Music 2.0 - Exploring Chaos in Digital Music

September 18, 2007

Trent Reznor to Australia - Steal My Music

Filed under: Music Industry — maths @ 4:39 pm

Following his radical statements in China, Trent Reznor returned to his old label-stomping ground in Sydney and volleyed one of the most defiant verbal assaults on a label by a major label artist ever recorded on video. Reznor’s attack dwarfs past anti-label rants by Prince and George Michael.

(Audio transcript)

“Lots and lots and lots of familiar faces..Is there anybody here tonight that wasn’t at Luna Park last night?
I talked a lot last night; tonight I’m not talking so much. I know, I know…
I woke up this morning and I forgot where I was for a minute.

I remember last time I was here, I was doing a lot of complaining about the ridiculous prices of CDs down here. And the story got picked up and got carried all around the world and now my record label all around the world hates me because I yelled back at them - called them out for being greedy fucking assholes

I didn’t get the chance to check – has the price come down at all?
[Crowd yells “NO”]
I see a no, a no, a no, a no…anybody…has anyone seen the price come down?
[Crowd yells “NO” again]
Okay, well, you know what that means - STEAL IT. Steal away. Steal and steal and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealin’. Because one way or another, these motherfuckers will get it through their head that they’re ripping people off and that’s not right.
Bet we didn’t make any friends by saying that”

On the contrary, Trent Reznor has made an incredible number of friends all over the world with his empathy - and his radical stance is swelling the ranks of his existing legion of fans.

While there have been a few contrarian comments about Reznor’s recent pro-fan statements with the main criticism being that he’s already a big star and can afford to encourage people to download his music for free, it has to be realized that there are many big stars out there who are simply living off the fat of the land, doing nothing to defend fans from labels that demand extortionate prices for legitimate copies of music.

Reznor’s public criticisms of Universal’s pricing policies have drawn attention to the fact that it is not just fans who are frustrated by big labels: many artists have been getting a raw deal too with the lack of control over pricing, marketing or distribution of their work, high cover prices and ‘new media’ sales that translate into tiny royalty payments. In Reznor’s own words in reaction to the overpriced CDs in Australia in May he said:

“That money’s not going into my pocket, I can promise you that. It’s just these guys who have f—ed themselves out of a job essentially, that now take it out on ripping off the public”

If fans are being ripped off and musicians are unhappy, why should anyone support major labels?

Until now, a multitude of faceless John Doe file-sharers has been hiding anonymously behind torrents, like worker bees moving billions of music files around the globe. This faceless swarm now has a rallying cry and a focal point with a sting in its tail– and his name is Trent Reznor.

What we are witnessing now is an all-out war, unprecedented in retail history: consumers feel that it is their right to give major labels a taste of their own medicine, and that it is morally justified to pay them back for years of rip-offs. In turn, in an attempt to preserve their profit margins, some labels have used the moral platform that downloading hurts artists most, but Reznor has now demolished that argument by making it possible for fans to download his music and for them to claim with some credibility that they support musicians, but not support unethical labels. This mass-scale justification of free downloading by erstwhile law-abiding customers perpetuates  and accentuates the global tidal wave: a social phenomenon that the RIAA and IFPI will not be able to stop by brow-beating consumers or threatening them with legal action. Many consumers already feel that the rhetoric of groups such as the RIAA and the MPAA represents little more than an attempt by established interest groups to defend their ability to extort unfair prices from music-lovers.

Reznor’s exhortation to ’steal and steal’ could well be straight from the script of a Wild West movie - and in keeping with that theme, the land-grabbing now taking place in the world of digital distribution will probably have to get worse before it gets better.

Many struggling musicians and smaller labels will inevitably fall victims to the changing landscape of the digital music world, while channels like YouTube, MySpace, and Baidu in China hide behind and capitalize on safe harbor provisions and grow rich in the same nebulous environment. The Wild West was indeed an unfair, bloody and cruel place – but one famous for the opportunities it represented juxtaposed with the danger and hardship that faced those who ventured there.

The consumer backlash now taking place is part of a broader seismic shift in the copyright landscape that underpins the music industry. Copyright laws were conceived in a world of tangible products where it was easy to accept that taking a physical product that’s not yours is wrong. This legal framework is struggling to deal with the challenges presented by the digital domain.

Digitization and the internet have made copying and sharing music faster, cheaper and easier than ever before. The distribution of music in a digital world does not rely on physical copies and many file-sharers justify their actions by noting that copying someone else’s music does not deprive the original owner of their copy. The first sale doctrine in the United States allows CDs to be given or sold second-hand without royalty payment to the copyright owner. Savvy file-traders have noted that the moral and legal landscape relating to digital sharing of content is far from black and white. The US Copyright Office has counseled a ‘wait and see’ approach in relation to whether the first sale doctrine should be applied to digital products such as music. It is very likely that this ‘wait and see’ position will be resolved one day when enough ‘blood’ has been spilt in courts in legal battles and subsequent precedents and rulings evolve. And in the meantime, we will all have to be guided by our wits, interpreting events and pronouncements for ourselves in the absence of absolute legal or moral guidelines.

John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, addressed this in his famous manifesto ‘Selling Wine Without Bottles: The Economy of Mind on the Global Net’ by describing this digital conundrum as ‘a profoundly new kind of challenge’ – one that straddles complex distribution, legal, moral, and cultural issues that old laws and business models will not be able to overcome.

And in this vacuum, Trent Reznor’s perverse rallying call to fans to steal his own music should be seen as a riposte to major labels’ self-preservation and fan-exploitation actions and not a permanent solution. Indeed, Reznor himself will be doing his part in building an online community for his fans with access to his music at fair prices, once he himself has finished serving his sentence with his label.

(Thanks to Ryan Streat for the awesome video recording and to Dr Lucy M for editorial input)


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  3. And when you get arrested by the police or FBI, do you think Trent-baby is gonna be there to help you?

    Nope. He’s gonna be sitting safe in his mansion, still living off the royalties from The Downward Spiral, face-fucking emo groupie no. 1764.

    Comment by webofdesign — September 19, 2007 @ 10:49 am

  4. Webofdesign, if you take the term ’steal’ literally and take it to the extreme, yeah of course you will end up on the wrong side of the law, but the point of the article was to show that there are cases where even the law is not clear, and in this vacuum, the RIAA and major labels pushes their agendas and invokes the fear that users will “get arrested by the police or FBI” for their actions. And of course, the risk-free wallet-emptying alternative is to buy music at inflated prices

    Comment by maths — September 19, 2007 @ 1:09 pm

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