Books, thoughts, and other random disasters from Claire Ryan

Leave Your Egos at the Door, Please

Words on paper“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.”

Noel Gallagher, famous British singer of the band Oasis.

An ego is a terrible thing to waste. C’mon, Noel, tell us how you really feel about your fans. It’s okay. Only some of them will be too offended by your attitude to buy your new album.

It never ceases to amaze me that artists take this kind of tack; that the mere act of them spending money on and ascribing value to their work means that everyone, everywhere, could spend money on and ascribe the same value to it. This is absolutely, obviously, not the case at all. We all make our own judgements on the value of certain objects, especially in art. There are people who would walk through fire to own a genuine Jackson Pollack, and there are just as many who would be happy to chuck it into the fire to rid the world of a little perceived ugliness.

Two days ago, David Lowery of the Tricordist blog posted a long article in the form of a letter to one individual music pirate, but that really addressed all pirates. Their main point – that there are no excuses, and one should pay for music, for many many reasons – is outside the scope of my blog, of course, but I found it interesting in how they ascribed value, and how those they addressed did the same. (more…)

Jason Robert Brown, and the Sound of (Copyrighted) Music

I write a lot about copyright, and licencing, and the situations arising from filesharing, so the shennanigans with Jason Robert Brown were of particular interest to me. In short – JRB is a famous composer, and he was slightly and understandably miffed that some sites allow his sheet music to be accessed for free.

So he opened up a dialogue with one of the users of such a site, and the resulting exchange is enlightening and informative. His opponent is a teenager, a young aspiring singer who sees nothing wrong with filesharing.

What I found most interesting is that her attitude towards sharing online was very different to his, and she had a remarkably good grasp of how it could benefit him in a promotional way. JRB didn’t agree, and directed her to buy his music at four dollars a pop – not much, of course, but without a credit card, she couldn’t pay it. He did come off as rather heartless in that respect.

Several things struck me about all this. The first was that the teenager’s attitude is certainly not unique. Her generation is completely comfortable with sharing files online, both technologically and morally, and JRB seems rather blinkered to this fact. That’s a little dangerous when you consider that her generation will grow into the consumers with money that he will be playing to in a few years. Public perceptions shift and evolve over time, and hanging your future earnings on the idea that you can prevent the attitudes of the younger generation from merging into the mainstream is not a good business decision.

The second was that he just didn’t seem to realise that it’s not about him. This teenager likes his music. She has access to sheet music that she wouldn’t normally have available, because her parents won’t pay for it. She takes the time to learn it, sing it, make it a part of her life – and she tells him this, and explains that she loves his music so much that she wants to promote it and share it with others.

He, of course, is of the opinion that she could just as easily promote it with paid sheet music instead of free copies. But – and this is very important – it’s not about him. He’s not the only composer in the world. For a teenager who can’t afford to buy sheet music, it’s easier to download than to find a way to pay, so if he succeeds in having his music removed from this site, it won’t somehow convince her and her peers to buy it instead. They’ll just look for another free song that’s been left online by another composer who isn’t concerned about filesharing. Bottom line here, he’s wilfully restricting the market for his work because he can’t stand the idea that someone is getting his work for free.

The third thing, and I am tired of saying this, is that he repeatedly refers to it as ‘illegal’. Anyone who’s done any research into this area should know that filesharing is not illegal.


It’s actually a civil case, as opposed to a criminal one. That’s why you should be calling it infringing behaviour, not illegal behaviour. Small distinction, I’m sure, but it’s an important one.

The fourth thing is that he uses incorrect analogies. The screwdriver, for example – he compares giving away a finite good (end result: he does not have a screwdriver anymore) with an infinite good (end result: he still has his own copies of his music). It’s irritating when people make these comparisons and don’t think them through.

