An Open Letter to Lily Allen

File-sharing is an opportunity, not a problem.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted September 25, 2009 in Blog (Last Updated September 25, 2009)

Dear Lily,

I know a lot of people are giving you grief right now over your recent stance on music piracy and a couple of related controversies, and I don't want simply to pile on. Instead, in the spirit of this comment on techdirt, I would rather try to persuade you to regard file-sharing as an opportunity, not as a problem.

First, an anecdote to illustrate what I mean: I would never have discovered your music were it not for file-sharing. Allow me to explain.

I read a review of your debut album, Alright, Still, on a music website and decided I wanted to check it out. Now, I don't really listen to the radio (and in any case, your music doesn't get much radio play where I live) and I didn't want to risk the cost of a CD on an unknown quantity, so I downloaded some songs from a popular file-sharing network.

I must confess that I'm glad I didn't buy the CD. It was sporadically brilliant, but a lot of it felt rough and derivative and cobbled-together - a promising snapshot of a talented young musician still finding her voice.

However, I was impressed enough to put a few songs into rotation on my MP3 player, and also to keep an ear out for more of your music - including your enjoyable collaborations with other artists.

When It's Not Me, It's You came out earlier this year, I was excited to give it a listen. Again, I downloaded some songs and I really liked what I heard. There was a real maturity and consistency in that album's sounds and themes - essentially, it fulfilled the promise of your earlier album. (Also, "Chinese" and "Who'd Have Known" are almost impossibly sweet, with "just the right amount of awkward").

The next time I was in a record shop, I saw it on sale for $15 (Canadian dollars - about £8.60 GBP) and bought it. I have been very happy with my purchase, and I really hope that you don't follow through with your decision to quit the music industry.

Let me be abundantly clear: I would never have bought this album were it not for file-sharing. If I had bought your first album "sound unheard", I would have been disappointed with it and felt somewhat ripped off, and would probably not have bothered giving the follow-up a try at all.

File-sharing is the new radio. It's the way that people can find your music and try it out. It's how, as Cory Doctorow points out, you build an audience. Doctorow writes science fiction books and releases them under a Creative Commons licence. As he explains:

Most people who download the book don't end up buying it, but they wouldn't have bought it in any event, so I haven't lost any sales, I've just won an audience.

Or as open source software publisher Tim O'Reilly summarized in a now-famous 2002 essay:

Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.

Consider that you got your own start distributing mixed tapes of other artists' music in which you included a selection of your own tracks. This is an excellent example of sharing music as a way of building an audience.

You seem to be arguing that file-sharing helps established artists and hurts newcomers, but it seems to me that the opposite is true: file-sharing creates a level playing field for all artists to get their work out and be discovered by as many people as possible.

You probably know much better than I do that corporate record labels spend more money promoting, marketing and distributing 'high profile' commercial pop stars than more experimental or niche musicians. (And commercial radio stations, in turn, spend a lot more time playing their songs.)

It's well-known that even a successful album can actually leave the band that wrote and recorded it in debt to the label, as rock producer Steve Albini illustrated so provocatively in his landmark essay "The Problem With Music".

File-sharing is a way for artists to connect directly with their fans without having to tithe out to their label.

If your music is good (and your music is good), it's a way to build a very large fan base, from which you can then make enough money on touring, album sales, merchandise and other revenue streams to make a living.

Heck, if you're popular enough, you can make money licencing your songs for use in Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

There will always be plenty of opportunities to make money from your music if a huge number of people like your music. File-sharing is what allows you to reach those people and turn them into fans. That's why you should regard it as an opportunity and not as a problem.

I still remember reading the liner notes to an early Radiohead CD (I think it was OK Computer) and seeing the statement: "Lyrics reprinted by permission, even though we wrote them." That's a philosophical rather than a practical complaint, but it summarizes what's wrong with the idea that strong and heavy-handed copyright is good for music.

Open is better than closed. Accessible is better than inaccessible. The old business model was based on the scarcity of physical storage media and geographic distribution systems.

Artists and businesses that embrace the new business model of accessibility and sharing will thrive, while artists and businesses that cling to the old model will slowly wither.


Ryan McGreal, a fan.