A note from the coal-face, April 2010 (Alastair Nicholson (Son Records)
This article is taken from Issue 9 of the AIM Journal, first published in January 2011. This, and other issues are available here to download for free.
Sat down in the morning to check search listings for a new album on my label, the day after its release. Feeling tired but happy, it was good to finally get the album out there in the world, having spent the past 6 months working solidly on said release. Being a one-man label working on a shoestring budget, it hadn't been a walk in the park but between myself and the artist, an established and respected name in his scene who had himself written, produced, recorded and mixed the album over a period of two years, we reckon we'd done a pretty good job. We'd aimed for the highest quality in terms of sound, mixing and mastering and got a great sounding album; we'd been creative with the formats, doing not only the standard CD, but also a limited run double vinyl version, numbered, signed, hand-printed, with liner notes and a special free download of an album's worth of unreleased material. We'd even gone so far as to prepare a limited run of the album in a deluxe leather and steel USB in an engraved presentation tin, of course stuffed with bonus content all painstakingly put together by us.
And things had been looking pretty good as well, despite my concerns about the current state of the industry in general and the micro-niche (UK hip-hop) we were working in in particular. To minimise any pre-release file-sharing we'd avoided sending out any promo CDs, using instead a single free download and a video, and then a small mailout of the limited-edition vinyl LP to generate awareness and interest, and while this had presented certain challenges in itself (various media types were a bit non-plussed to be told they'd have to dust off their record players if they wanted to check it out) we nevertheless managed to generate a good amount of positive online press, blog and forum coverage, as well as national and specialist radio support, and when we then made the vinyl LP available for sale a month ahead of the official release, priced at a premium £20, we sold the lot prior to release date when the digital formats became available.
So the plan we'd put together seemed to be working: right up until release date there were no fileshares floating around the net, people were talking about the record and the vinyl sales had got us off to a good start. CD sales and downloads should go ok, we thought.
Back to the search results following the 'official' day of release. Fileshares and straight one-click free downloads of the album from blogs took up the first five pages of search results provided by our good friend Google. And then finally on page 6, meekly poking their heads through the infringing thicket were our own humble links to actually buy the album, with money, from our website, itunes and a few other legitimate sources. (I have to say this is the first time I think I’ve ever made it through to page 6 of any search results. But being mightily pissed off gives you wings..). The point here is that even if someone had heard about the album at that point, wanted to buy a copy and searched, they wouldn't have found a legitimate source unless they really put some work in.
From that point on the rest of the week disappeared in a blur of getting to grips with DMCA takedown protocol, firing out such notices to all and sundry and trying to hack my way through the thicket. Bit by bit I made some headway and the legitimate links crept slowly to the fore, but it was heavy going. About two-thirds of the sites hosting or linking to infringing downloads had a 'report abuse' or 'DMCA' link whereby they could be contacted to take down infringing content, and of those again about two-thirds of the sites responded and took down the infringing links within a reasonable time, while others ignored them, and/or fired back abuse.
Whether my time was well-spent in trying to tackle the illegal downloads, I don't know. By the end of that first week following release, download statistics on various file-sharing sites showed downloads of over 50,000 copies of the album. Certainly I had never had any expectation of selling even a fraction of that amount, but even a fraction of that fraction would have been nice. What I do know for sure is that during that time I wasn't able to concentrate on constructive activity to capitalise on the album's release during an important time. I have a department of one in my empire, and it was preoccupied.
What was particularly notable but maybe not surprising was that was that nearly every site hosting or linking to content had advertising. What was genuinely surprising, to me at least, was that this advertising wasn't just for dodgy gambling and porn sites. In trawling through the various sites I remember coming across hosted adverts for estate agents (not far off gambling or porn I grant you), but also insurance companies (possibly ditto), government agencies (..?) and among other high street names, Sainsburys. Alongside of course numerous Google Adsense adverts for any number of businesses.
