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Rather than helping to create a rock'n'roll revolution, the unwillingness to pay for music means more assembly-line artists
Ever since Lars Ulrich and his band Metallica experienced a massive public backlash for suing Napster, artists have been wary of speaking out against piracy. The fact that Ulrich was already wealthy perpetuated the myth that only greedy rock stars (and major labels) were upset about piracy (though, many years later, Ulrich declared his actions had never been about money but control).
One of the few artists who dared voice their opinion was Lily Allen, who hit out at a few older, successful artists after they declared their opposition to online copyright enforcement. Allen argued it was easy for them to get on the freebie bandwagon as they'd already made money from the music industry before the advent of digital piracy, but most younger artists would never get the chance to even make a living from music. This made her the target of thousands of incredibly abusive messages – even death threats – so much that she shut down her website.
No wonder artists think twice before speaking out.
But some artists who came to fame before the digital age have voiced their concern for the future of young musicians who don't fit the X Factor mould. Massive Attack's 3D told the BBC how frightening it was to see the total amount of downloads on unlicensed sites. "This is how I make my living. It can be 25,000 [per site]. Multiply that by all the [unlicensed] sites in the world and that can be my whole profit gone. What does that actually mean for the future. It will cheapen music eventually. And it forces the business to take more drastic action, and I think that compromises the bands and the listeners out there."
Noel Gallagher was a bit more blunt, when talking to a journalist at the Coachella festival. "The consumer [says] 'Where's my free music on the internet? Is this a free download?' Fuck off! It cost me a quarter of a million pounds to make it, you're not getting it for nothing. I want my quarter of a million back, thank you very much. That's why we're rock stars.
"That's why tours are becoming so long," explained Gallagher. "By the time I finish this tour it'll be a year and four months. Records don't get any cheaper to make, they get more expensive to make. I say this as an independent artist. I'm on my own record label. It isn't backed by anybody else. I pay for it all. Everything."
Gallagher says the result has been for music to be made by committee and focus groups. "But as I understand it the consumer didn't want Jimi Hendrix, but they got him – and it changed the world … Fuck the customer. He doesn't know what he wants. You fucking give it to him and he likes it."
Perhaps the most poignant (and eloquent) message, however, came from Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins. In a discussion at this year's SXSW, he said commerce starts at the point where people are happy with paying for something – and the fact that technology now allows people to choose to not pay for music has turned music culture into a service culture. He explained the particular problem this poses for artists such as himself. "People like me used to be auteurs, saying 'I'm going to do whatever the fuck I want to do, you like it or you don't like it' and if you're really good they'll come," said Corgan. "Now I'm supposed to beg for attention. It's completely counterintuitive to why I became a musician in the first place and the personality of someone like me.
"I'm supposed to have enough of an ego to make my own world, my own music, my own artwork – everything – but then say, 'Please, please will you just fork out that $10, I know that's a really big decision'. What? When did that become such a big decision? Even if we could find the right price point the general person doesn't believe in making that purchase."
Corgan concludes that if someone like him could be manufactured they wouldn't pick him as a model – they'd pick someone with straight teeth, a better attitude and music that was much more palatable to a wider audience.
Could it be that instead of creating a more level playing field and opportunities for, say, a new Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins to break through, piracy and the unwillingness to pay for music is creating a self-perpetuating conveyer belt of cookie-cutter pop stars?