Imagine if you had a screwdriver, and your friend wants one, and you have the technology to make an exact copy of it in about a minute at zero cost. Maybe it’s an exceptionally well-made screwdriver, with variable size and type and whatnot, and it took you a year to craft it. So you tell your friend, “Sorry – you need to give me four dollars before I’ll make you a copy”. Maybe he’d give you the money, but that’s a bit of a stretch if there are a hundred other screwdriver craftsmen who’d be happy to make him a copy for free, and all of them are clamouring for his attention.

It’s all market forces, kids. If people know that it effectively cost nothing to produce the goods they are buying, they expect to get it for free or for close to free. Asking them to pay when your competitors are giving it away for promotional purposes is a colossal mistake. Maybe their goods are not as well-made, and maybe you’ll get some sales out of the people who prefer quality over price, but at the end of the day it’s not you who’ll be getting the attention (and thus the money) of the majority of consumers – and unless your goods are significantly better and differentianted from the competition, you will go out of business.

(But wait, I hear you cry, how can they make money if they’re giving away their goods? In response to this, I can only suggest that if an entrepreneur can’t figure out how to take consumer attention and turn it into sales and income, then perhaps they should get a different job.)

In summary, I really feel for Jason Robert Brown. I’m not callous enough to ignore his point of view that he should be paid for the sweat and blood he put into his music, but the simple fact remains that his work is going to be shared whether he likes it or not, whether he rails against it or not, whether it’s copyright infringement or not. He says himself that the recording industry is in freefall right now, and he’s not wrong – but the music industry is booming, and musicians are finding new ways to make a living by reaching out to their fans directly, and by not relying on the sale of the infinitely and easily copied streams of data that make up their music. See the latest report from the UK, if I remember right – people are spending more money on music than ever before, but it’s all in live acts and not plastic discs.

I feel bad for him because all he can see is how he’s not being paid his share of four dollars. He’s so focused on how the Internet is losing him a little bit of money that he doesn’t recognise how he could be using it to make a huge pile of money. It’s like Harry Potter all over again – up to May this year, the series was not allowed to be released as ebooks due to the fear of piracy. The result, of course, is that there was no other way to get it as an ebook except through illicit channels, which means it was heavily pirated anyway and both Rowling and Bloomsbury have lost out on potential ebook sales of the most popular children’s series in the last decade!

I often wonder who was ultimately responsible for that particular business decision. Was it Rowling, perhaps? Did Bloomsbury buy into the media panic over filesharing and nudge her into it?

Anyway, back to JRB. People are fond of saying that there’s no easy answer to filesharing, but I disagree. There is one answer that counts: Evolve or die, gentlemen. If your business model can’t survive in the age of the Internet, you have a stark choice – develop a better one, or accept that you will fail.

There is no in-between, no happy medium. You are not a special snowflake that the digital age will treat gently and make exceptions for.

Evolve or die.

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Copyright Law

Something that I’ve been thinking about lately is the nature of the music licensing bodies in Ireland. I’ve talked before about IMRO, and no, I am still not impressed by their efforts to extract license fees from hobbyist music blogs. Promotion of up and coming artists is important, and those blogs are only going to become more prevalent.

Anyway. I’ve been pondering something tangentally related.

IMRO are licensed to collect fees from venues like shops, restaurants, clubs. The PPI collect as well, for performing rights. They collect regardless of whether the venue in question actually plays any of their music; their attitude is such that they assume that the musicians in the venues will, without a shadow of a doubt, eventually play something that they have the rights to.

Now, this worries me.

Let’s say a restaurant doesn’t want to pay the fees, and decides to play only non-IMRO, non-PPI music. Such music does exist – Creative Commons music, perhaps? Jonathan Coulton releases all his music as CC-Attribution-Non-commercial; it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to make a deal with him, or artists like him, to use their music.

Here’s the thing: his songs are specifically registered to him. He owns the copyright and he licenses them as he sees fit. “Copyright is the set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work…” so sayeth Wikipedia, which seems quite straightforward. Copyright lets the creator profit from their work in exchange for sharing that work with the world. The keyword there is profit, of course.

