Thursday, April 23, 2009

White Train

Seven O'clock in the morning and I'm carrying bags under my eyes
Been awake all night, counting the hours to sunrise
Drawing patterns on the tabletop, I lift my eyes and my mouth just dropped

Actually, its nearer three am: in the moonlit sky overhead there is a single cloud traversing the liquid-still night air; lights are twinkling golden-yellow in the distance – a new dawn is somewhere out there beyond the black, beyond the horizon as, far away, a train rumbles headlong through the endless night as a song runs around and around my mind like a child’s Hornby double-O miniature steam-locomotive on a circular track.

On board, one of Elvis’ GI Blues buddies wonders out loud what the King’s doing with his nose pressed up against the compartment window as another black and white static station rushes past in the darkness:

Someone’s waving in the window at me and I say "Hey, what are you waving at?"
And he says "What do I have to lose, somebody might wave back"

Do you remember those times when you’d come across this or that piece of music and think… oh fxxk, that’s so bloody brilliant… I know, so-and-so would really like that…

Those particular lyrics are taken from the same record that spawned one of the more extraordinary three-song, second side of vinyl triptychs – The Big Music segued neatly into Red Army Blues / The Song Of The Steppes with the album closer being the title track itself, A Pagan Place – a jangling wall of twelve-string acoustic guitars that Phil Spector himself would have been proud of.

Back in the distant, a bloke who I’d first got to know as a writer for Ireland’s Hot Press – the world’s most fortnightly magazine – camped out at my cottage in Surrey; he came for a couple of weeks and stayed for a few months having moved over the water after landing himself a job working for MCA in London. One night he got back with a bagful of new releases all of which he was eager to play me. One (sorry to say) non entity followed another; most of it totally forgettable disco-twaddle.

After a bit, there was no hiding the fact that none of his twelve inch platters were floating the Storey boat.

Perhaps my friend would like to hear something from my own bag of tricks? Because that very day, the first test pressings of that particular Waterboys magnum opus had arrived in St Peters Square and so… the volume was adjusted to rather loud and the needle dropped in at the required position and we settled back.

I’d taken the precaution of not telling him what I was about to play him and, twenty minutes later, my friend opened his eyes in stunned silence, mouthing – Holy Mother, what on earth was that – its… I’ve never heard anything like it… it’s… Whereupon, adjectives deserted him like James Joyce with writer’s block at closing time.

Those…now, those really are the moments.

Because then… grinning wildly ‘cos someone has got off on something you’d play for them and all fired up with sharing-enthusiasm, one would hunt high and low to find a spare cassette or maybe even just sellotape up the snapped out tabs so’s the machine would actually record on it; link up your deck with your tape machine, press record and W amount of minutes later, you’d have a tape of album X or single Y or perhaps you’d even have made up compilation Z to give to your music loving pal.

Nothing much wrong with that… is there? Was there?

Nope… other than it was (is) technically illegal.

Remember when video was young and had its sharpened knives out, but… did it really kill the radio star? All those HMV’s, the Woolworths, the WH Smiths and Our Price’s with racked up banks of blank VHS cassettes – buy ten and get two more off the shelf for free.

What were they for – to record your own shows off of the TV; your favourite movies and videos when MTV transmitted something of worth during a time when music videos were like little movies in their own right.

Nothing wrong with that… was there? Wasn’t that long ago either.

Yet… here we are in the digital age and that thirty year-old Musicians Union fuelled ‘home taping is killing music’ mantra from way back then has reared its ugly head all over again.

Only, this time around – its serious. Very serious.

This time though, its as follows: illegal file sharing will, if current world-wild-west-like attitudes are allowed to persist, kill the creative industries. Note – that’s kill as in eliminate as opposed to cause a bit of damage and maim.

Plus, this current crisis isn’t just consigned to music any more; it now includes the movie industry as much as it does music.

Don’t believe me – then try this for size: according to a recent report from the TV & Film Industry Trust, during 2007, ninety-five million films were illegally downloaded in the UK alone compared with 158,000 legal downloads.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been following the responses to an article in The Guardian; a piece written by, without question, the most successful artist manager of modern times and, de facto, one of the wealthiest men in the western hemisphere.

Ladeeeeeeeeeeez and gentlemen, in the blue corner weighing in at two hundred and twenty-six pounds… from Dublin Ireland… Paul, ‘the bludger’, McGuinness.

And in the red corner… weighing in at seven pounds ninety-nine… from Pleasantville, New Jersey, the challenger… Pete, ‘the snitch’, Youngfella.

