Billy Bragg On Piracy: “A war that no one can win.”

Billy Bragg has been one of the UK's most politically active and outspoken musicians for several decades. Now in an open letter first published in The Guardian, Bragg weighs in on the current three-strikes controversy and offers his own alternatives.  Like the talented songwriter that he is, Bragg starts with the hook:

image from 2fm.rte.ie

The only way to tackle illegal filesharing is not suppression, but to offer reliable, easy to use, fairly priced alternativesLast week the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) convened a meeting of artists at Air Studios in London with the intention of seeking common ground on the issue of what to do about illegal filesharing before the end of the government's consultation period, which has now closed.

The statement that we produced is the first real sign that artists are ready and willing to become involved in the debate about the shape of the new digital music industry. There were many views in the room, from those who wished to disconnect illegal downloaders, to those who believed that there was no technical solution to the loss of revenue that the recording industry is experiencing.

Despite our differences of opinion, we were able to agree on bandwidth restriction as final sanction for egregious offenders. We held back from suspension of internet accounts because we felt it was disproportionate and punitive, but most of all, we held back because we didn't believe it was in the best interests of our profession.

The suppression of illegal filesharing is a long-term, highly expensive, technologically fraught strategy with serious implications for personal privacy. It is questionable whether any of the money saved will ever find its way to the artists who have suffered loss of income.

While the recording industry continues to make threatening noises towards kids who swap music files among themselves, our real enemies, the illegal download sites that make money giving our music away for free, are disappearing off the radar into darknets.

This is a war that no one can win.

As the pirates always manage to stay one step ahead of the latest clampdown, the recording industry will continue to ask legislators for ever tighter sanctions, leading ultimately to an internet controlled by and for big business, which can only be accessed by those willing to pay.

The loss to the creative community would be catastrophic. The internet has made it possible for individual artists to make, distribute and promote their own works with the active support of P2P networks. For new artists to flourish, it is vital that the internet remain free to all.

We believe that this sense of freedom is the key to constructing a viable digital business model for the recording industry. The successful music sites such as MySpace, YouTube and Spotify all offer free access. The next step is to create "feels like free" services. We need legal networks licenced by record companies that give users access to all the music they want for a subscription fee. We need P2P communities that spread the word for new artists while offering advertising platforms so that an artist whose work is downloaded can receive reciprocal payment from advertising revenue.

Artists must be prepared to work with the record industry and with legislators on a programme of education aimed at increasing awareness of the damaging aspects of illegal downloading on the livelihoods of the creative community and those who work with us to produce our work.

However, we will not be able to marginalise the pirates until we can offer accessible, easy to use, fairly priced alternative business models that people will actually want to buy their music from. While we may never be able to sink The Pirate Bay, the challenge we face is to make it look boring, shoddy and unreliable.

– Billy Bragg

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  1. I think Bragg is right on with that last paragraph. Unauthorized file sharing is in many ways the consumer simply showing the music industry the way he wants to get his music. That doesn’t mean illegal behavior should be excused, but it does provide us better information than any consumer voice survey could hope to gather. So let’s use it to our advantage.
    The traditional arm of the music industry has proven it’s not willing to partner with these services, so that leaves innovation. If you’re not willing to join them you have to beat them. I still think the former would be the more prudent option, however.

  2. The statement that we produced is the first real sign that artists are ready and willing to become involved in the debate about the shape of the new digital music industry.
    Has he kept his eyes closed a lot in the past 7 years?

  3. This is very interesting…there are really 2 artist camps in this debate and each has a plight that has almost nothing in common with the other. In one hand are the artists who have their revenue streams controlled by multinationals and the other are independent artists making their own way…neither thinks they will see sustainability if they change sides.
    One of the models is dying because it is too top heavy with executives who bring nothing to the table while the other is beginning to thrive.
    I say go indie, go small, go sustainable, go future, go free or donate….and avoid physical product unless it’s wax.
    brendan b brown

  4. I agree with Bragg. It’s destructive to try to shut down people who are trading music amongst themselves. Trading is how people get turned on to new music, and has helped spawn lucrative careers for many artists. The “enemy”, or the “competition” if you will, are the file sharing sites. It’s just good business to offer a better experience than the competition. That goes for any industry out there. And now especially the music industry.

  5. Excellant statement from Bragg.
    What he says in the last sentance is what I’ve been saying for years.

  6. I’m very puzzled by this FAC statement
    How does it make sense to reduce an offender’s bandwidth, then ask him/her to turn to legal offers ? Once I don’t have the bandwidth to download anymore, I won’t, be it legal or not.
    Bragg’s position makes much more sense IMHO

  7. hey wheatus, PROVE to me (with numbers) that indies “are beginning to thrive.” to be brutally honest, i’m tired of reading people saying things without proof. on BOTH sides of this “debate.”

  8. btw, here’s something that should get more notice: http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=62653487&blogId=485944356
    the money quote for me was this: “Anyway – please be careful, or we’ll get the world we all deserve.
    Hobby bands who can tour once every few years if they’re lucky, and
    the superstars, freed from such inconvenient baggage as integrity and
    conscience, running the corporate sponsored marathon of £80-a-ticket
    arena tours and television adverts til their loveless hearts explode
    in an orgy of oppressive branding and self-regard. Some of us, in all
    honestly, just want to make the music we love and play it around the
    world without living in poverty.”
    let the hating begin…

  9. When you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, you need to stop worring about pirates and adjust your sails.

  10. I sat here for 20 minutes and drafted 4 different responses to Kassin on things like proof and leaks and then I had this epiphany…I don’t want Kassin or anyone with a similar mindset to know anything about me or my music.

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