The Ghost of Music Industry Past

This stickered CD turned up in some forgotten corner of the house the other day, and it seemed so striking that I had to share it. A relic of another era perhaps, but one that is worth looking at again, especially when analogies between the music industry and book publishing seem to have been popping up everywhere recently.

Here for example was Future Book’s useful four-part comparison from the end of last year. Here is Danuta Kean blogging about the music industry’s failures to enforce copyright and how that might play out for publishing. Here is another widely reproduced piece by an anonymous publisher predicting that there is, ‘no future in printed books. They’ll be like vinyl: pricey and for collectors only.’ (And here is writer Steven Hall rejecting that same analogy on Twitter).

In light of this, and when the figures about the cost to the music industry of file sharing are revealed to be occasionally ‘dodgy’, it is interesting to see these kind of inflated figures again too: five CDs for £50!

This is what buying music looked like in July 2001, and that promotional sticker is real.

The significance of the date is not that we’re looking at this from the vantage point of the current recession, when the thought of spending £50 in a record shop in one go might pinch a little for most of us. It is rather that this was produced a few months before the launch of the iPod, at a time when even though the MP3 format had been around for the best part of a decade, there was still no easy, mainstream way to legally obtain music online, and there wouldn’t be for another couple of years.

That’s why I found this sticker so surprising, because I’d forgotten how bad things were. The contrast in scale between this last gasp of how the industry wanted us to buy our music — the model they were clinging to, and no wonder — and how we do it now, mostly it would seem via the online purchase of single tracks for pennies, relatively speaking. Even when we do have to buy an album at full price it’s more likely to cost a vinyl-LP-reminiscent £6.99 for either the CD or the download, although the latter will often be packed with extra material.

So it is with a re-issue of the reggae classic Come Back Darling by the mighty Johnny Osbourne (produced of course by the late, great Winston Riley) that has been knocking around for a while. The downloadable version of Come Back Darling weighs in with an impressive sixty-one tracks instead of the original twelve, and even then it doesn’t quite squeeze in all the ground-breaking music produced by Riley in those Techniques sessions. So while Johnny Osbourne’s boisterous classic ‘See and Blind’ is there, Dennis Alcapone’s even more exuberant version of the same track is missing. Luckily for me I’ve had both singles on vinyl since I was a kid. Luckily for you, ‘Look into Yourself’ by Dennis Alcapone is on Youtube, which also didn’t exist back in 2001 when this CD was stickered.

‘O Brother,’ indeed. Fifty quid for five CDs? Blimey! It’s a reminder, if one were needed, that extending copyright and strengthening copyright protection cannot retrospectively protect a monopoly industry from shooting itself in the foot, or from its own past greed and complacency.

For more on the riveting subject of copyright extension in books and film respectively, you may also be interested in Adrian Hon’s gently satirical ‘Eternal Copyright: a modest proposal’ for the Telegraph:

Under the current system, if you lived to 70 years old and your descendants all had children at the age of 30, the copyright in your book – and thus the proceeds – would provide for your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. But what, I ask, about your great-great-great-grandchildren? What do they get? How can our laws be so heartless as to deny them the benefit of your hard work in the name of some do-gooding concept as [sic.] the “public good”, simply because they were born a mere century and a half after the book was written?

And film director Alex Cox interviewed by Craig Terlino (via Boing Boing):

Now they want to have longer copyright periods because they say the young artists are relying on this money. The young artists never see any money because they sign away that money to big media corporations […] We, the artists, lose all of our rights to these massive corporations, who then come down heavy on these kids for downloading films and music that we never see a penny from. It’s complete bullshit. I want to encourage your audience to go and pirate a bunch of my stuff right away.

And finally — brace yourself — here is an interesting piece by Frédéric Filloux from the Guardian on why ebooks are like software.