The tolling of the bell: Round One.

McGuinness opens with a fine jab to Youngfella’s solar plexus with reasoned and informed argument concerning piracy and the free-as-a-bird internet culture that has not only invaded today’s society but has become so pervasive as to actually cause real bodily harm whereby creators of content are not getting paid. Properly.

Youngfella reels back on the ropes but counters with a left hook to the chin: I know nothing of the machinations of superstar rock band management; however, I do know this. I was first exposed to U2 by way of a shared cassette version of Unforgettable Fire, loaned to me by my high school friend. Did he have the legal right to give me his cassette which I might have taken home and duped? No.

Did his gesture directly influence my subsequent purchases of every album in the U2 discography and cause U2 to be my first concert-going experience? Indubitably.

Before you take slapdash aim at the world's unpaid, viral messengers--the Gladwellian connectors, if you will--please be circumspect and consider how these folks have helped line your pockets and those of your clients. No doubt, your polarizing words will only weaken the fanciful bonds we fans feel for your clients. We'll see at last that all along we've not been paying witness to U2's life and times--but instead paying money towards your stolid bottom line.


Youngfella has a point.

I’m not about to agree with all that he says – certainly not the inherent bitterness contained within his (her) final paragraph but… there is a point in there. Because…

Part and parcel of the rise… and rise… and rise… of that little combo from Dublin was all about ‘passing the musical word along’. How do I know? Because, I was (for my sins or otherwise) one of the two – initial – prime-movers behind that entire process. The Island press office – and that was just Rob and self back in the day – spent inordinate amounts of time sending out tapes to the taste-makers, fans, friends, allies… in fact, pretty much anyone who we figured would help ‘spread the word’.

That was our job – magnified to the power of X because we loved the band and their music – equals, it wasn’t much of a hardship, if anything it was totally the reverse… nothing but a pleasure. The (our) reward – which came when they started breaking big, was… well – that just equated to… job’s a good ‘un. No more, no less.

We’d actively encourage the emerging little cells of fans… after all, we were the keepers of the keys to show-tickets / pre-release tapes etc and those who spread the word were never, ever ignored. This is where the likes of Tony the Greek – the John the Baptist of Manchester, enters the equation… he too fought the good fight in his Mancunian corner and spread the musical word from earliest days that played a part in the snowball effect – ‘cos that was really all it was.

Fans – and we all were – spreading the word to other fans of good music.

The tastemakers in America – just as one example – reacted (not least ‘cos they were prodded and cajoled somewhat by us) but also because they were reading about what those – who we’d earlier prodded / nudged – were writing about… this therefore, ultimately, became a bigger, more global, snowball. Naturally, nothing would have worked if the music had been crap – and, thankfully, it wasn’t.

The (overall) point is… this was all about scattering the seeds… and, part of how it was done – as emphasized by the comments above – was via a bit of home-taping… whereby, musician X or artist Y or band Z do not reap the physical rewards for their endeavours – the rewards (in this particular instance) came, over time, in other shapes and guises.

We’d no idea – at the time – that we were working with a band who were destined to become as gigantic as they have over the years.

So… here’s the rub.

Near enough every single response to McGuinness’ article – that first appeared in France Le Figaro before transforming itself as a Guardian piece, have been unequivocally critical of his stance – and, the vast majority from the base that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. While the underlying cynicism of McGuinness’ own prose and arguments come from the quarter populated by people who believe he (and his band) are rich enough as it is.

So what that he and his band are multi-zillionarires? I’d have thought that was to be applauded as a yardstick of (generally) great music and extremely clever management and not riled against since Paul – from day one – always emphasized that he wasn’t in the music business. Nope… he was in a different game altogether, the U2 business.

And yet the voice that he has – a very senior voice at that – that is calling for change and applauding change that could protect creators (not just his wards but future creators) is being lambasted.

The irony is that, this week in New York, a real-life sea-bandit is about to go on trial; the whole world is up in arms that piracy on the high seas is a reality in the 21st century and not just a figment of Errol Flynn’s Hollywood imagination. Meantime and in the same timeframe, a wad (was ever there a more apposite collective noun) of bankers – who are responsible for the disintegration of a once-great industry – are appearing in front of a cross-bench selection of Parliamentarians to finally answer for their (mis)deeds.

Music / movie / banking piracy via the internet is precisely the same kind of thievery; the playing field isn’t the rolling seas but the ether.

Nor is there any longer an excuse of… well, everyone’s doing it so why not me.