If you own the copyright on a work, no one else has the right to profit from that work. That would be in breach of the most basic elements of copyright law. So, consider for a second what happens in this scenario:

Restaurant contacts local musician and does a deal, such that the musician provides or performs their own original work (or their own original arrangements of public domain works) to the restaurant in exchange for a set fee, which is presumeably lower than the licensing bodies’ fees. Restaurant begins to use this background music normally. Both parties profit in that the venue gets music, and the musician gets promotion plus money; very straightforward, as the musician owns the songwriting and performing rights, and may profit from them in whatever way they see fit.

Enter the IMRO, as they like to do, and they demand licensing fees from the restaurant, because the venue is playing music. In short, they demand payment for the use of music to which they do not own ANY RIGHTS.

See the problem there? See what is just a little bit bothersome? The licensing bodies are essentially asking for money on the offchance a venue uses their music, even when the venue specifically restricts itself to music they don’t cover. If Jonathan Coulton owns the copyright on a work, and owns the exclusive right to profit from it… what exactly happens if the IMRO profits from it?

Breach of copyright law, perhaps?

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Fight Music

Writing fantasy usually means writing a certain amount of fight scenes, it seems. Writing fantasy action adventure means that times ten.

I love it, really. If I could write action movies for a living, I would in a heartbeat. I love epic fights, and huge odds, and danger and excitement. Every time I send my characters into the firing line, I can visualise it all – every strike and leap, every random act of badassery. I’m not sure if it works on paper, and I’m not even sure what I’m aiming for, but I do know that it is awesome inside my head.

When I write action, I need a soundtrack.

The right music sets my mind racing. Different songs for different things, different themes and scenes and feelings, but each one will light up my imagination and turn a flat fist fight into rip-roaring chaos. It’s part of my creative process; I believe without a doubt that I couldn’t have even come up with the initial idea for the Novel if I didn’t have a particular song, even a particular riff, to listen to. Here’s a few of my favourites:

Foo Fighters’ The Pretender. There’s something raw about it, something desperate and angry and perfect for vicious, bloody, last stand fights.

What if I say I’m not like the others
What if I say I’m not just another one of your plays
You’re the pretender
What if I say that I’ll never surrender

The whole song is wailing, screaming pain. I love it.

Nightwish’s Ghost Love Score. One of the original theme songs for the Novel, in fact; I always envisioned making a trailer using this, and some of the best scenes – well, the ones I like, whether they’re good or not is up for debate – were at least a little bit inspired by it. It’s probably the most epic song Nightwish have ever done.

My fall will be for you
My love will be in you
If you be the one to cut me
I will bleed forever

It’s a blend of soaring orchestra and thumping rock; blood-roaring, uplifting, head-rushing.

Ok Go’s Here It Goes Again. No, really. Strange at it may seem, this song is the perfect blend of fast, trippy beats to play over my bar room brawls and chase scenes! It’s got the right amount of happy, comical bouncing, like Benny Hill but less ridiculous and more chaotic.

Just when you think that you’re in control
Just when you think that you’ve got a hold
Just when you get on a roll
Here it goes, here it goes, here it goes again

I can’t help liking it a lot. It’s got treadmills, remember, making it doubly awesome.

Someday, if I’m excessively bored, I think I might put together a top ten list of the soundtrack to the Novel. Then people can read the book, and listen to the songs at the same time – and get an insight into my frequently deranged way of thinking.

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This cannot end well

In the aftermath of the High Court decision regarding the three strikes malarky with Eircom, it seems that the licensing authorities in Ireland have decided to start cracking down on all kinds of content both online and offline.

Two stories in particular have crossed my path. The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) have sent out notices to a number of large, non-profit Irish music blogs that they must buy a license in order to offer MP3s to their readers – files, by the way, that have been sent to them gratis by labels and bands for promotional purposes. The reasoning is thus – these bands and labels have signed up with the IMRO and granted them the exclusive rights to collect songwriting royalties on their behalf. If I understand this corrently, even if they want to give away their music, they can’t. The agreement they signed does not allow it.

