Will independent Irish labels benefit from UPC High Court ruling on illegal downloading?

Shane Cosgrove

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illegal downloading
Photo Credit: Philippe Put

The High Court last week ordered UPC to begin sending letters to its customers that are thought to be downloading music illegally. IP addresses will be provided by the three Record labels who sought the injunction: Sony Music, Warner Music and Universal Music.

This is the latest battle against illegal downloading that is being fought by the music industry. Album sales have collapsed so artists and labels now have to focus on touring and merchandising to keep profits up.

Internet streaming sites such as Spotify,  launched in 2007, are clawing back some lost revenue for record labels has been backed with investment from Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI Music and Warner Music Group. It now has 65 million users worldwide.

Two Irish labels – Reekus Records and Diatribe – are working to keep producing music despite decreased financial returns.

Buffalo Sunn
Buffalo Sunn of Reekus Records. Photo Credit: Reekus

Elvera Butler founded Reekus Records in Cork in 1981. It grew out of a series of gigs that she was promoting in the city. Their policy was to encourage local bands by giving them support slots to the likes of The Cure, U2 and Stiff Little Fingers.

The now Dublin based label has released albums by The Blades, GANGS and now Buffalo Sunn who are making an impression currently in the US.

Pic: Reekus Records
Photo Credit: Reekus Records

Independent labels like Reekus have felt the effects of the reluctance to pay for new music according to Elvera Butler:

“There is a whole generation of people who don’t even understand the concept of illegal downloading. The illegal part of it doesn’t even come into their awareness; they judge music as now free. They don’t even consider the fact that it’s stealing”.

Pic: Jorge Franganillo
Photo Credit: Jorge Franganillo

The knock-on effects are felt by more than just those directly employed in the music industry. “It’s not just the artists that suffer from it, the shops have closed. People in warehouses lost their jobs. Van drivers lost their jobs”.

Spotify, while an improvement on illegal downloading, is not welcomed with much enthusiasm by the label. “It’s just something we have to live with. I don’t think they’re great but there’s no point in fighting against the tide”.

Pic:  JDB Sound Photography
Photo Credit: JDB Sound Photography

Sound quality is also a concern. As technology continues to improve, poor-sounding recordings will age very badly. “It doesn’t seem to matter to a lot of people. If people change how they want to listen to something in the future, if it is recorded well, there is potential for it being heard”.

YouTube has become the place where people listen to a lot of new music so, for Reekus, building the profile of their artists is paramount.

“As we are growing our acts and promoting them internationally with touring – recognition is the key so getting the bands’ music heard is the number one priority”.

Pic: Diatribe
Photo Credit: Diatribe

Nick Roth of Diatribe Records decided to put their entire catalogue up on Spotify.

“We debated whether or not to sign up for Spotify as a small independent label because it effectively means that if you’re being streamed millions of times it’s (worth) almost nothing”.

The label was set up in 2007 to release jazz, contemporary classical, experimental and electronic music. “If you don’t sign up it just means that people won’t be able to listen to you”.

Nick would rather have somebody listen to the record than not, even if they had streamed it or got it for free on a torrent site.

“We’re never going to really make money doing this; it’s more a labour of love. The same is true for every other independent label, certainly in Ireland and most in the UK”.

There is a widening gap between how major labels and those in the independent sector deal with advances in technology.

“The main reason for the existence of our label is not as a commercial enterprise but as a way of furthering and promoting the music. By that reasoning it’s far more important that people hear the music and get to know the artists than that they don’t”.

The label stops short of promoting access to their music from illegal torrent sites, but neither are they “violently opposed” to it. Their content is available to stream for free on their website.

“The argument of the quality of a CD compared to digital or the quality of vinyl compared to digital is mythical I think”. Even the most discerning listeners would struggle to tell the difference between a high quality digital file and a CD.

“What makes the biggest difference is the medium that you listen to the music on”. Even the best produced record will sound poor coming through the tinny speakers on a phone or laptop.

Among the court cases and limited royalties can there be light at the end of the tunnel for musicians and music fans?

One possibility is that less people will make music purely for money and this could be replaced by more interesting collaborations.

“Nobody is making any money from sales, the genres which were previously dubbed as commercial genres are starting to move into the same areas that used to be the domain of jazz or improvised music.”

The current wave of successful Icelandic music is quoted as an example of what can happen when previously marginalised genres are co-opted into the pop bracket.

“The scene in Iceland is quite good where there is quite a lot of popular music in hybrid forms. It has raised the level artistically of all the genres. The level of popular music coming out of Iceland is far better than what is coming out of Ireland”.

Whether those born after 2000 will stream their music from paid sites like Spotify in the future or walk into a shop and buy it, even take their chances with an illegal download, there will still be people like Reekus and Diatribe putting out music for the love of it.

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Shane Cosgrove