Email to Columbia (& Sony BMG)

Letter

This is an email to a gentleman introduced to myself as the ‘MD of Columbia’ by the person who suggested I write him an email about the whole 17 Seconds Glasvegas fiasco. Here is what I wrote. Comments, anyone?

Dear XXXX,

I was given your email by XXXX who, having read the following post on my site, thought it would be a good thing if I got in touch with you personally regarding Glasvegas and DMCA notices issued in their name.
http://songbytoad.com/2008/10/23/dont-be-evil/

I don’t know how much you know about this, but DMCA notices are being wielded against bloggers completely indiscriminately at the moment, and as you can tell from that post people are both angry and afraid. Now, to be absolutely clear, I do not intend this to be an antagonistic email, nor am I getting in touch simply in order to shake my fist and point fingers. I genuinely would rather find an amicable solution to this situation, and I genuinely believe that the vast majority of music blog writers feel the same way. At the time I was angry, and wrong on some basic facts, but there are nevertheless a lot of things which I think need addressing and I appreciate you taking the time to read this email.

Basically, many people are having pages of their music blogs indiscriminately removed by people wielding false DMCA notices in the direction of Google and WordPress, who host most of the blogs. In the case described in my post, a fellow Edinburgh blogger had his interview with Glasvegas from January this year erased because of old and expired links to recordings given to him freely by the band at the time. Writing a huge long interview with an unsigned band and posting their demo recordings with permission is absolutely not the behaviour of a copyright pirate, and the fact that Columbia has chosen to pursue Ed is frankly disgraceful, in my opinion.

Now, I assume that those demos reverted to your ownership on your signing of the band, although I didn’t know this at the time of the post. Nevertheless, given that they were submitted to Ed by the band at the time, I am still pretty amazed that this can constitute some sort of breaking of the law. Then again despite the DMCA being an utterly appaling piece of legislation, that is simply the way the law works, I suppose. Given that the links were no longer active, however, and hence no offence can actually have been taking place, it seems like a pretty indiscriminate way to go about wielding the letter of the law. No infringement was prevented, and all that was destroyed was the intellectual property and labour of love of someone engaging with music as an amateur, and hence incapable of fighting back, or intimidated into refusing to do so.

Apart from using a scattershot approach to the law, apparently irrespective of the legal merit of the application, which is bad enough, frankly, there is another side to this whole fiasco which I find pretty rotten: the manner of engagement. Now, I do acknowledge that the further up the musical food chain you go, the more the balance between free publicity and undermining of purchases starts to tip. For a band at Glasvegas’ initial level, it was a great article for someone to write, and given their current level it is presumably almost irrelevant. So I know blogs become more and more of a nuisance the more famous you get. I also know that bloggers are a pretty varied bunch, and there are plenty who are actively harmful and who genuinely do think that making everything free all the time is supposed to magically make everyone involved wealthy, by some hitherto unexplained property of the magical internet.

But most bloggers with whom I have ever conversed see themselves as actively trying to benefit the musicians involved, and take some pride in doing so. We take down mp3s after a short period rather than building up some kind of online library, we only post a couple of tracks per album so as to make sure people don’t see our download as a method of being able to avoid purchasing something they want, we always take things down when asked to whether it is by an individual artist or a large label. We may sometimes be wrong, but I think for the most part we are a pretty sincere bunch of people. We also provide an awful lot of free A&R and free market research to your own industry, and I am being actively courted by publicity agencies representing both Columbia and Sony BMG, so I assume you see us as providing at least some sort of benefit.

What this kind of indiscriminate wielding of DMCA notices is going to achieve is to drive out the sincere people, harden the cynical ones and create a nightmare of adversarial commentary, as far as I can tell. Check out the Toad Sessions on my site. If, say, Meursault or Broken Records go on to be famous and sign to a major label, which I think they are both quite capable of doing, then what? Will my Toad Sessions be served with a DMCA by an over-zealous intern in your legal department? It will be taken down immediately, I will lose all my work, and this despite the fact that the whole Session is entirely legitimate. Will this happen to Daytrotter as well? Universal are doing the same with Johnny Flynn at the moment, even issuing DMCAs for session tracks legitimately shared by the person who recorded them. Frankly, I am completely disgusted by the whole thing – it comes across as a bullying, aggressive effort to ring-fence the participation in culture for your own profit, and to the total exclusion of everyone else. I said I didn’t want to be antagonistic, but that really is how it comes across to people.

So I don’t know what to suggest next. If I were in your shoes I would certainly not be issuing DMCAs lightly, because the same results can almost certainly be achieved with a single email to the blogger in question requesting that they remove the song – see Web Sherriff, for example. This would also largely solve the climate of fear and anger that has been created by the indiscriminate and intrusive nature of the current method. Ed is a fan and did absolutely everything possible to promote Glasgvegas as well and as legally as he could, and yet that was still not enough to prevent him having a major piece of his own work removed from his site. It’s sad, because it will drive out the enthusiasts.

I don’t mean to try and tell you your own business, but between the encroachment of disposable karaoke pop from the likes of Pop Idol and X-Factor and the damage done by widespread torrent piracy, it seems crazy to attack the people most likely to plough their money and time and enthusiasm into music, and those most likely to attract an audience that will do the same. Now, I know there are presumably a million things that bloggers do that you will see as a major problem, and I know we are far from the squeaky clean guardians of the one true way to deal with the 21st Century. But most of us genuinely do just want to make the bands we love popular, and I’m sure there must be a better way to go about dealing with any infractions or perceived infractions than by wielding the axe without any examination of the veracity of the complaint, nor any attempt at amicable solution. We will comply if you ask us to, we already do that will smaller labels and individual unsigned bands when they ask. There may be some bad apples in the blogging world, and some of us are just plain stupid and careless, but I am pretty certain the vast majority can become a help to you rather than a hindrance.

I apologise for the length and stroppy nature of this email, but I think we are all feeling a little frazzled at the moment. I appreciate your even taking the time to read this far, and I really would appreciate an answer, even if you’re just setting me straight on any misconceptions I may have. I write Song, by Toad because I want to make a contribution to the world of music, not because I want to damage it. I’m sure there are some pretty slippery businessmen in your line of work who are just as exploitative as the worst filesharers, but I really hope that the people who are in this for the music can create more of a dialogue than we seem to have at the moment.

Yours absolutely sincerely.

Matthew

Some other links discussing the same thing, and there are many, many more:
http://www17seconds.blogspot.com/2008/10/grrrstand-up-to-bullies.html
http://festivefifty.blogspot.com/2008/10/beginning-of-end.html
http://todiebyyourside.blogspot.com/2008/10/just-because-youre-paranoid.html
http://thevinylvillain.blogspot.com/2008/10/dial-999-911-or-whatever-number-is.html

And now you know why I’ve been so quiet for the last day or so.

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