Further to which, this is a far cry from copying a few tracks of vinyl onto tape and giving it to your mate for his / her musical pleasure.

That kind of ‘file-sharing’ will continue until hell freezes over – and so it should; that kind of exchange of music, the turning onto something one to another is nothing other than healthy and I cannot imagine a single creative person being against that.

However… wholesale piracy, whereby creators of content (musical or filmic) simply don’t get paid their just dues for creating the content that’s being shared willy nilly is another matter entirely.

Everyone is right in arguing that the internet shouldn’t be policed – after all, we live in enough of an invasive nanny-state (wherever in the world) as it is… and more of that sort of stuff is, so far as I’m concerned, to be resisted at all costs.

So… is there a solution – whereby the ‘creatives’ are paid a fair whack?

The short-term – well… maybe… Thankfully, the Swedish Pirate Bay blokes are now – despite lodging appeals – behind bars and on the receiving end of a hefty fine… and rightly so. The IFPI, who led the charge on that particular issue have come down heavy… and about time to.

Yet, for every one put away and heavily financially sanctioned, another will spring up… remember Napster, they didn’t think they were doing anything ‘wrong’… did they? And what about Kazaa or Grotsker? Pretty much the same business model as Pirate Bay used. Very lucrative, thanks awfully.

Lets look at it another way.

You want a nice new iPhone? Doesn’t really matter in which country you live – you toddle off to shop X and sidle up to the counter as eager as a beaver in sight of a nice juicy tree and engage the sales-person in a bit of small talk. There in the background, on the shelf behind him / her is an array of gleaming iPhones… oh yummy… soon one will be in my hands.

But not before you sign up on the dotted line; and not just for the lovely, oh so lovely iPhone… oh no. Your billing details are required, credit card has to be swiped and… you’re locked into a service provider (such as O2 or AT&T) – at rates they specify – for X amount of years.

Reality is that that gleamingly lovely, oh so lovely iPhone has cost the equivalent of a half-decent second hand car.

OK – so it does everything bar make toast – but, (and it’s the same for all of the new must-have gadgets), there is a price to pay.

So, whats the difference between that and this – perhaps its these cultural times we live in: meaning that so much and for so long that’s available on the internet has been, by and large, available for free that the (new) culture has built up to accept and – more worryingly – expect that.

Music… movies… I don’t need to pay for that anymore… do I? After all, I can pretty much get any kind of news I want for free so why not a bit of entertainment too?

Two things, in my view, have to change.

First, the internet has to start looking after itself – it’s a vast shop window (as some form of analogy) and… until it appropriately realizes that and actually starts to properly charge for its services – and, yes, I know that’s a very simplistic view – but, until it stops giving itself (content) away for free, then the culture will continue to grow; the culture that has learned to expect this magical thing to offer up itself for nothing.

Second, there is a long-term solution and that is… education. The education of not this generation of children or tweens, but the next. This generation is already too far gone – the real work has to start with the very young.

Within that, is the culture of dissent – as determined by the respondents to McGuinness’ article in the Guardian; the how dare you brigade who, for reasons that I cannot fathom out, took it upon themselves to liberally lash out at a man who – by and large – hasn’t made a bad fist of looking after his clients through the years. And maybe, that was where the problem lies – the so-called fat-cats are easy targets; they’ve made a lot of money so why should they worry.

But, that missed McGuinness point entirely; he was arguing for the next, aspirational, generation – there will be no creators of content (the knitters of the angora sweaters) in time to come IF their work (the jerseys) are given away for free.

For this generation, though, the ship has already sailed.

This impasse that is now confronting the law-makers and law-enforcers is a real wake-up call for one and all. On the one hand, there are moves afoot to digitize the globe by creating broadband infrastructures that are akin to a new industrial revolution that coud open the floodgates for new business; on the other, that same infrastructure could – unless properly figured out – enable a bull-rush of illegality. Governments around the world are in that difficult position of having to face front and back at the same time; they have to placate broken-down or breaking industries while, at precisely the same time, encouraging and supporting the innovations that are killing them

And so, as much as they may not like it, a lot of this is going to be down to the ISP’s – the Internet Service Providers. Because, whether they like it or not, they're also the prime-educators of the next generation too.

Which all begs the question… on which train are the real Pirates of Penzance travelling?


Anonymous said...

Superlative and inciteful as always. Right on the mark.

Never a U2 fan but have now found and read the article in question - and agree, shame to see the rather sad and downright bitchy comments.

Equally poor that no one commenting got the overall - this is about the future. All they did was dig at someone succesful. Sad really.


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