Peer to Peer and the Music Industry - The Criminalization of Sharing

April 22, 2010

In a recent interview, legendary music producer Brian Eno declared the record to be a "blip" in the history of the music industries. By this he was referring less to the actual vinyl format than to the notion of a recording industry that uses a royalties-based system of financial reward - a system that is collapsing under the weight of technological advance. The transition to the digital audio file and the rise in personal listening devices as the chosen format for music consumption has had a huge impact on our listening habits. This shift in consumption would have been as rewarding as the switch from vinyl to compact disc had been if not for the ease with which people were able to "share" their files for free via peer-to-peer websites that sprang up in the wake of Napster.

The warning signs for this seismic shift had been there for the music industries to see for quite some time, yet they largely considered file sharing to be a return to the home-taping practices based around the cassette. Far from killing music, home taping arguably revived a record industry that was in decline back in the 1980s. Surely, it was thought, the digital file would have the same effect.

With a central theme that is located in the struggle between the royalties-based industry's need for the creation of scarcity in the face of the online environment's push for the wider circulation of information, this superb book explores the many aspects of the debates surrounding the emergence of the peer-to-peer file-sharing phenomenon and the subsequent attempts at control of both the technologies and consumers.

As a framework for the critical investigation of the tensions between "technical, economic and social networks and the dynamic of change", Matthew David contrasts neo-Marxist ideologies with post-structuralism and ethnography. The result is a wide-reaching, highly incisive work that should be on the reading lists of any music, media and culture course.

Although the book focuses on the music industries, its reach is far wider, exploring the shifts in consumer behaviours and attitudes while revealing the debates that are core to the global information society's reaction to and relationship with these shifts.

Through the unravelling of these debates, David provides a thoughtful account of the growth and development of the digital audio file and the subsequent emergence of peer-to-peer and social networking capabilities. He explores the challenges these new technologies present to intellectual copyrights and ownership rights, highlighting the contradiction that exists between "the location of ideas in an irreducible web of cultural production and the notion of property as discrete units for private ownership".

This debate is extending through the ongoing technical (surveillance) and legal developments that have emerged in reaction to the act of file sharing and the challenges posed by "diversity in national and regional interpretation and enforcement", a debate that reveals the tension between human rights and intellectual property rights.

Discussion is then shifted to a questioning of the royalties system, before exploring the possibilities for new business models through case studies of bands that have gained from such new models. It is perhaps here that David's book is at its weakest, as he draws on well-known - and arguably unrepresentative - examples, including the artists Radiohead, Simply Red and Arctic Monkeys. Furthermore, he fails to fully explore the growth in interactive creativity as a means to challenge notions of ownership through approaches made possible only by file-sharing capabilities.

These are, however, only minor criticisms in an otherwise brilliant examination of the criminalisation of culture understood through the context of the contradiction between profitability and the potential suspension of scarcity.

Peer to Peer and the Music Industry - The Criminalization of Sharing

By Matthew David. SAGE Publications, 200pp £60.00 and £25.00 (e-book). ISBN 9781847870056 and 9781849204309 (e-book). Published 31 December 2009

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