Monday, 12 October 2009


He may be the only drummer of his generation to become less skilful over the last 25 years, but we really should thank Lars Ulrich for kick-starting the debate about peer-to-peer file-sharing and illegal downloading. As easy as it was to take the piss out of a rich man bleating about being denied further piles of cash gleaned from the sale of overpriced CDs, Ulrich did have a point and, to be fair to him, the Napster debacle occurred at a time when the true implications of technology’s impact on the sale and distribution of music were something of an unknown quantity. Cut the Danish buffoon some slack, I say. The debate’s still going on and it’s one that we should continue to observe, not least because the outcome is going to affect those of us that buy music far more than those that make it, regardless of what high profile pop stars might tell you.

Let’s cut the crap. If you know how to download music illegally, then the chances are that you have done so on numerous occasions. I know I have and I make absolutely no apologies for it. We now live in a culture of “try before you buy”, and just because there are plenty of unscrupulous folks out there with no intention of ever getting their wallets out to buy a new CD, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we are all amoral scum feasting on the rotting, fly-plagued corpse of artistic endeavour. I am not a thief. I just choose to use the technology available to check new tunes out before I part with my hard-earned cash for the gleaming circular artefact itself. As the wonderful Stephen Fry recently pointed out, those adverts you see at the beginning of DVDs that pompously state that “You wouldn’t steal a handbag!” are disingenuous twaddle. The act of downloading tunes for free is not morally equivalent to mugging someone. In fact, and this is where the anti-share mob fall down every time, file-sharing is basically a victimless crime, if only because of one simple fact: if you take away the ability to get music for free, record sales are not suddenly going to rise. Most people that share music and download illegally are doing so because they can and that’s never going to change, but neither is it evidence that some terrible act of immoral deviance is being committed. Instead, it’s like raiding your mum’s fridge when she’s not looking. Given the opportunity you’ll have the pork pies, cans of Sprite and Frubes away, but if your mum put a padlock on the fridge tomorrow, would you head to the supermarket to buy the stuff instead? Would you bollocks. People belong to one of two groups: those who download music and then make a judgement as to whether they like it enough to buy the real thing and those who wouldn’t pay money for the music anyway. Artists, whether new and aspiring or established and successful, are not losing royalties from either of these two groups. Threatening to criminalise people for taking advantage of technology and getting a sneak preview of music that they would otherwise not hear at all is a ridiculous way to behave. Flogging hooky DVDs and CDs on a market stall and making a profit from someone else’s hard work is stealing. Downloading the new Devildriver album and giving it a test drive before you spend a tenner on the album itself is not.

But maybe I’m viewing this through rose-tinted spectacles of STEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEL, because the metal world is patently different from most other areas of the music industry. Metal fans are loyal to their favourite bands and there is a long-established culture of wanting to support the bands (and complete one’s collection, natch) by making a point of buying the finished album. These days, arguably because of the downloading phenomenon, record labels are wising up and ensuring that fans have a decent additional incentive for buying the CDs by generally including a bonus DVD, extra music and/or aesthetically pleasing packaging. Frankly, after years of overcharging us all for music, it’s the least they can do. You may have enjoyed the irony of record labels complaining about “stealing” when it has been common practise for albums to be serially re-released in a cynical and blatant attempt to squeeze a few more quid out of us and exploit the devotion to their favourite bands that metal fans wear as a badge of honour. The record industry is struggling, but at least metal labels seem aware that this relationship is a two-way thing. And I guarantee that the average metal fan is far more likely to splash the cash on a new album than fans from most other genres. Yes, there will always be a minority of wankers that don’t care enough about music to keep that part of the bargain, but that’s life. People nick stuff. Boo hoo.

Things have changed a lot over the last few years. Bands now make most of their money from touring and selling merchandise. Albums are sold to promote tours, rather than the other way round. And surely that’s a good thing. After all, if rock ‘n’ roll and heavy metal are about anything it’s live performance and the establishment and maintenance of a relationship between performer and audience. Also, as much as I respect Lily Allen’s concern for the plight of struggling new artists, thanks to MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and any number of other ingenious internet devices, it has never been easier to promote yourself and enable people to hear your music. Just look at Job For A Cowboy’s startling rise from total obscurity to worldwide renown. All it took was a MySpace page, a lot of word-of-mouth publicity and, whisper it, the widespread sharing of their tunes, from which they received absolutely bugger all in monetary terms…but the long term effects are more than obvious.

If you think that cracking down on people that share files is going to benefit new bands and artists, you’re mental. It will have the opposite effect. Less people will hear the music, not more, and less people will buy the CDs as a result. The horse has already bolted, Elton. We can no more go back in time to the pre-download age than we can return to an era when it was socially acceptable to wear giant comedy glasses. Established stars should be putting pressure on record companies to invest more money in new talent instead of squandering money on banal, manufactured pop bands and the endless recycling of the Elvis, Beatles and Michael twatting Jackson back catalogues, not targeting internet-savvy teenagers as they enter a mind-boggling world of freely-available musical riches that will, in most cases, turn them into devout music fans for the rest of their lives. I don’t think it’s okay to steal music and deny royalties to the people that make it, but I do think that the air is a lot thinner up there on that high horse and it does funny things to the brain. Maybe that’s why Lars Ulrich’s drumming went downhill. Just a thought.