I move onto the subject of free speech and the inherent ambiguity in defining it with agencies like The Pirate Bay and – yes, you guessed it – Google. ‘Remember when Galliano came out with this tirade? He went to jail! Now I’m Jewish so I thought what he did was offensive and stupid, but the idea that he went to jail seems absolutely foolish. First thing, if you are going to do something that stupid you are going to suffer from the fact that everybody thinks you’re an idiot. The second thing is that if you make a crime out of saying things like this then you run the risk all of a sudden of people who will start thinking that they’re important. Suddenly people will think that what this guy said must be really important. That’s not necessarily a good thing, especially when the preponderance of evidence suggests that he was just a jackass. It wasn’t something that was like a political statement. He just can’t hold his liquor!”
Interesting. What about that famous case of the French Government telling Yahoo! that they couldn’t post nazi memorabilia on their site and allow access to French audience?
Rob smiles in a way that I know will end in both reason and, perhaps a little dig at the French and their wilful ways. “I wouldn’t presume to tell them what to do- I mean they’re French. Part of their charm is that no one tells them what to do! Being weird and crazy is sort of their thing! No but seriously, the French don’t have the first amendment like the US but I don’t think that French society suffers because of it. When I look about their political culture, I don’t think that it’s really inhibited by the fact that you can’t go around saying really racist stuff all the time. I think it’s a weird law and find it foolish but you know, if they want to regulate online companies in a different way then who are we to tell them they can’t.”
And Google’s Standard? “I find it weird that we presume to tell them to follow other laws. It’s actually kind of creepy in a way. There is clearly a sense that Google wants to push a different standard of free speech on Europe. Maybe their standard’s better. I don’t really care but we ought to be very careful about the fact that it’s coming from a company. Google sponsored this Human Rights conference. The whole idea that a company would sponsor a human rights conference…I mean…what the hell? I think a lot of what they want I would support and some of it I wouldn’t but we should be a little suspicious about a company having a human rights conference. Who’s going? Who’s paying and how much? People should be asking those questions and they may come up with completely different answers to me and that’s fine. What I find upsetting though is that people are not asking those questions.”
We then move onto pondering why in fact people are not asking such questions. “Journalists have less time than they used to”, says Levine with what I can only imagine is based on bitter experience in not always having the time to write about what you are most interested in. “I think journalists are always a little in love with something new and there is a reluctance to question the ‘narrative’. Google is a great new thing. It’s hard to question an established narrative. Narratives are so important and people don’t realise sometimes how hard it is to deviate from it. So many people say to me ‘Oh well you would favour censorship’, but I wouldn’t. I don’t think that shutting down the Pirate Bay is censorship. It’s more of a civil thing. They are violating people’s rights – I mean, aside from Julian Assange most people think that Sweden has a pretty good system. They are not on trial in Qatar. It’s a famously progressive country. There is a sense that this is so wrong because people get a basic frame for something and they don’t really question it as much. Once you have that frame, the facts fit the frame.”
Onto the piece de la resistance (well, according to this humble monkey anyway) of Freebird Records on Wicklow St – a den of serious eclecticism and general oddity- the strange arrangement of which Rob seems to revel in as much as me. “This place is awesome!”, he says as makes a beeline toward yet another vinyl rack. We get talking about singles versus albums. I asked him how he felt about it. Are we actually changing in the way we think and feel about music now? Has the unbundling model of iTunes, for example altered the way we listen to and buy music? “Partly it has gone right back to the way it was, I mean when you think about bands- there were always ‘albums’ bands and ‘singles’ bands. Rock was always ‘album’ bands, like Led Zepplin. Stairway to Heaven never came out as a single. It was on the radio commercially but never as a single. They wanted to drive people to buy the album. Did they make the right decision? Judging on the amount of albums they sold…well I think it is. Do you think Michael Jackson could have done that with Thriller?- an R n’B star with a younger audience? probably not. He put out I think five singles. You practically get the whole album with singles. That was probably the right strategy for him.”
What about Metallica and their fairly short-lived campaign against such models (Their songs are now in fact available on iTunes)? “Metallica never had a greatest hits album. Can you think of another band that never had a greatest hits album? ACDC. They both thought that their audience was an album-buying audience. If you think of Metallica- they do more than ACDC- they’re are not a greatest hits kind of band because people who are into Metallica are into Metallica you know what I mean? Part of that band’s appeal is its mystique. That works for them.”
