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Billy Bragg: "We Need Artists To Organize"

The veteran agit-rocker talks about artists' rights, "Body of War" and what the future holds for music and money.

March 28, 2008 12:43 PM ET

How did you get hooked up with Body of War?
I've done some shows in Australia with Tom, and I should imagine that it was that way around when they found out I was coming, I'm sure he may have well have said to the organizers "You should speak to Billy," because he had been on [tour] and heard me singing anti-war songs that have come off the new album, so I think that's probably how it came about.

Do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to accomplish?
Yeah, I think so, because what we're setting out to accomplish is to give a voice to those veterans who have actually been to the war and have come back. It's all very well for us debating in home. The only way we're really going to find out what it's like and what it means and how it affects people is if we listen to what soldiers have got to say. Most of them will tell you that it's a totally dehumanizing experience, and I think anything that you can do to help get that voice out is worth doing.

Did you get to speak much with the film's subject, Tomas Young?
I did, and he's a truly remarkable young man, and very brave for saying the things he's saying. Somehow it's thought that what these soldiers are saying is unpatriotic, but I'm afraid it's reality. Patriotism is a construct, and "My country right or wrong" is not a rational position. You have to respect, and I do respect, the people who go and do a difficult job like that, and so you have to hear what they have to say.

Do you feel we're in the middle of a protest song renaissance? Or did it never go away for you?
It never went away for me, I think. People are very fond of comparing the political songwriting that sprung from the Vietnam War to the political songwriting that has sprung from the Iraq War, and tell you that people don't care anymore about these issues, because there isn't a huge body of anti-war protest songs and they're not there in the way that those songs were back in '68. Well, there's a simple answer to that: Bring back conscription, and trust me, young people will start writing anti-war songs. That's the real big difference between Vietnam and now. It was conscription that drove the anti-war movement, not rock bands. Rock bands just reflected the way that people were feeling.

Bands who would not normally be considered political are writing anti-war songs. Do you think that young people feel an obligation to speak out, or are they just writing what they feel?
Whatever we're doing in the creative sphere, we all of us live in the shadow of 9/11, and we can't ignore that. And there have been some incredible artistic responses to it. In my field, I think that Springsteen's album The Rising was an incredibly articulate response to the events of Sepember 11. And I think that's why bands that happen to write about it. It's like desert sand, it gets into everything. And unfortunately, 9/11 does that.

What's the buzz in the UK about the American election?
I think there is a lot of excitement, because what we want from an American election is participation. We find it very hard to take lectures from you guys about democracy when only 40 percent of Americans vote in elections. An American election where more than 50 percent of the people vote, maybe 60 percent, possibly even 70 percent of the people vote, will be something that we would feel very pleased about, because the last two elections haven't really resolved the issue about what is America going to be like in the 21st century. I think that in the potential three candidates, there could well be a possibility of articulating a fresh idea about what America is, and that's why I think Obama is the most tantalizing. Not because he's a black man, but because he represents a new generation. He represents someone outside of the muddy politics of the 20th century. I think you need is that generational change now that we have with Blair, and Obama represents that.

You wrote an op-ed in the New York Times over the weekend that discussed your quest to get social networking sites like MySpace and the recently sold BeBo to pay artists royalty fees. One thing I did want to ask you: Do you think we're too far down the rabbit hole on free music? Are people too used to getting it for nothing?
No, I don't think that at all. Approach it from the other way, from the position of an artist. How does an artist get some sort of reward for their contribution to a business like Bebo? Now, we can charge the users at that end, or we can talk to the businessmen. How do we get recompense from radio stations? We don't charge the listeners. We charge the business. So I think before we start beating up on our audiences, which is never a good idea in my experience, we really should be looking at where the money is and where the money is going. And that's why the experience with Michael Birch gave me cause to write that article. I didn't have an account on Bebo, I didn't use Bebo. The 12 Billy Braggs on Bebo are either fans who are propagating my music or frauds who are impersonating me. The internet propagates our music in the same way that radio propagates our music, but our revenue doesn't come from the user end. It comes from the business end. I think it's more fruitful for us to look there.

