This Too Shall Pass

OK Go
Let it go this too shall pass

At the bottom of this post is OK Go’s awesome Rube Goldberg Machine video for their single “This Too Shall Pass”. I’m able to embed it in my blog and share it with any readers because OK Go recently left their former record company EMI in order to self-produce under their own label, Paracadute. EMI don’t allow embedding of videos that feature the music of the artists they represent as it doesn’t generate any revenue for them (YouTube pays a small royalty, but only when people watch the videos on the YouTube site) – this meant that even the band themselves couldn’t post the video on their own website, and that the viral mechanisms that had made their previous videos so popular (see Here It Goes Again and A Million Ways) were unavailable to them. As lead singer Damian Kulash explains, their record company was cutting off its nose to spite its face, because the record industry in general doesn’t understand the basic mechanics of the internet.

The internet has brought a massive step change in the way that consumers interact with markets, and the music industry has been no exception. Never before has there been such diversity or immediacy for consumers, nor such a large community of people who can interact and share information. For music lovers, this has come to represent an opportunity for music to be created and distributed in different and innovative ways, while blogs and social networking sites offer the chance to feel much closer to the musicians who create the music than before. For the record companies and those with a vested interest in intellectual property however, the freedom of exchange that the internet enables has come to represent a deeply problematic forum for users to bypass profit mechanisms, to violate IPR and to establish their own, unregulated distribution networks.

This clash of interests has come to a head in the UK this week, and while the record companies seem to have triumphed, internet users are incredulous at the way these “dinosaurs” seem to refuse to recognise the potential the internet offers for marketing and distribution, preferring instead to cling to outdated ideals and modes of production and to criminalise those who are potential consumers of band merchandise and gig and festival tickets. However the music industry’s resistance to change is by no means unprecedented. Writing about the move towards a market economy in 17th century Europe, economist Robert Heilbroner notes the following example:

“The capitalists of the day face a disturbing challenge that the widening of the market mechanism has inevitably brought in its wake: change.

…the button makers guild raises a cry of outrage; the tailors are beginning to make buttons out of cloth, an unheard of thing. The government, indignant that an innovation should threaten a settled industry, imposes a fine on the cloth button makers. But the wardens of the button guild are not yet satisfied. They demand the right to search people’s homes and wardrobes and fine and even arrest them on the streets if they are seen wearing these subversive goods.”

Robert Heilbroner (2000) The Worldly Philosophers, 7th ed.

It isn’t hard to spot the parallels with the Digital Rights Bill that has been rushed through Parliament this week, and that, among other measures, threatens to cut off internet access for anyone found downloading or sharing copyrighted material. The Bill was passed despite widespread public disapproval, and, according to many MPs and commentators, without adequate time for proper debate or scrutiny. But will this really be a win for the record companies? They may be wiser to take a lesson from the ultimate end of the button makers guild – after all, despite their efforts at the time, people have been wearing cloth buttons for a great many years now without fear of prosecution.

Economists know only too well that change is part and parcel of the way markets work, and even such aggressive resistance from the record companies is likely only to delay the inevitable. Anthropologist Daniel Miller describes in Material Culture and Mass Consumption (2nd ed. 1991) how manufacturers from the 1920s to the 1960s “attempted to construct a highly predictable, homogenized and consistent market, which would allows for longer factory runs and higher profitability”, however this attempt failed in the face of consumer demand for greater diversity of goods, and industrial production was forced to adapt to the trends it had attempted to dictate. The relationship between consumers, producers and demand is by no means clear cut and there is a lot of debate in social theory on this point, but anthropologically demand can be seen as a process of negotiation between the two sides, that is played out in the arena of a fluid and responsive market. If one side tries too hard to maintain the status quo, the negotiation breaks down. The internet provides a solid ground for organising resistance, but so far the demands of the consumers have fallen on deaf ears. However, the internet has also shown itself to be a space where consumers can interact more directly with the producers – the bands and artists who create the music in the first place, and if the record companies refuse to meet them on this ground they could easily write themselves out of the picture altogether.

The UK Government maintains that the Digital Rights Bill is a necessary measure to protect the creative industries from collapse. However, stifling consumer voice is no way to ensure creativity remains possible – quite the opposite – particularly as everyone in this debate seems to agree on the point that good artists and musicians should be able to make a living from their work. Consumer demand for the products of the music industry is stronger than ever, particularly in the face of the hugely effective marketing medium the internet affords, but the demand for a change in the way these products is delivered is just as strong, and this demand will continue to change as the market, the internet and the world continue to develop. The record companies need to accept that change is integral to the way a capitalist economy works, and that like everyone else in the world they will need to adapt and keep on adapting to survive, because, at the end of the day, this too shall pass.

Postcards from Iceland

The use of anti-terrorist legislation by HM Treasury in order to freeze the UK based assets of Icelandic bank Landsbanki this week has understandably provoked a lot of anger from the Icelandic people. Whether or not the UK actually declared that the people of Iceland are terrorists is a debatable affair – the act that Alasdair Darling used to freeze Landsbanki’s assets was the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, and there are some commentators who claim that Iceland’s assets were frozen under the “crime” aspect of the Act rather than the “terrorism” aspect. In fact there is no such distinction; the section of the Act that deals with the freezing of assets states that such an action may be taken against any foreign entity that is or is likely to take “action to the detriment of the United Kingdom’s economy”. Perhaps it could be argued that this was the case here. But it’s not the wording of the Act that’s important. It was created, as the Home Office website is happy to proclaim, to “in order to provide stronger powers to allow the Police to investigate and prevent terrorist activity and other serious crime”, and the specific measure that deals with the freezing of assets is intended to “cut off terrorist funding”. Of course, the Act was used by HM Treasury because it was the quickest way to act to secure British funds invested in the bank without having to go through Parliament. They believed, and many UK citizens will no doubt agree, that they were justified in taking such action to protect the UK Economy as the Icelandic bank failed.

The citizens of Iceland however are another matter. It’s not just that the actions of the UK stand to have a devastating impact on their economy and their lives. It’s that the use of legislation designed to be used in exceptional circumstances to protect national security interests against the threat of terrorism has been perceived as a symbolic act of significant hostility against a nation of friendly allies. The title of the Act is important because the absurd juxtaposition it creates brings the desperation of the measure to light. For instance, as I write Landsbanki is still listed on the HM Treasury website as a “regime” with which the UK will not have financial dealings, alongside Zimbabwe, Iraq and Al Qaeda. A very particular insult in a global culture where “terrorist” has come to stand for the most base of evils. Luckily for us their protests haven’t yet escalated to the level of violence; the Icelandic Prime Minister has called the act “quite hostile” and an online petition condemning the “abuse” of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 with regards to Iceland has been hugely successful; over 65,000 people have signed so far, both from Iceland and from elsewhere. However for me the most powerful protests against the action of the UK Government are the postcards that accompany the petition – photos and images made by ordinary Icelandic people that depict their incredulity at being branded “terrorists” by the UK Government. They serve as a powerful visual culture reminder that those who are affected by the actions of the UK are real people, and they are deeply offended.

Images from http://lisa.indefence.is/Postcards