Here at Flavorpill, we’ve been happy to use Grooveshark in the past on the assumption that it was, if not entirely legal, at least a service that offered artists a chance to get their music heard and made for a convenient, free alternative to Spotify. On the basis of what we’ve read this week, however, we’re starting to wonder whether that view might be just a wee bit optimistic, and whether Grooveshark might in fact be just another representation of a recurring trend in the music industry as a whole — the trend whereby everyone gets rich at artists’ expense. Plus ça change, and all that.
The reason for our angst is an exchange of emails between ’70s prog behemoths King Crimson and a series of Grooveshark staff, which was re-published via California-based music industry news site Digital Music News. The correspondence makes for interesting — if thoroughly depressing — reading. You can read the whole thing here, and there’s also further commentary in King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp’s online diary — the entries for August 17 and September 12 are particularly relevant.
In summary, though, the story goes something like this: Fripp, who holds the sole copyright on the band’s music, has been attempting to get his songs pulled off Grooveshark, and basically getting nowhere. The saga appears to have been dragging on for quite some time, and the rub seems to be that as soon as the band’s music is removed, it gets re-uploaded. Of course, with the way Grooveshark works, this is hardly surprising — after all, the company’s legal get-out-of-jail-free card has always been that it offers a hosting service, and that it can’t be held responsible for what its users choose to upload, and that it takes down material if requested to.
However, the correspondence suggests that they’ve been less than eager to come through on the whole taking-music-down-when-requested-to part of the equation — King Crimson producer David Singleton describes the experience of dealing with Grooveshark thusly: “We have NO choice about what we put on Grooveshark. The only choice we are offered is over how much of our time and money we wish to waste in REMOVING items from a service we have never chosen to engage with.”
In one particularly telling exchange, Grooveshark SVP Paul Geller tells the band’s representative Declan Colgan that “we are trying to find a solution that fits your needs.” Fripp responds with a gloriously acerbic email that links to a bunch of the band’s music on the site and an observation that “my assumption is that you have not yet managed to find a solution that fits [our] needs.” Touché. In the most recent email (dated October 13), Geller blames the fact that the band’s material is still on the site on “a bug.”
Since Digital Music News published the correspondence yesterday, Grooveshark has come out fighting — in an email to the site’s publisher Paul Reskinoff, which you can read here, Geller accuses the band of “looking for attention,” and claims that Fripp has been “[doctoring] the conversation to fit his message.” He also suggests that “people like to see us squirm.”
Now, you can argue until you’re blue in the face over whether bands should embrace the new world of file-sharing, and whether King Crimson are being bloody-minded in not wanting their music to be on the site, and that streaming services allow people to sample music before buying, and that the cat is out of the bag now and bands need to learn to live with it, etc. But the point is that ultimately, it should be up to a band to decide how and where their music is distributed. Whatever the reasons behind the delay in taking King Crimson’s music down (and there’s at least one track still on the site), Grooveshark aren’t coming across very well here.
This is all troubling enough, but plot gets thicker when you read through the Digital Music News comments section. If you scroll right to the end, you find this intriguing testimony, which we’re quoting verbatim:
I work for Grooveshark. Here is some information from the trenches: We are assigned a predetermined ammount of weekly uploads to the system and get a small extra bonus if we manage to go above that (not easy).The assignments are assumed as direct orders from the top to the bottom, we don’t just volunteer to ‘enhance’ the Grooveshark database. All search results are monitored and when something is tagged as ‘not available,’ it get’s queued up to our lists for upload. You have to visualize the database in two general sections: ‘known’ stuff and ‘undiscovered/indie/underground.’ The ‘known’ stuff is taken care internally by uploads. Only for the ‘undiscovered’ stuff are the users involved as explained in some posts above. Practically speaking, there is not much need for users to upload a major label album since we already take care of this on a daily basis. Are the above legal, or ethical? Of course not. Don’t reply to give me a lecture. I know. But if the labels and their laywers can’t figure out how to stop it, then I don’t feel bad for having a job. It’s tough times. Why am I disclosing all this? Well, I have been here a while and I don’t like the attitude that the administration has aquired against the artists. They are the enemy. They are the threat. The things that are said internally about them would make you very very angry. Interns are promised getting a foot in the music industry, only to hear these people cursing and bad mouthing the whole industry all day long, to the point where you wonder what would happen if Grooveshark get’s hacked by Anonymous one day and all the emails leak on some torrent or something. And, to confirm the fears of the members of King Crimson, there is no way in hell you can get your stuff down. They are already tagged since you sent in your first complaint. The administration knows that you can’t afford to sue for infringement.
Now, clearly this is an anonymous comment, and as far as we know, it hasn’t been verified. It could be someone trolling, or looking for attention. As such, we’re not suggesting that it does necessarily represent the way that Grooveshark operates. But if — if! — it does, then the company has some serious questions to answer, and we’ll be very interested indeed to see how they do so.
Most damagingly, there’s an implicit accusation that Grooveshark themselves are uploading material they don’t have licenses to, and doing so because “the labels and their lawyers can’t figure out how to stop it.” This is a serious accusation indeed, and if there’s any truth in the claim, the implications for Grooveshark would be truly disappointing.
Running rough-shod over musicians’ rights in the name of profit is something that record companies have been doing for years, and part of the justification of the whole liberation of music from such companies’ grasp is that it ultimately gives artists more avenues for the distribution of their music. If all it means is that they’re going to get screwed over by a whole new bunch of besuited profiteers… well, that’s awfully depressing, isn’t it? We’ll follow how this plays out with great interest.