So you don't endorse going after downloaders?
I've never really felt comfortable about that. It's something that I did in a different way with a reel-to-reel tape machine and the record collections of my best friends' elder sisters. That's how I got my first music. Consequently, I must have bought those albums a dozen times. Berry Gordy got his bloody money, let me tell you. But the point is, that was how I got into music. It was free, and it was there, and it was what hooked me in. If someone had knocked on the door and busted my door down and impounded my tape machine, then I would have gone off and done something else.

But there is an argument that the publicity those sites provide is an even exchange for bands.
You set up something like Bebo, where ostensibly, it's a free exchange of service. You put your stuff on there for free, they don't charge you to put it on there, and you get free publicity. And that seems like a fair exchange, you're both getting something out of it. Then all of a sudden, somebody walks away with $850 million, and you think about, you think, "Wait a minute, what happened here? Have I been exploited?" Once that's happened, I think people will give it a little bit more thought about the dynamics of this relationship and what's actually going on here.

Do you think it's an option for bands to walk away, or have those sites replaced radio as a way to get exposure?
They're a good tool. And the Internet offers a lot of potential for artists in the way that radio and other media does. There are gatekeepers. I think it's got to be a fair environment where your contribution to their business is recognized in some way, through some form of royalty, rather than just putting out the idea "It's all free, isn't it lovely, come on in," and then all of a sudden one day you hear a loud "Kaching!" Someone hits the jackpot and walks away. I think there's got to be a more equitable way of running the internet sites.

Do you think record companies are at fault?
I don't think that the record companies are in the best position to represent us. They are, in some ways, already drifting away from taking on the issues that we're really concerned about. They don't seem to be really going in and representing us at the highest level with the force that perhaps they should. We artists need to organize and have a voice, and I don't just mean people like myself. I mean all the way down to the kids who are about to post their first song on the internet today.

So what would be considered a victory for you?
We need to get people to recognize that it's content that is driving the popularity, and it's popularity that's creating business. So somehow, within that notion, we need to be able to open up revenue streams that allow young artists to make a living. Not make a million dollars, but make a living, doing what they would love to do. I mean, that's the ultimate definition of success, to be able to do what you want to do and get paid for it. It doesn't have to be millions of dollars, but to make a living doing it, and I want more people to be able to share in that success that I'm fortunate enough to do for the last 25 years. And I worry that we are, as artists, we're throwing away those rights in the naïve believe that what's being done on the internet is just a fair exchange of free services, but it's not, actually. There is monetizing going on there.

What do you make of musicians who turn to advertising to get exposure?
In the old days, we were pretty stuffy about that. But in the old days, we had lots of revenue sources. These days, where those revenues sources have dried up, you're going to have to start to accept that that's how some bands fund their albums, and I'll be sorry to see bands having to go cap in hand to Madison Avenue in order to fund records. But if that's the choice that they have to make, there's no point in me standing on the sidelines and saying "Sellout, sellout." That's unfortunately part of the new reality. People are looking for new revenue streams, and my argument with Bebo is part of that huge tectonic shift, and there are people who are out there saying "Forget it, it's over. It's all going to be free from now on." I think that we have to draw the line somewhere. But please don't think that I'm against the wave or I'm against the internet or against Web 2.0. I'm in favor of all these things. I'm just campaigning for recognition of what content providers are supplying to business.

Your thoughts about the Internet seem to line up with your thoughts on patriotism — it's not simply a black and white issue for you.
No, not at all. It's neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It has incredible potential for artists to reach their audiences, but it also has incredible potential for artists to be exploited against their will. What I want is for artists to be able to exploit their talents and their content on their terms. If not on their terms, then on equal terms with the business, and that's what we don't have yet. The old safeguards are no longer really up to speed.

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