Dare I say that this is all kinds of stupid? The blogs are doing free promotion, and getting people talking about music. The vast majority do it for the love of music, not because they want to get paid. They make no money. If this does occur, it can only put a serious dent in the promotion and discussion of Irish artists online. Less promotion = less people hearing about music = less sales.

The second story is about the licensing of cinemas in Ireland. The IMRO is in talks to increase the rates that they charge cinemas across the country – 1% of their gross box-office takings, regardless of the size of the cinema. At the moment, the rates vary depending on the size. That’s not a cut of the profits; it’s a cut of all money they take in, and 1% is a lot when you’re already on slim margins. This is apparently because “we have an obligation to treat all cinema operators in a fair and consistent manner.”

I’m not sure what to make of it. The whole Irish economy is being slammed right now, and all this seems to be doing is squeezing businesses even further. According to the article, they want to backdate payments for the last five years – that can easily put the cinemas who are just holding on right now out of business entirely.

This just cannot end well. I can’t imagine many artists who are signed up to the IMRO would be all that happy about these greedy, strong-arm tactics. With the ability of the Internet to provide a promotional platform for bands, the question may indeed become whether an artist would want to be signed up to the IMRO anyway. Make no mistake about this; there’s a market there for bands who choose to retain all rights and completely avoid the IMRO, IRMA, PPI and others. Take a song, for which you own the written copyright because you wrote it. Record it yourself, and you have the recording copyright. Sell the song to a business under your own commercial license, granting them the right to play it in their shop for however long you both agree on – forever, maybe? – for a small, set payment. You get a little bit of money, and free promotion of your song in that shop. They get a license to play music that doesn’t bankrupt them.

Can you imagine if a label decided to do this? I could easily envision one going into a shop and setting up their sound system as a direct stream from the label’s servers which contains all their bands’ songs, and the music is delivered as a service which costs a small monthly fee. The shop would get affordable music, and the label would be able to control their marketing and promotion. And that’s to say nothing of the feedback you could get; statistics on the most popular songs, sales figure comparisons, etc. What if there was a public computer in the store where customers could register their interest in the music being played, or show their interest in a particular song? The possibilities are endless!

This does assume, though, that the label hasn’t already signed up with any of the licensing authorities.

I can’t be the only person who can come up with a workable business plan that bypasses the IMRO. So… I wonder are they really working in the interests of the musicians, or are they only interested in their own revenue streams?

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Zen and the Art of Beyoncé

I will happily admit that I despise the vast majority of current pop songs. They are, as you say, not my thing, nor are they ever likely to become my thing. My taste in music is varied, weird, and frequently unpredictable.

But I do read a lot, and inevitably I read about music. I happened to spend an enjoyable hour reading through this article by Martin Seay earlier – warning: it is very, very long – and I particularly picked up on his dissection of the Beyoncé song, Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).

The idea of anything written by Beyoncé having hidden depth is, well, frightening to me – but I’d put that down to my natural adversion to most pop music. Mr. Seay puts forward some quite interesting explorations of a song called TiK ToK by Ke$ha (how I wish I was making that up) and how it compares to the Beyoncé single, among other things, and the conclusion seems to be that the Ke$ha song is eminently hateable because it’s about as deep as a puddle on a sunny day.

He has this to say about Single Ladies, though:

Then there’s the way the meaning of the refrain—all the single ladies, put your hands up—blurs and broadens as the song proceeds. The line is of course lifted from standard-issue Friday-night club-DJ patter: an ostensibly playful exhortation for eligible women to identify themselves as such. This moment in a DJ set always comes off as icky, anything but playful, a moment of peak social coercion; it suggests that single women are to be regarded as public property, or that they have (or are) a problem that needs to be solved, or even that they’re simply present (Ladies’ Night!) as prospective quarry for the hapless prowling menfolk who by this point in the evening can’t be trusted to take aim at appropriate targets without a little help. “Single Ladies” sets out to divert and defuse the line’s coercive function, not so much by recontextualizing it through wit or double-entendre—a trick which can only work within the fictional world of the song—but instead by repurposing it along with the gesture it prescribes: we’re asked to see the single ladies’ hand-raising not as an act of acquiescence to or participation in a social ritual that objectifies them, but instead as a celebratory assertion of individual and collective agency…

