along with a lot of dross, good music is lost this way, especially at the margins, where the most innovative work is already barely paying its way. In my own field, I know how many musical projects never leave the notebook because of problems with the pocket book.

Perhaps a climate of official indifference and deprivation makes for healthy art? As Sun Ra said, “Resist me, make me strong.” Certainly some – the most driven – will produce one way or another: Ives, Partch and Nancarrow, overlooked in their lifetimes, all wrote and rewrote against the future; Ra recorded and released The Arkestra’s work on his own label; numerous marginal groups, like Thinking Plague, do day jobs and produce what music they can, when they can. And since they will do it anyway, why pay them? The same argument lies behind the cynical underpayment of nurses and carers. Let’s face it, money spent on virtue is money wasted; the more socially useless labour is, the more it attracts reward – hence the phone number salaries of multinational CEOs whose only achievement is profits, and the vast incomes of investors whose virtue is to be already rich.

In a healthy and plural culture, independent funding for independent artists remains the main guarantee of innovative work. And that means the ability, somehow, for musicians to earn a living from what they do. Which is why festivals, performance spaces and independent record companies are so essential: they hold the line. Without concerts or records the equation runs: No income = day job = less art + more compromise. That is why the fate of independent labels matters and why Napster and all similar technologies matter – in spite of the fact that the level of the debate so far has consisted essentially of defiant manifestos legitimising the beleaguered Davids of free posting and the whining of misunderstood Goliaths in the music industry. Both polemics, I think, radically miss the point.

Data 1: The Artist

There are at least three Henry Cow fans who would like the group to reform and record again. They would naturally expect us to take the time – and spend the money – to do the job properly. And today, ‘properly’ means six to eight months of composition and rehearsal and something in the region of £9000 in travel, living and recording costs (the last International Federation of the Phonographic Industry report averaged the industry recording budget for a new group at £20,000). There are no shortcuts, especially for a group that still uses technically demanding instruments, plays in real time and wants to use the studio as a proper instrument. Laptop plus ProTools is cheaper, but it supports only a narrow genre of music. To recover that £9000, the group would have to be confident of selling at least 3500 copies of a CD or 1000-plus paid downloads – and that’s before the musicians or composers receive anything at all.

Data 2: The Label

If ReR lost 15 per cent of its sales to free downloads, that would pretty much wipe us out, but in the short term, the 15 per cent of listeners who didn’t pay would benefit, because the music would be free – although, of course, the service provider, the telephone company and the rest of the intermediaries who contribute nothing to the music would still get paid. In the longer term, however, insolvency would force the label to fold or change its release policy. Perhaps no one would be that bothered. Perhaps they assume that someone will always carry on releasing sidestream music, and some unknown friend or other will always carry on uploading it so that the free concert could go on forever. But it won’t. ReR is already one of very few survivors in a shrinking field, and if we go down, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will want to step into our shoes. Equation two: 15 per cent of free downloads = non-viability of marginal labels = less diversity.


You may not care for ReR or the music it has nurtured, but you can substitute for it any number of other independent labels that support any number of other marginal musics – we are all equally damaged by the strange and thoughtless culture of indiscriminate uploading. Think of it as an ecological issue, a question of diversity for the sake of diversity. Forget the good guys/bad guys story, it’s just a question of whether we want a static, monocultural, factory farm environment or a diverse, plural, interconnected and evolving one. If the latter, we have to start thinking beyond immediate personal convenience.

Where is honour? We pay the plumber, the electrician, the VAT inspector; we pay the service provider and the telephone company, so why so careless of the musician and the struggling label? If you plant a garden and bring its fruits to term – and your friends dig it up in the night to feed themselves, perhaps praising you for your industry – and then sit back in the expectation of another year of gardening to sustain them through the following year, would you continue to dig and delve? Do vegetables really want to be free?

Perhaps Epiphany No 7 should be: Actions have consequences...

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