Last week, we had a bit of a back and forth with Jim Griffin
, who's trying to build Choruss, a recording industry-backed service to have certain gatekeepers (universities initially, then ISPs, then...?) act as gatekeepers, who would effectively pay a per user fee, which they'd likely pass on to users, to allow those users to file share (sorta -- as the record labels would still likely try to shut down file sharing networks and still push for "three strikes" laws). I got to see Griffin present his "vision" for Choruss at the Leadership Music Digital Summit and spent some time chatting with him after (no punches were thrown -- it was quite friendly). That said, having heard from him directly, I'll say I'm still quite skeptical and somewhat worried about where Choruss is heading, and many others I spoke to in attendance felt the same way.
First, Griffin's point is basically this: for the past 150 years or so, any place that "used music to draw a crowd" eventually ended up paying some kind of license for it. It started with restaurants and then moved on to concert halls and radio and movies and television. So, to Griffin, setting up a similar licensing scheme (which he continues to say is voluntary, not compulsory) is simply the next obvious step. He paints himself as a technology supporter -- and I have no doubt that's true. He also points out that "piracy" isn't necessarily the biggest "problem," out there, though he still says it is a problem. He notes that there's a lot more competition for everyone's time and entertainment dollar spend. From his vantage point, the real problem is that all of the different rights holders are sitting around yelling at each other (it's true, it happened on an earlier panel) rather than agreeing to take a dollar and split that dollar. So, while they all fight, that dollar goes somewhere else. So, based on that, the solution is simple: set up a process to get the dollar, and then let everyone fight over that dollar behind the curtain, rather than out front in dealing with consumers directly. I've heard a very similar vision from folks like Fred von Lohmann over at EFF.
While I've been tough on Griffin, I will say that I believe quite strongly that he earnestly believes this is the best solution to the "problems" facing the recording industry. I don't think he's trying to create a pure money grab for the record labels or create what becomes a "music tax." The problem is that that's exactly what such a program is likely to become.
To defend against those claims, Griffin repeatedly says what he said earlier: this is just an experiment! He says that later this year a bunch of universities will launch with Choruss (in fact, he claims that more universities wanted to sign up than they could handle) -- but each may be using a different model. So, one university may require every student to participate. One may be opt-in. One may be opt-out. One may set up their own centralized file sharing server. Even how they measure what files are shared will be a variety of experiments: one may use technology tools. One may simply use self-generated "diaries" (like the old Nielsen/Arbitron systems). Payments may be based on downloads on one system and "plays" on another. The pricing may be different at different universities. Basically, it's just a series of tests, and supposedly we'll all "learn" from it and move on from there. In fact, he's hoping that since these tests will be done at research universities, that professors there will help study the results. So that's why Griffin has been upset about some of the coverage (including ours) that didn't highlight the fact that these are tests that could go in a variety of different directions.
He didn't address any of the questions we raised in that last post, in part because he doesn't have the answers to many of them yet (it's part of what he hopes shakes out from the experiments). However, there are still plenty of reasons to be quite wary of this plan. For all of Griffin's belief that this is the an experiment worth trying, I think it's built on faulty premises and will quickly go down a dangerous road. It's just too tempting to take this concept in exactly the wrong direction.
The faulty premise: that licensing is a way to "handle" the issue (even if he still doesn't want to call this a license). Licenses have always been a way to duct-tape on a temporary solution
to a new technology. Adding yet another such license is simply layering on yet another layer when it's simply not needed. Griffin complains that "we cannot tolerate a society where paying for art, culture and knowledge is voluntary," but that's missing the point. It assumes, incorrectly, that paying for the content directly is the only way to make money off of that content. As we've been showing over and over again (and many others at this very event are demonstrating) that's simply not true. There are lots of ways to make money, and many of those are enhanced by having the music be available for free.
Griffin addressed that briefly, suggesting that those other models still work on top
of Choruss, whereby Choruss acts as sort of a "basement floor" on top of which those other models can be built. That sounds great, but it sounds to me like a social welfare program, separate from what the market would allow. And once you build such a system, as we've seen over and over again, the folks who control it keep asking for more and more
. So even if these are experiments and who knows where the final model will go, given who's backing it, it's not hard to guess: they're going to demand to make it about as close to compulsory as possible. ISPs are going to offer it and will simply add to everyone's bill. The program doesn't work at all if they don't do that -- and that's simply going to piss off a lot of people, just at a time when musicians actually have been showing they can win the trust (and money) from true fans.
Griffin suggests that ISPs won't have to make it mandatory, but will be able to "upsell" people to tiers that include the Choruss
tax covenant not to sue license
whatever it's called. He uses, as an example, just how difficult AT&T (he didn't name them, but it's clear who he meant) has made it to sign up for naked DSL
. He interprets this to mean that the ISPs are good at upselling users. He ignores the fact that AT&T worked hard to hide the option and when that was revealed a rather angry outcry went up among AT&T customers who felt cheated.
When challenged on all this by an audience member -- Dave Allen
, member of the UK band Gang of Four, who has now gone on to a second career helping musicians build real business models around their brands -- Griffin used "the cable model" as a way that this all makes sense: i.e., even if you don't like sports, you get ESPN in your basic cable package. Allen smartly shot back the fact that customers hate that
and are increasingly looking at alternatives
like Hulu and Boxee, that let them get away from such deals. All Griffin could do was insist that such bundling would "come back."
But Allen really got to exactly the heart of the problem with Choruss: it's a plan based on what's best for the existing stakeholders, not the customers.
There are plenty of business models out there (and I've been hearing about a bunch more from musicians as I chat to them at this event) that work by creating a true win-win relationship between the musicians and the fans. They're models under which everyone benefits. Choruss doesn't work that way. It seeks to perpetuate the old model, where you have to "get" money out of others in order to "allow" them to do something. It's not about creating win-win models where everyone's happy to take part, making a willing transaction where they feel better off. The examples Griffin gives -- of older licensing models, ISP upsells and cable TV bundling -- are exactly the sorts of things that have always
pissed off fans, and it seems likely that Choruss will do the same, no matter how much Griffin hopes to have it avoid that fate.
Instead, there are tons of models that don't involve anyone feeling angry or ripped off -- and those embracing them are finding them to be quite lucrative (in many cases more lucrative than older offerings). Griffin says that Choruss won't interfere with those other models, but that's unlikely (at best). If people feel they're getting ripped off by having to pay a university fee or ISP-fee (tax) for music, they're going to be less
willing to participate in these sorts of new business models, already feeling pissed off and that they've "given" already... often under duress. That's not the model on which to build a successful industry.