…The degree to which “Single Ladies” has succeeded in accomplishing its implicit aims is, I humbly submit to you, pretty freaking extraordinary. Let’s set aside for a moment the VMAs and the Grammys, the globe-spanning dance craze, the millions in revenue from album and single and download sales, and consider a single achievement: it is now next to impossible for any DJ anywhere to unselfconsciously command all single ladies within earshot to put their hands up—at least not without the DJ then immediately playing Knowles’s hit, which will proceed to reassure those single ladies that everything is all good, that they have nothing to worry about, and that they should pay no mind to the drunk jerks and enjoy spending time with their girlfriends. This is one of those rare cultural phenomena that can legitimately claim solid practical value: the differences between it and, say, Lincoln’s second inaugural address are not those of quality but of scale. “Single Ladies” is a work of art and a feat of rhetoric that has made the world concretely better.

The song annoys the hell out of me, but still – I wouldn’t normally consider work like that to actually have any deeper meaning, and the article at least made me take a second look. Mainstream media doesn’t naturally lend itself to depth, in my opinion, although obviously it’s not completely adverse to it. The question I would ask, in fact, is whether Mr. Seay is reading something into the song that isn’t there or wasn’t put there by Beyoncé; is there actually a hidden meaning, or is it accidental? I find it hard to say, because I don’t really have an unbiased view.

If there is a meaning there, was it intentional? Does it make the effects, as Mr. Seay describes above, any less valid?

If an outsider reads a certain meaning into a creative work that the author didn’t intend, is that meaning any less valid?

Anyone who’s studied Shakespeare in school would be aware of the dissection of hidden meaning in his work. I know I did, and most of the time I thought that we were searching for something that wasn’t really there. It was enough for me that the sonnets were beautiful, and so I didn’t need to know why he used this particular phrase or word. The same is probably true for Beyoncé’s fans, of course – do they care that Single Ladies might have deeper meaning? I’d say not really. But for someone like me, who’d normally ignore her entirely, the concept of there being a strong underlying message in her songs is fascinating. It’s simply not what you’d expect.

At any rate, having been introduced to the idea of greater depths in Single Ladies, I may be willing to give her other songs more than a outright dismissal.

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I Dreamed a Dream

I read a very interesting blog post today over on www.nielsenhayden.com. You should go read it.

It’s ok, I’ll wait.

… … …

Read it? Good. Here’s the part that really struck me:

It’s a central narrative of Britain’s Got Talent: the shy, podgy little contestant comes out on stage and says they want to sing professionally; that they believe it’s what they were made to do. The audience titters cynically: Yeah, right. The judges don’t quite roll their eyes. “Go on, then,” they say. “Let’s hear it.” The contestant takes a deep breath and —

ZOMG, it’s Paul Potts singing “Nessun Dorma”. It’s thirteen-year-old Andrew Johnston singing “Pie Jesu”. Most recently, it’s Susan Boyle, singing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. When they open their mouths, what comes out is the real thing: rich, powerful, self-assured music.

Teresa says, rightly enough, that an editor or agent has to wade through hours and hours of utter crap to get to that ZOMG moment. But I can just hear the writers reading that post and almost jumping up and down saying, “ME! Please let it be me!”

It takes real courage to stand before someone so… disdainful, and still want to show them that you’ve got what it takes. They expect you to be forgettable, to be a non-entity. They expect less than nothing of your talent. But we still want to be there, no matter how much it might damage us; we want to be the one talent that shines in the darkness and sets their world on fire. That feeling, when you stand there and watch the skepticism and disbelief fade away to joy and you know that you made it happen – that feeling is golden.

I’ll bet good money that Susan Boyle will never forget that first moment on the stage, when the music started and her voice soared over the audience who never believed she could do it.

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