Respect Yourself: Interview with the Web Sheriff

April 25, 2011

Duncan Cooper spends a lot of time on the internet. Every other Monday, he pays tribute to the hours spent with original video and audio (or in this case an interview). This week he celebrates the Web Sheriff, a company dedicated to "protecting your rights on the internet."

This is a pretty long interview but Britain's Web Sheriff is a pretty weird thing: an artist-hired, sometimes clandestine but always incredibly personable copyright enforcement agency that continues to leave a very real mark on art on the internet, probably differently than forces before them (see above video). The dumbest way of looking at the world is like it’s not changing, and the practices of the Web Sheriff reflect a smart way of dealing with that: in the words of John Giacobbi, the company’s founder, they engage illegal-file-uploading music fans directly “to turn the perceived negative of anti-piracy to the positive function of viral marketing.” Leveraging essentially well-intentioned criminals for unpaid advertising is creative and maybe scary, but definitely something that I find, as someone who downloads a ton of stuff, worth thinking about.

How did you get started in the music business? Essentially my whole family has been involved in music. I kind of grew up with it. My late stepfather who was American used to manage Leonard Cohen and Phil Spector. He managed them both for over 20 years until the day he died. He briefly managed James Brown a couple times, but James Brown was a particularly difficult artist to manage so that didn’t last very long. He actually started out in the early days as a pioneer of music management and music law, going back to the ‘50s. As is often the case in America, the distinction between attorney and manager is a blurred one.

What would be the simplest explanation for what you do? Essentially what we do is about piracy, but that’s really quite a small part of it these days. What we do is help artists to reshape their internet presence and make it better, not just for them, but more importantly for the fans. Effectively getting rid of the mishmash and replacing it with something that is better that people can find and share and enjoy, etc.

When an artist’s management contacts you, are there different levels of involvement? It can be release-specific, like when a new album is coming out and it has leaked already, as they all do, or it could be an album project with Adele or someone like that. Sometimes it’s more wide-reaching and global, like with Bryan Adams or Bob Dylan. Other times it’s very specific, like someone’s got my .net domain name and can you get it back? Or some creep has set up a Twitter account in my name, can you get it back?

For example, I read about how you collected all these Bryan Adams bootlegs and consolidated them on his YouTube channel. YouTube is a good kind of microcosm of the internet. Bryan Adams YouTube presence, originally, was that he didn’t have one. He had a few token videos on Universal’s general channel, but he wanted something better for the fans, so we set up a new channel for him and we set about creating. We’ve got a couple guys on the team here who have done proper film production university courses and are very good editors, so we got to putting together special edits for the channel. The problem with diehard fans and videos is they’ve seen them tons of times before, so we made something new for the fans to see, editing in different concerts or outtakes or a studio version of the song with a concert version of the song, like a video mashup. We took the videos off of Universal’s channel—well, we left one or two up there as a kind of notional gesture for them—because we didn’t want to dilute what Bryan was doing and their channel had no relevance to Bryan at all. Unfortunately we also had to start taking down literally tens of thousands of fan-generated videos, some of which had been there for years. But the difference between us and other people who are in anti-piracy is not only did we contact every single YouTuber directly—thousands of people—and we got permission from Bryan to post on his forum. We said, "Listen guys, we’re really sorry if you’ve had a video taken down, but this is why: Bryan’s got a brand new channel, so please be patient because in a few weeks time it will be the best Bryan video channel on the internet. Thanks for your loyalty and thanks for hanging in there." Fast forwarding to the present day, he’s now up at 170 million video views on his channel. The important thing is that the artist is happy and the fan base is happy. Instead of a vicious cycle you have a virtuous cycle that the fans are happy with. All the fans are there posting messages to Bryan directly, and it links on to his official site and it links on to the digital store we set up for his new album. It becomes a cohesive, coordinated online community, which is better than what went before. We’re not there to give people a hard time or to ruin their fun. Far from it. We’re just there to reshape things.

On the technical side of things, how do you actually monitor the web? Obviously we have our own proprietary software and web crawlers that crawl the web and bring back results, and there’s a fair amount of automated notification, but there’s also a significant portion of human auditing of the information that comes through. We have a team of people that effectively sit there night and day making value judgments. At the end of the day it’s very important, not just to us but also to artists, to treat a fan blog very differently than you treat a Russian pirate site or a commercial bootlegger. If it’s a fan we’ll make contact with them very different than the type of contact we’ve made with the Russians.

Is politeness a fair word to describe how you engage people posting songs? At the end of the day fans are just being fans, they’re just doing what fans do. There’s no reason for us to go around hitting them with a big stick like the RIAA or the MPAA. That’s a pointless and counterproductive exercise. The approach we generally take is getting to their better nature and rationalizing with them, or explaining at least rather than tying them off. It’s basic human common courtesy. Fans are important, fans are vital to any artist, and the last thing you want to do is piss them off.