The issue about advertising is I think the real crux of this. Advertising clients want their ads displayed on sites with high traffic. Free downloads of in-demand content generate high traffic, high traffic increases search-engine ranking, in turn sustaining if not increasing traffic, thereby reinforcing and maintaining the elevated rankings. Google gets money from their Adsense clients, hosting sites get money from Google, affiliate advertising agencies get money from their clients for placing the ads in high-traffic destinations, while the sites participating in such affiliate advertising programmes get money from the affiliate advertising agents. The higher the traffic the more money they all get and presumably the advertising clients themselves get higher traffic, if not revenue from increased sales of whatever they're selling depending on their click-through sales conversion rates.. It's a virtuous circle, right? And everyone's happy, and earning. Yeah well, not me and not the artist, who needless to say created the thing that drives the traffic that adds value to the advertising that puts money in the pocket of Big Search. And their buddies merrily giving away the product of other people's hard work. Would they (the giver-awayers) be so keen to disseminate the content if it didn't get em a bit of advertising coin..? I really doubt there's that many born-again John Peels wishing to evangelise out of a pure excitement about the music.. but hey maybe I’m wrong.
The main insight I've taken from my recent experience is this: if we as an industry are going after or attempting to negotiate with ISPs and trying to get them to accept some responsibility for the distribution of infringing content, why aren't we doing the same with Big Search? The relationship between illegal distribution of content and income is far more direct than is the case with the ISPs, whose customers may illegally download content but almost certainly do many other things with their internet connection. When it comes to search, if the route to find the free but infringing content is allowed to be given priority over links to legitimate sources of content, well, it's not good. How do you compete with free? The ease of obtaining a free download makes it a no-brainer for many, even if we weren't living in straitened times. Take away that ease of access, or rather increase the difficulty of access (e.g by ensuring content hosted on sites known and demonstrated to play fast and loose with copyright content are de-prioritised in terms of ranking), and the problem would at least be likely to diminish by deterring casual infringers, even if it wouldn't disappear or discourage the die-hard freetards. I simply do not believe that this is not possible on a technical level for search to achieve this; its simply not desirable on a commercial level for the search companies.
And maybe this comment I came across recently on a forum discussion about Google's recent inconclusive legal tussle with Blues Destiny Records highlights a bigger picture than just a desire on search's part to protect short-term commercial gain, and concisely illustrates the longer-term threat to the creative industries:
"My bet is that Google will sit and wait them [the record industry] out and not start a war. The people at Google are smarter than the record industry execs. They know its only a matter of time before the labels and studios crash and burn. Why start a war when you can fight a delaying action, set yourself up to be a replacement, allow competition and infringement to whittle away at your enemy, and let your enemy defeat himself? Often the best way to win a war is to not fight."
And by the way, I’ve concentrated on Google primarily because they're the Big Dogs on the search scene. I'm assuming most search engines operate in a very similar way. I just don't want to look into it right now because i know it won't be pretty. But aside from that, Google have given us all plenty enough reason to doubt their bona fides. Leaving aside for a second their main guy's assertion that his company likes to play pretty close to the 'creepy line' and their desire to know what you want for breakfast before you do (let alone their surreptitious but 'accidental' hoovering up of personal data via Street View), their DMCA takedown process for individual content owners is very obviously designed to frustrate: while the likes of Rapidshare and other businesses cynically built on mass distribution of copyright content at least have as noted a link to email them about infringing content, Google provides a postal address in California, requires you to send a hard copy DMCA notice to that address, and further provides that they may forward your takedown notice to 'free speech'/anti-copyright activist site chillingeffect.org, presumably in an effort to make content-owners think twice about exposing their pro-copyright credentials and in so doing possibly appearing un-cool to the kids (if not provoking a DDoS attack on their website) in the current climate of 'everything should be free' and militant copyleftists. Check the protocol for yourself at http://www.google.com/dmca.html. Whether the potential exposure and associated risks bothers you or not, the net effect is that by the time the request has been sent and processed, everybody's grabbed their free download and moved on.
And in case you're curious about my mention of the 'creepy line', have a look at this extract from an interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt:
The end of the interview turned to the future of technology. When asked about the possibility of a Google "implant," Schmidt invoked what the company calls the "creepy line."
"Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it," he said. Google implants, he added, probably crosses that line. [Probably? D'ya think?]
At the same time, Schmidt envisions a future where we embrace a larger role for machines and technology. "With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches," he said. "We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."
Is it just me, or is that really quite unnerving?
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