Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Plan to Save French Pop Music

For readers who do not know me personally, I should probably open this post by explaining my status as an unabashed Francophile, of the kind that has been out of fashion since perhaps 1959. I feel genuinely patriotic emotions when I hear "La Marseillaise" or see the French tri-color. I never get lost in the city of Paris, even though I get lost on the streets of Irvine all the time. And at the height of my enthusiasm for the punk rock movement as a teenager, I was also a member of a French folk singing ensemble.

I love France.

I do not, however, love French pop music.

I've chosen the clip above from the pop star Zazie to demonstrate why I associate words like "tuneless" and "maudlin" and "the opposite of funky" with the popular music of my beloved imaginary homeland.

But now there is a plan to save French pop music. And it involves Google.

AP has announced the "Tax Google to Fund the Arts" plan that has been submitted in an official report commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, and Reuters reports that this "Google tax" would pay for creative work. The basic idea is that revenue supposedly lost to illegal downloading can be supplied to artists through subsidies from the state for legal purchase programs.

As those who have already commented upon the plan indicate, however, it doesn't address the basic failures of the recording industry to find a profitable business model that is sustainable or the fact that the recording industry would rather coerce fans than find other revenue streams. After all, we are not talking about just subsidizing high art like opera or symphonic music that represents shared culture and its aspirations to excellence, we are talking about Zazie and her ilk.

This is a terrible idea.

1) It uses a strategy that should be familiar to those in America who followed the passage of "Masha's law" through Congress, a piece of legislation that wanted to make the financial penalty for downloading child pornography the same as illegally downloading a song. In the Virtualpolitik book, I go through the addled logic of legislators in great detail and how one kind of serious criminality became associated with a common behavior and how the victimization of the young became equated with the supposed victimization by the young of the record companies. However you feel about file-sharing, mixing legislation about it with anything else is a mistake.

2) It actually weakens the message of France's prominent Google critics, who have expressed concern about the privatizing of public culture and the potential derailing of the country's massive book digitization initiatives. I've grown to greatly respect Jean-Noël Jeanneney and the issues that he raises about the Googlization of culture and have profited from our many exchanges. (See here, here, and here.) The intellectual debate in France about Google receives a lot more media attention than it does here in the United States, and if this becomes a story about pop music not proprietary software, an important part of the public discussion about digital culture gets quashed. On our side it will just become a "Why Do the French Hate Us and Our Technology Companies" story, and the issues about the corporate monopoly and the privacy policies of the Mountain View, California company can just continue to be ignored.

(For those who read French, I've reposted the relevant part of the text about Google from "Annexe XI" on page forty-eight of the report at the very bottom of this entry.)

3) It just confirms what I've discovered from my interactions with the French Ministry of Culture. I well remember the frustrating conversation that I had with their deputy minister in charge of the digital patrimony in which he refused to recognize the possibility that remix culture is an essential part of culture itself. He also said that protecting copyright holders was more important than vernacular creativity. He even said that he wasn't concerned about making digital materials created by the government on public websites easier to be reused, repurposed, and commented upon by the public.

The AP story explains the current situation in France as one hostile to online free culture practices.

Sarkozy's government is making efforts to regulate the Web and protect intellectual property in the Internet age. Lawmakers here recently passed legislation that would cut off people caught illegally downloading movies and music from the Internet, and authorities are debating how to best respond to Google Book's request to digitize French libraries' collections.

Some might be tempted to chalk up the current mood in France to the fact that the French head of state is actually married to singer Carla Bruni, but I would say that there is a longer history of French legalism that may be at work.

I actually read the report and the letter of thanks from Frédéric Mitterrand that acknowledged receiving the document: "création et internet." The word "droit" or "droits," which means "right" or "rights" in French, appears 184 times in the report. For a culture in which the revolutionary "rights of man" often appears on tablets like the Ten Commandments, this emphasis on rights, combined with the remains of Roman legal culture and its emphasis on natural law, plays out very differently from our own English common law understanding of rights discourses. When we talk about rights, we talk about them in relationship to the individual, while the French understanding of rights is often grounded in collective experience, the general will, and the public good.

Yet nowhere in this document is the creative commons argument seriously addressed, although there is one CC advisor listed among the record company and publishing industry representatives in the appendices.

It is also interesting to see how the United States is held up as a model for profit extraction that the French should emulate and how companies like Netflix and Hulu earn praise.


The Google Critique on Page 54, which accuses the company of discrimination and violation of transparency laws.

De nombreux éditeurs de services culturels et de presse en ligne font part de leurs craintes relatives à la diminution de la valeur des espaces publicitaires vendus sur leurs sites. La baisse de leurs recettes publicitaires pourrait à terme menacer la viabilité économique de leur activité et entraîner la disparition des éditeurs dont les contenus, notamment culturels, sont les plus coûteux à réaliser ou à acquérir. Le financement de la création pourrait donc être significativement affecté par l’assèchement des revenus publicitaires.

Les éditeurs concernés considèrent que la moindre valeur des espaces proposés aux annonceurs s'expliquerait, au moins en partie, par la position dominante acquise par la société Google sur le marché de la publicité en ligne et surtout par certaines pratiques de cette société. Ces considérations renvoient aux interrogations fréquentes sur l’évolution du partage de la valeur sur le marché numérique des biens et services culturels. Sur ce marché, les difficultés à dégager des revenus publicitaires conséquents se doublent d’un déséquilibre préoccupant du partage de la valeur entre créateurs de contenus culturels, éditeurs de services culturels développés autour de ces contenus et hébergeurs en ligne qui, tels Google, occupent une position telle sur le marché qu’ils captent l’essentiel des revenus publicitaires issus de la monétisation des contenus culturels.

Il n'est pas exclu que certaines pratiques de Google puissent être qualifiées d'abus de position dominante. Ses parts de marché sont importantes. Les barrières à l'entrée pour de nouveaux concurrents sont significatives. Certains comportements en cause ressemblent à des précédents classiquement sanctionnés par les autorités de la concurrence, notamment les infractions suivantes : pratiques discriminatoires mises en oeuvre par une société en position dominante, vente liée, conditions de vente non transparentes pratiquées par une entreprise en position dominante, abus d'exploitation.

Il ne faut pas en déduire qu'une action contentieuse à l'encontre de Google serait légitime ou aurait des chances de prospérer. Les faits restent à confirmer et pourraient d’ailleurs s'expliquer autrement que par une violation du droit de la concurrence. Enfin, à supposer que le comportement de Google soit bien à l'origine des difficultés rencontrées par les éditeurs de services en ligne, cette société pourrait évidemment disposer de moyens de défense crédibles. Parmi ceux-ci, Google pourrait faire valoir que les autorités américaines et communautaires ont récemment analysé les marchés en cause à l'occasion de son acquisition de la société DoubleClick en 2007. Or les autorités n'ont pas identifié de problèmes de fonctionnement sur ces marchés. Google pourrait aussi faire valoir que son modèle économique est à l'origine de progrès considérables dans la qualité de la recherche sur internet et profite aux éditeurs, qui voient ainsi le nombre de leurs visiteurs augmenter.

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Blogger Jardinero1 said...

I think your point number two pretty well sums it up. This has the appearance of a clever foil to distract criticism of Google in France.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous philosoraptor said...

I know that this isn't your MAIN point, but if you're looking for helpful sites recommending good-to-decent French pop music, then you might look at and at

(I regularly visit both sites, but have no other connection to them.)

And Zazie's lyrics usually feature very clever wordplay, so at least there's that!

1:04 PM  

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