Does that ever fail? It fails when we have clients who disregard our advice and take a harder line, but I’m very glad to say that’s very infrequently been the case. Any time we’re working on a new release we say to the label or the management, please give us two tracks. We then let the fans share those, not just before the release but before the leak. When you get a blogger posting a new album, we can always kill the source file anyway, because we have the ability to go into most of the cyber lockers and just do it ourselves without notifying them. Nevertheless, we show them the respect of going onto the blog, and unlike the RIAA who say, “Take it down or we’ll sue your ass,” we basically say, "Listen, we know you’re a big fan, and you should know not to post this before release, but if you’ll take it down here’s two tracks you can share. Please share them with all your friends, and by the way, here’s the Facebook page and here’s the YouTube page," or whatever the online promotion might be for that album. It not only shows respects for fans and bloggers, but it also incorporates them into the pre-release promotion for that project. You are helping to contain piracy and lost sales, but at the same time you’re promoting sales and promoting the album. Most fans are happy to go along with that.

So you can just go into the back-end of a site and take files down that violate copyright? I’m not at liberty to name, but with a lot of the big cyber lockers we have the ability through contracts to go in. We have login details and we just go in and take down the files. In a leak scenario that’s critical, because if you’re sending a DMCA notice to a site admin at two o’clock in the morning on Saturday, which is when most of them leak, you have to wait until Monday or Tuesday morning for them to take it down. But if we go in and take it down within minutes or hours it makes a fundamental difference. So we have that with certain sites, and we have that with certain torrent sites as well.

What would a legal music utopia look like? I think what will happen eventually is all media and entertainment will be free at source. Music, movies, whatever. But it will be ultimately linked into everyone's phone bill. They probably won’t call them cell phones anymore, it will be some kind of personal communication unit, and everyone will have some kind of version of an iPad or something and at the end of the month you’ll get your bill. This month you downloaded 15 albums and that will be 6 bucks, and you watched five movies and that will be 8 bucks. In the long term that makes a huge amount of sense, and hopefully what will happen is all the internet service providers and telecoms like AT&T and British Telecom will either replace or do alliances with ASCAP and Harry Fox, and they’ll all become collection agencies effectively. It’s not going to happen overnight, but that’s where it will end up. It makes a lot of sense and it would avoid this whole cat and mouse game online. At the end of the day you’ve got to pay for what you consume, the same way you pay when you go into a restaurant and have a bill. It’s a fair way of doing it. In the meantime you’ve got all these subscription services, and some of them may take hold in the long term, but from the industry perspective, a lot of these things like Spotify have financial returns that—forget the record labels but for the artists—are pitiful. I don’t know how sustainable those are long term. The key thing is making legal music available to fans at a price that puts convenience before cost.

Do you think the popular favor of average listeners is moving toward or away from piracy? Now there are a lot more ways of legitimately accessing music online. In the early days there were hardly any. If a fan can’t find it legally online, he or she is going to say, “Screw it, I’m going to get it somewhere else,” and get a pirate copy. That’s understandable. There was a demand there and the music industry wasn’t servicing it. It’s not the fault of the fans, it’s the fault of the record industry. Piracy is still here and an important factor, but it is being diluted. It’s much easier to access legal music these days, which is lessening the excuses morally to be pirating. On Prodigy’s last album we ended up getting involved in an 18-page dialogue with their fan base. We didn’t wait until the album leaked, we were more proactive then that. With their manager’s permission we posted on the main unofficial forum and posted, as Web Sheriff, "Listen guys, as you know the new album is coming out very soon and it’s bound to leak any day now, but when it does, on behalf of the band, please keep it on the down-low. Don’t post it on forums and all that kind of stuff. If you really have to share it, which the band would rather you didn’t, at least do it in the privacy of your own home and keep it off the radar." At the beginning we had a few people saying, “Who the fuck are these guys?” But it ended up being a kind of friendly banter. When the album did leak, we had tons of guys from the forum emailing us links and tip-offs. One of the guys who was initially one of the most skeptical came around and ended up being so helpful that when the band were in his country, we arranged for him and his girlfriend to go backstage. It’s giving something back, it’s trying to work with the fans as opposed to against them.

You approach music fans on such a personal level, but the image of a “web sheriff,” of a self-appointed internet police force, seems increasingly not what you’re about. What do you think about that? Funnily enough, separate to Web Sheriff, I post as my alter ego which is called the Web Citizen. On forums or wherever, when I’m posting personal stuff as opposed to corporate, I tend to do it as Web Citizen. But you raise a very valid point. The image that springs to mind is some kind of cyber-pig, whereas we do a lot more than that, and we’re a lot more proud of the positive stuff we do. I should genuinely think about that, it might be interesting to come up with something slightly less threatening. Because at the end of the day what we do is turn the perceived negative of anti-piracy to the positive function of viral marketing.

From The Collection:

Respect Yourself
Respect Yourself: Interview with the Web Sheriff