Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Music, Books and Law

It is remarkable, sometime, to watch a person, a group, or even an industry talking about a situation - and discovering that they simply don't seem to understand what is going on. If you don't understand the situation then its not very likely that you will be able to discover, never mind implement, a solution. Sounds familiar..?

This statement of the bleeding obvious was brought to my mind when listening to "The Bottom Line" on Radio 4 on which the subject of book sales was discussed. There was a publisher, a literary agent and an electronic book retailer. I was amazed to hear them talking about the problem of the electronic medium, of 'illegal' file sharing and of DRM (digital rights management - a way of blocking access to a file to only the 'owner'). As I grow older, I do find myself shouting at the radio sometimes (I say radio, but the only times I listen to synchronous broadcast non-digital output - what my wife refers to as 'proper radio' - is in the car) and on this occasion I found myself asking the participants if they had never bought any music. All of these issues have been faced by the music industry. They have tried DRM and all it did was to annoy the largest section of the music-buying market who were paying for the output. Music buyers wanted to do things differently and, no matter that the industry wanted to stop them, change is what they got. I always thought that DRM was stupid. If I bought a CD I could listen to it and then lend it to a friend. If I borrowed a CD I liked I usually then bought a copy. If someone sends me a music file (I was going to write MP3 there - how very quaint) I will listen to it and may well keep it - I will, however, find other music by the artist and am likely to buy that. Surely this is a good thing. By blocking my ability to share the music I had bought, the industry was stopping that preview facility - and annoying me, the customer, at the same time.

I couldn't believe that the panel were looking at the direction of their industry and, essentially, asking how to either disrupt that change, how to stop it, or, if change really was inevitable, how to preserve their profit margins. They were in favour of the old Net Price Agreement - an arrangement that kept book prices high to, as they assured us, 'preserve the independent book shop'. How kind of them. They weren't keeping prices high to create profit - oh no...

I appreciate that the new music industry - and ebooks for 20p - make it more difficult for the writer to make a living. As the father of a musician, I really do. The new industry, however, is likely to me made up of more people making less. There will be fewer millionaires but more writers on £30k. Is that a bad thing? If I were a writer on £150k I suspect I would thinks so. If I were a struggling musician scraping a living on £12k I suspect I might like it. As a consumer I rather like the new shape of the industry and my ability to find and try new and cheap music.

All of this sounds very like the legal industry at the moment. Change is horrible - I don't work with anyone who really enjoys change. It is, however, either necessary or simply the state of the world. We are in a period of change. I think every person working in any capacity in a legal enterprise should have this as part of the morning song.

I look at the Criminal Bar at the moment and find myself very concerned for its future and for the future of criminal justice. There is a real danger of returning to the days of more justice for the rich than for the poor (assuming that we ever left those days). The organisations representing the Criminal Bar seemed to have had a strategy to address the changes of 'ignore it and it will go away', swiftly replaced by 'someone else will do something' and 'everyone will notice that we are wonderful'. In the last year, the various bodies seem to have suddenly taken things more serious - almost as if they are saying 'You people were serious about all of this? Really?', before beginning a media campaign which, sadly, still seems to portray the average working barrister as a remote and aloof legal academic who is convinced that the general public is too stupid to understand what they really do, but who the public should simply trust. How's that working out for you so far?

I am not a barrister - and I have worked (and still do) with some very difficult barrister clients. Most, however, are well meaning. Most have worked hard to gain a return that is good, or are working very hard to do so. Most firmly believe in the judicial system and in fairness. Most, sadly, have no interest in the operation of the industry in which they work. I say sadly because this will not be acceptable in the new legal industry. Barristers will not be able to work in glorious isolation from their solicitors and clients. They will have to be open and honest about what they do, how long it takes and what their return is from that work. They will have to - big breath - engage with clients and the general public.

Like booksellers and the music industry before them, shouting about the change and trying to protect an older position is not the answer. The public - the customers - want something different. They want to be able to download music and share it with friends. They like the idea of buying an ebook for £3. They want to be told what a legal case is going to cost and to be part of the management of that case. They want to have some choices and to be presented with value for money. Change is inevitable - evolve or die.

I continue to believe that the bar is in a potentially better position than solicitors. They have a naturally lower cost base and have no particular love for the hourly rate. As self employed people they have a work ethic that is strong (and I know that most partners are self employed - but that is a tax mechanism rather than a statement of being). They have nothing like the performance requirements of solicitors - they are able to more easily evolve their practice.

And finally... It's not just criminal law. Family law is under tremendous stress and others will follow. The issues facing the industry face every part of it. Look to the changes in the industry and change with them. Those that will evolve may well thrive.


  1. "There will be fewer millionaires but more writers on £30k. Is that a bad thing?"

    The annual median income for professional authors from writing in the UK age group 25-34 is £5,000.

  2. Absolutely - a totally unsustainable amount of money. My point is that if fewer authors on £1m+ might mean that there are a (few) more on £30k?