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Copyright and Musicians at the Digital Margins

Posted on    by Sukhpreet

Copyright and Musicians at the Digital Margins

By 25 October 2013No Comments

Post by Tom Phillips and John Street/ University of East Anglia CREATe

Ghost Beach/

Credit: Ghost Beach /

What do musicians think of copyright? Do their views depend on whether they play jazz or rock? Or whether the issue is downloading or sampling? Are their views simply a product of commercial self-interest, or do politics and aesthetics mediate them?


These are the questions addressed in our CREATe work package. Although musicians are not the only stakeholders in the copyright regime, no one would doubt that they are important ones. No coherent or effective policy on music and intellectual property can afford to ignore their views and values. And while we know something about the views of a limited number of well-established artists (such as Metallica, 50 Cent, Lily Allen), we know relatively little about their less high-profile peers.

Our CREATe project focuses on those musicians about whom we know least; those musicians – the majority – who occupy the outer edges of the industry, who struggle to make a living (or make no living at all) from their music.

Over the last year we have been probing the views on copyright of musicians on the digital margin. These are people who define themselves as “musicians”, but who do not depend wholly on music for their income or who do not have a recording or publishing contract that guarantees them an income on which they can rely.

To find out about this group of musicians, we conducted a small quantitative survey to map the rough contours of their attitudes. We then followed the example set by Edwards et al., who wanted to explore the attitudes of consumers to copyright, but who wanted to get behind the bald statistics of survey methods. This meant the use of a qualitative research method designed to reveal the nuances and tensions within attitudes to copyright, and more than that: the relationship of copyright to creativity. We used semi-structured interviews with musicians to explore these attitudes.

Our initial survey received 162 completed responses. We make no claims for its representativeness, but it did capture an interesting sample.  Two-thirds of our respondents had been musicians for over 10 years, with a further 19% having been active for between 5 and 10 years, and 10% for between 3 and 5 years. We asked these musicians about whether they cared about the abuse of their copyright. We found that that the longer they had been in the business the more concerned they were with protecting copyright, and wanting to see something done about illegal downloading. This attitude stemmed, it seemed, from experience rather than age, and was not necessarily linked to whether they had something to gain from copyright (ie whether their living depended on it).

We also found that genre was a mediating factor. Generally, those who make classical music seemed to be less concerned with issues of copyright. This may not seem altogether surprising if we take a traditional view of ‘classical music’ as that which is out of copyright, but, of course, it can include more recent works, and in any case classical musicians might expect to have an interest in recording rights.  So the fact that such musicians appear to be indifferent is not as easily explained as might be supposed. By contrast, pop and rock musicians placed more importance on copyright, but primarily because of their view of themselves as the ‘creators’ of the music through their role as composers/writers. Whatever is going on here, the connection is not simply and straightforwardly a matter of material self-interest.

This same thought occurs when we looked at how genre mapped onto the severity with which different types of copyright abuse was viewed (illegal downloading, unlicensed public performance of music, sampling, burning CDs for friends). Downloading was generally considered the most severe form of copyright abuse. However, sampling produced a more mixed response, with jazz musicians regarding it as the least problematic form of abuse.

The thought that more was at stake than material self-interest was evident too in the interviews, where it emerged that much turned on how musicians thought of music and who or what it was for. Were they performing for themselves or for a putative audience? CH, a music student, explained: ‘[The audience for my music is initially] always myself. … The way I make art is I make the music I want to hear’.  Conceiving of music as a private act, only subsequently to be shared with an audience, CH categorised his music as an art form as opposed to a product for sale. Although he harboured an ambition to make a living from music, he saw himself as producing ‘art’ rather than ‘commerce’. To this extent, the business of copyright assumed a lesser importance.

This sort of attitude towards copyright at the digital margins is further exemplified by KS, an experimental solo instrumentalist. Having posted a free to download single on his Bandcamp page, KS was surprised to see the track re-uploaded to a Brazilian music site without his permission. Yet interestingly, he did not see this as a breach of his copyright:

“I didn’t feel wronged by the website re-uploading it. I thought it was quite nice to an extent, because … they’d actually obviously listened to it … and compared it to [The Pixies] … I think it’d be more of an issue if they were selling it, because if it’s free on my website and they’re making a profit … that is an unfair use of it. … To me they’ve stolen that tracking data, there’s like 200 hits there that I don’t have any information about. On the other hand if it wasn’t posted there then they wouldn’t have downloaded it.”

Flattered by the fact the infringer had actually appreciated his track, and had, as a result, uploaded it to another website, KS took a more relaxed line on copyright. Where no money was at stake – and the creativity and reputation of the musician is what is being traded – considerations of copyright infringement mattered less. He was more aggrieved at the loss of audience data.

In contrast, when musicians think of themselves as professional workers, then copyright assumes a different place in their deliberations. SP, drummer in a three-piece pop/soul band, recalled that when his band signed with a management company with a view to a record deal, they took copyright more seriously:

“Music has always been a business and we’re aware of that. We’re artists and we love our art, but music is a business and has to be done right … things have definitely become more business orientated with the prospect of a deal on the horizon.”

Interviews of this kind brought home the not altogether surprising insight that interest in copyright is a product of seeing music as a source of revenue.

However, our research does not suggest a neat and direct link between material interests and attitudes to copyright. SP’s awareness of his interests was, according to him, a consequence of encounters with industry insiders. In other words, he came to understand the connection because of the intervention of others. A process of education is involved. But again, this is not the whole story. As we are already discovering, interest in, and attitude towards, copyright depends upon experience of the industry, upon genre, upon political values and upon aesthetics.  It also depends on whether we are dealing with sampling or downloading. Anyone intent upon reforming copyright policy needs to take account of the artists, as well as the consumers and the industry, and to understand what copyright means to them and how it sits with their sense of themselves as ‘creative’.