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23 March 2010

Laurie Penny: The Digital Economy Bill threatens creativity

In defence of the download.

By Laurie Penny

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For young creatives, the notion of spending years networking in order to get signed by an agent is increasingly outdated, as self-publishing becomes ever more rewarding.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.”

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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.”

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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.