Renowned music author Janis Ian once said, "The Internet, and downloading, are here to stay... Anyone who thinks otherwise should prepare themselves to end up on the slagheap of history." Music copyright has always been an issue with the musicians and artists but recently it has come to more acknowledgment due to the introduction of new platforms like the Internet and cell phones. Being an academic and as well as a musician, I ponder to share my experience about music copyright and the music industry of Bangladesh.
It is important to emphasize on the fact that the copyright law to the extent it relates to music has become a cheesy issue in the digital age. In the US and EU, many laws had to be updated to be more compatible with this trend. The very law exists in Bangladesh too, but its implementation is rare. The availability of music on the Internet cannot be stopped and discouraged. However, there is this huge problem of music piracy, which is a threat not only to the musicians but also to the music industry. But where does Bangladesh stand in this arena of music copyright?
Before the Internet started playing a major role in Bangladesh, the deals with record labels regarding distribution, copyright and royalty payment were different. Generally, an artist had to make a few demo songs which were self-financed and present them to different record labels. Once one of the labels liked the artist’s songs, the process of negotiation would start. The record labels usually would have the distribution rights and the revenue earned from the songs (i.e., CDs, mp3s, etc.) would be spit in the ratio of 50 : 50 or 60 : 40. In exchange, the artist would receive a sum of revenue, which he would use to record the rest of his album, and make a small profit.
There were variations of this deal, but by and large this is what used to happen quite often with Bangladeshi artists and record labels. It should be noted that, nothing was mentioned about the copyright of the songs in those deals. Unfortunately, many musicians in Bangladesh till date, are either unaware of the local copyright system or do not bother to protect their music rights. Some of the musicians make the mistake of relinquishing their copyrights to the record labels – where they end up getting no royalty from the record labels.
This trend worked for many years at least for the record labels. In most of the cases, the artists never got their share of royalty, the way it was initially promised in the agreement with the record labels. Despite they were still happy because of the record labels were taking care of all the hassles of distributing CDs and promotional activities.
The biggest problem “music piracy” out broke with the proliferation of Internet. Users can now download songs for free from the Internet. This led to a drastic drop in sales of albums in Bangladesh. Likewise the international music sales dropped by a collective 10% in 2009 and global sales of the entire industry dropped from $17.5 billion in 2008 to $15.8 billion in 2009. Let’s not blame the audience for this. How many users can steer the temptation to listen to the songs when a new album is readily available on the Internet from the very day of its release and that too for free.
Along came the mobile phone companies and their concept of Welcome Tunes, Ring Tones, Ring back Tones and Music downloads. Yes, the mobile phone companies earn hefty amount of money from these sources, but the rest of the share of the revenue either goes to the record labels, or to some the newly mushroomed group of Content providers.
The artists, those who signed off their mobile phone contents to the record labels deserve a fair share of the revenue. The others, who did not sign, claim that the revenue generated from this process is solely their right, because the record labels are not in any way related to content or digital distribution of music. As a result, the record labels are doing all they can to coax the artists not to take copyright laws seriously, reminding them that by signing off their music rights to them, the artists can become popular and rich. Many artists are also falling for this just simply because they are confused or get trapped.
To many it is an admitted fact that it has become very difficult to enforce copyright law in a world where file-sharing has become a common phenomenon. So what should be the response to the copyright infringement? One business model that has emerged successful is online music stores like the iTunes Store. Digital music downloads now make up a one third of the recorded music sales in the US. The iTunes Store sold there 10 billionth song back in February 2010 which indicates that users are still willing to pay for music.
In the case of Bangladesh, this kind of business model is not readily possible, since payments have to be made online, most commonly through credit cards. But how many people in Bangladesh own credit cards and do the local law allows online payments? It is very difficult and expensive to maintain an international credit card with which songs can be bought legally through the iTunes store.
There are some Bangladeshi websites that allow customers to download music that shares revenues with the record labels and the artists, subject to the terms of their agreement, but lacks online payment facilities.
To me the music lovers of Bangladesh are willing to pay for good music who has started to understand the damage caused by music piracy, and that this may one day kill the potential of the overall music industry in Bangladesh. The Indian music industry is one of the biggest industries in the world today, and they were able to achieve this only because of the increased level of awareness and proper implementation of the copyright law.
However to improve the situation in Bangladesh, online payment system or transferring money via mobile phones can be introduced. Fairly recently popular band Miles has released five songs from their new album, solely available to the GrameenPhone users though, to be bought and downloaded straight to their mobile phones. This model, if properly utilized in Bangladesh would make it a win-win situation for all.
Artists copyright awareness, care for protecting their music rights, facilitating payments through online or mobile phones and music users willingness to pay for the music can definitely help Bangladeshi music industry to move forward in this digital age.
The story was first published in INTELLECT Issue no.1, dated April 2012.