The future’s bright, the future’s free

March 2008

Record labels, internet

Cassandra Williams, postgraduate law student, The College of Law

Radiohead kicked off the new trend that is now seemingly sweeping the music industry, allowing fans to choose what price to pay for the download of their new album ‘In Rainbows’ – effectively in many cases giving it away for free. To many this may have seemed like a hollow gesture as the album was then released on a physical format as well as part of a box set. And many argued that the majority of artists will not be able to survive without a record company behind them. In fact some commentators added that rather than helping make music more accessible there is a possibility that Radiohead’s model would actually deter record companies from developing new artists and actually have a detrimental effect upon the industry.

But now both The Futureheads and the Guillemots have announced that they shall be ‘giving’ their music away for free. The Futureheads, who are now on their own record label, emailed a free new track to fans on December 25 th to wish them a Merry Christmas. The track was sent to the email of anyone who has signed up for the band’s mailing list at the band’s website, The publicity stunt was deemed a success and now fans can download ‘Broke Up The Time’ via text. The Futureheads have used downloads in order to generate much needed publicity and they have demonstrated that you do not have to be a global superstar in order to survive without a record company. And the Guillemots are also ‘giving’ away a new track, ‘Kriss Kross’ what is surprising is that fact that they are not on their own independent label but are actually signed to Universal. This demonstrates the fact that even the major record companies are now willing to adapt in the digital age. The track is the opener for Guillemots’new album ‘ Red’ and the free track is being used as a promotional tool – and of course the free giveaway has generated huge amounts of press interest.

For the average consumer mixed messages are being sent out. Whilst it is illegal to file share or illegally download, artists are now giving away their music for free. This could effectively give rise to a situation where the music a consumer has downloaded was free but by file sharing that track the consumer has now indeed broken the law. Even though the Radiohead album as available free – millions actually obtained the album by illegal file swapping. An odd situation indeed. The confusion surrounding what is legal in the world of digital downloads and format shifting was further thrown into confusion when it was announced that it could soon become legal in the UK to copy CD’s to another device such as a computer for personal use. Intellectual property minister Lord Triesman said the law should be changed so it “keeps up with the times” but again many consumers either thought they could already format shift legally – with the majority of the population were already acting under the assumption this was in fact legal anyway – another big group simply didn’t care. The attempts to further educate consumers about illegal downloads seems doomed to fail in a society that (now) morally can see no wrongdoing in the act.

It is perhaps time for a drastic overhaul in the law relating to how copyright is to be protected on the internet and also relating to the way in which Record Companies operate. Different deals could become the norm that incorporate merchandise and tour rights with the actual recorded music now relegated to a loss leader. So – back to that ‘big’ debate on the 360 degree deal it seems!

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