We have been dancing around this for a while now but the inevitability of the evil ‘P’ is beginning to assert itself. There has been much heated debate about whether or not piracy and the illegal downloading of creative content does any real measurable harm to the industry. I bring this up tentatively – what does piracy actually do, in real terms to music and book sales? I also bring up a recent study that asserts that music piracy actually encourages music sales in that people who download music illegally are also the ones who buy it the most.
“What piracy does it that it hurts the market. Everyone has these different statistics and they’re all kind of nonsense. I do think that you do see damage. You see the music business falling apart. You do see much less investment in new acts. It matters. You see a loss in pricing power – that’s damage too. It’s not only loss in sales but an undercutting of pricing power. It’s taking bad deals because you’re afraid you won’t have a deal. You have Amazon saying, ‘let’s sell this for ten dollars or someone will pirate it’, you know?’ That’s damage too. How do you calculate that? I don’t know. All that [study]proves is that the people who listen to music listen to music.”
“Neither of my parents downloads any music illegally but neither of them buys CD’s. Why? They don’t like music! I don’t really see a causal relationship there. Piracy hurts things a little until it undercuts the market- than it really hurts and you can see it. With books it’s like selling books for ten bucks- it’s not a big deal until somewhere like borders files for bankruptcy. When borders closed – everyone was like holy shit we’re in trouble!’ It’s gradual. Once you had enough piracy to hurt borders, that made a difference. Barnes & Noble are probably going to stop selling CD’s. Then what happens? Here at HMV. The biggest drop in music sales this year…. What was the cause of HMV closing? Piracy was part of the cause- not the whole cause- people like to buy online. But it was one the causes. I don’t know how to isolate that, but in my defence, no one else does either.”
What about the price of singles and books? What about those who pirate stuff that’s too expensive? He smiles. “Different strategies work for different people. I think it’s smart to respect that. I think some people will make the wrong decision but they have the right to make the wrong decision. I would argue that I have the right to price my book for 150 dollars. If I self-publish it, I could sell my book for 15 dollars and providing I’m not selling anything that’s funded by the government or some emergency medical need essential for the populace, the market solution for this would be – don’t buy it. It doesn’t give you the right to pirate it. Don’t buy it. That’s the market. If you think about fair use, you don’t want to have a market for free speech – anyone should have the right to review my book. You can excerpt from it, use the cover image and all that and it’s fair use. You shouldn’t have to license your right to quote me to say that I’m a jackass. That’s really important. I’m pretty progressive. I don’t want a market for water or healthcare. Does everyone have the right to food? I think so. Does everyone have the right to steak? I don’t think so. You know it’s funny. The same people who say that your book’s a piece of sh**t demand the right to read it for nothing. It’s like ‘this is awful- why can’t I have it for free?’ This is a very funny phenomenon no? Take the example of academic textbooks. Academic textbooks are wildly overpriced so, therefore, copyright is broken but academic textbooks are a very small part of copyright. It’s one hell of a leap! It is mostly academics who hate copyright. Everyone should be able to benefit from their creative work.”
After much musical rifling, we then wend our way at a leisurely pace towards the gig- the talk at Hodges Figgis. He buys me a cookie (for which I will be eternally grateful – it was a spectacular cookie) and then we make our way inside the shop. “This must be great tourist attraction”, says Rob as he takes in what is in fact an impressive shop – and the only one on Dawson St. since the disappearance of Waterstones across the road. “How many tourists would you get coming to see Facebook’s headquarters hmm?” This raises a good point and one which I feel will be visited during his talk. The talk itself went well (notwithstanding technical difficulties – the irony of which was lost on no one) with minimal audience friction- for which I think Rob may actually have been disappointed. The talk itself was fairly brief, however, what it showed was that there are very few people in the industry who possess such in-depth knowledge of the current climate involving copyright and the creative industry. Whether you are ‘pro’ copyright or not, Free Ride is a must read on a subject that is only gaining in importance.
Robert Levine is the author of Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How it Can Fight Back, published by Doubleday. For more information about Robert and his book, go to http://freeridethebook.wordpress.com/