Laurie Penny: The Digital Economy Bill threatens creativity

In defence of the download.

Framing the greatest innovation in human communications since the printing press as an enemy of cultural progress was always going to be a tough sell for the music industry. Public rhetoric around the Digital Economy Bill has focused on "protecting artists" from the evils of free filesharing, which is supposed to plunge us into a new cultural ice age in exactly the same way that home taping killed music. But as the Bill enters its final stages of being rushed through parliament, young artists and innovators are refusing to buy the orthodoxy of copyright protection -and many are fighting back.

Across the country, cottage music agencies and artistic projects are incorporating free filesharing into their business models, in defiance of the commercial hegemony that the Digital Economy Bill seeks to protect. Simon and Julia Indelicate, of cult folk-punk group The Indelicates, set up Corporate Records to "reflect and delight in the post-internet music market". "We want our data to flow freely," said Simon. "It's not just filesharing that's bringing down the music industry, it's the entire abundant sea of music and art that's legally available online. The industry is going to fail whatever happens - so we're focusing on what we can build in its place."

The hostility of the imploding publishing and music industries to innovative young talent has led many emerging artists to find new outlets for their energies. "If I didn't have to work in a nursing home to support myself, I'd be less tired, but I wouldn't be any less creative or productive," says Julia Indelicate. "People who say they'll stop making music if they don't get paid, clearly care more about the money than the music, so they should probably stop anyway."

For young creatives, the notion of spending years networking in order to get signed by an agent is increasingly outdated, as self-publishing becomes ever more rewarding. "As a teenager, getting published seemed an impossible dream," said Deirdre Ruane, author of the popular blog Wasted Epiphanies. "Part of me is astonished that I can now post comic strips and watch hits come in from all over the world -- all of it enabled by free filesharing. What emerging artists need is eyes on their stuff, and anything that puts more obstacles in the way of that process stifles creativity."

The orthodoxy of signing a corporate deal does retain some hold over the imagination of young artists. Musicologist and blogger Adam Harper, 23, explains that "it's a rite of passage for young male teenagers to start rock bands, and it would be rare to find one of these bands, however unambitious, who harboured no trace of the fantasy of stardom and commercial success that hovers over every 'unsigned' band. Even the popular currency of the phrase 'unsigned bands' is a reflection of this teleological fantasy of music-making."

That fantasy, however, is fading. When the means of producing and distributing high-quality media from scratch can be installed in your bedroom for the cost of a trip to Skegness, why would a young artist sign over their creative and financial freedom to a middle-aged person who doesn't understand the internet? "We've sold more stuff through filesharing than we would have if we hadn't been able to spread the news about our work," says Julia Indelicate. "We used to be signed to a record company, but we ended up with less money, less control and worse publicity. Now we're unsigned, we're still touring, and the record label has folded."

The moral panic associated with free filesharing portrays young producers and consumers of culture as a ghastly mob of "pirates", an uncouth barbarian horde rampaging through the pristine edifices of the bourgeois artistic establishment. That panic is understandable: the creative vision of the internet generation, fully realised, would shake our understanding of how culture is owned and consumed to its very foundations. Projects such as Corporate Records and Records on Ribs make a glorious mockery of attempts to manufacture cultural scarcity in order to maximise profit, and copyright piracy continues despite any number of sinister adverts.

Media princes such as Mandelson's confidante, David Geffen - a man so vain that that song may actually have been about him - are right to be afraid. The young people protesting in Westminster this week are protecting more than their right to stream the new series of Gossip Girl; they are protecting an entire cultural paradigm, one in which the process of recommending, sampling and downloading nuggets of media and information is deeply ingrained. For young creatives who have grown up online, the notion of restricting internet access for any reason provokes a just and visceral horror -- and they will not accept antique copyright laws without a fight.

Laurie Penny is a freelance journalist and blogger. She blogs at Penny Red.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times