In an entertaining CBC article on the kinds of tech gadgets that the musical geeks of the Barenaked Ladies bring with them on tour (Google search “Barenaked Ladies technology MSN” and you’ll find it), frontmen Ed Robertson and Steven Page pretty much solved the entire digital music copyright issue in casual conversation. Hopefully the music industry paid attention.
Nobody has ever doubted the intelligence and cultural relevance of BNL — their newest video even features YouTube dancing and travelling sensation Matt Harding. There’s also no question that they put a lot of thought into their ideas how to resolve the issues that have tormented the music industry, musicians and the public since Napster exploded onto the web in 1999.
How do you protect copyright in the digital age? How can bands and music labels profit when people can get any music they want for free? And how can you profit through legal digital distribution that protects copyright, without alienating consumers who have in a short time become accustomed to getting their music for free?
In the early days of Napster, when record labels and bands like Metallica were looking to stop peer-to-peer downloading services and sue thieves, the Barenaked Ladies were addressing the copyright issue by sabotaging downloads. Rather than go the legal route, members of the band spread songs throughout the web with messages implanted, like “Although you thought you were downloading our new single, what you actually were downloading is an advertisement for our new album.” Some downloads would break down in the middle to members of the band bantering back and fourth, and making Napster jokes. One clipped song ended with drummer Tyler Stewart saying “We fooled you! We’re sneaky like that. You can never trust a Canadian. Next thing you know we’ll be supplying your natural resources.”
At the time, way back in 2000, Barenaked Ladies knew there was next to nothing they could do to stop their music from being downloaded, so they decided to have a little fun with it, give people a sample of their music, and hopefully convince a few people to actually go out and buy their albums.
It’s clear that as musicians — and quite popular musicians with more than 10 million albums sold worldwide — the Barenaked Ladies have given the copyright issue a lot of thought. And unlike Metallica, they also seem to understand the issue from a variety of different points of view, probably owing to the fact that they’ve remained down to earth and seem to understand the technology we’re using and culture we live in. Proof of this is the fact that they sell USB drives after each concert with a recording of the show that people can use and share without any restrictions.
This is what Robertson (who you probably know as that guy in the BNL who raps) had to say about digital music:
“People should be rewarded for buying music, not punished for it,” he said. “When I buy a CD I want to be able to load it onto my iTunes library and make a mix CD for a friend or make a copy for the car or my cottage. I don’t go for this ‘if I buy it, I only get to listen to it three times.’”
That’s a dig on new digital rights management (DRM) software model that allows people to buy songs online, but will only allow you to burn that song to CD a limited number of times — the same model as embraced by iTunes.
Steven Page (who you probably know as the big guy in BNL with the really low, warble-free voice), also showed a keen understanding of the issue.
“I think non-DRM is really important to the future of our business, not to restrict people,” he said. “The mistake we’re making right now is that we’re trying to direct and control how people use music and I think that’s pushing people away… Sharing is a big part of music, it’s how you grow a fan base… how to get a taste of music and engage with it.”
When asked about iTunes, Robertson and Page said Apple’s download service gets a lot of things right as far as exclusive content and fan involvement goes, but say there’s still not enough choice, that prices are too high, and that the sound quality of downloads is lacking. Comparatively, the BNL offer “lossless quality” and DRM-free FLAC digital downloads from their own website, www.bnlmusic.com .
They also said that the fair price for music should be around 20 to 25 cents per song, believing people would rather own than steal music, but will balk at higher prices for something that doesn’t come with a CD and album cover.
Although iTunes is the most successful download model out there, Page has a better idea — “Take a look at what people are doing — using P2P services to download everything from an artist and then deciding which ones to keep,” he said. “So, sharing each song as an individual transaction is the wrong way to look at it — instead we should be monetizing music at the point of entry to the Internet, so if it’s already on there, it’s legal, and you can take what you want — then track what’s being taken and shared, and have a Nielsen survey on what people are emailing, IM-ing or downloading.”
In other words, set a fair price with the industry, standardize the way music is sold, allow people to do what they want with their downloads, and publicly track the popularity of music to drive more sales to certain artists — which can then use those numbers to book bigger venues and sell more CDs.
Makes sense to me.