Billy Bragg is a living legend of the British punk and folk music scenes who writes about politics and romance with equal passion. He’s also an activist for progressive causes, known on both sides of the Atlantic. This spring he released his twelfth studio album, Mr. Love & Justice (Anti-Records).
You recently published an op-ed in the New York Times about musicians’ rights on social networking sites like Bebo.
I wrote the op-ed about Bebo to highlight the question of how people who contribute content to Internet sites should be rewarded for their contribution. [The companies are] building their business on free content and yet when they monetize that free content, they walk away with close to $650 million from the sale. It does raise the question of whether those contributions should have been rewarded, because it is the content that creates those communities, rather than the host.
What’s the best way to monetize that contribution?
The way that the music industry has done it so far is to go after the users. I prefer a different model. Users don’t pay for radio. But that doesn’t mean it’s not being paid for. The business is paying because it uses the songs to attract advertising, and it pays some of the advertising revenue to the content providers. Rather than trying to criminalize their audiences, we should be looking at the business models that use music to attract advertisers and build community. People have said that websites give people free publicity. But I don’t see how that’s different than radio. Radio still pays a royalty. It’s music and the ability to hear and exchange music that’s driving a lot of the technology. Everyone says that music has value–I think they question whether it has a price. The users have found that it’s very easy to get music, and unfortunately business has decided that music doesn’t have a price anymore.
Do kids today expect everything to be free?
It isn’t a different impulse than me taping John Peel’s radio show in the evening. I couldn’t listen to that entire show. I didn’t like everything I heard. Half of it was horrible to my late-teen ears. But that’s where I first heard the Sex Pistols. Now, we all know radio’s become a lot less diverse since then. So the Interent offers the potential for hearing other things that you wouldn’t necessarily hear. I would be a fool if I came out against that. I really don’t want to criminalize that process. The people walking away with the big bucks are not the kid who’s downloading, filling his iPod with free music. It makes a lot more sense for us to be talking to the multinational conglomerates.