Having expanded into the European market earlier this week, Google’s online music store Google Play has already come under fire from the UK’s record industry trade association – the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).

Developed to compete with iTunes as a digital music distribution platform, the service aims to provide a legal alternative to pirated files and torrents.

However, the BPI has accused Google of compromising artists by failing to bury links to illegal content in search engine results. The BPI believes that providing a service that supposedly benefits artists is hypocritical when they still refuse to delete these illegal links, despite pleas from the association.

The BPI’s chief executive Geoff Taylor explained to the BBC, “We don’t think it makes any sense for them to be doing something which does support artists and then, on the other hand, undermine artists by referring consumers to illegal sites.”“We don’t think it makes any sense for them to be doing something which does support artists and then, on the other hand, undermine artists by referring consumers to illegal sites.”

Google Play’s head of international licensing, Sami Valknonen, was quick to point out the service’s separation from the operations of their search engine parent company. In a rebuttal he reasoned: “The way that our search engine works is a completely separate algorithm from anything we do on Google Play.”

This recent schism is merely the latest in a long fought battle between the world-dominating search engine and the British music industry.

In July of this year, the BPI, backed by a list of iconic musicians including Robert Plant, Pete Townsend, and Elton John, went directly to Prime Minister David Cameron in a public letter attempting to force Google to more closely regulate the content of their search results.

Attempting to highlight the role the search engine plays in promoting music piracy, Taylor explained, “we’ve told Google 100,000 times that a particular site is illegal, we don’t think that site should be coming above iTunes and Spotify in the results,” said Taylor, adding that if Google “have knowledge that a site is illegal… that site should be blocked.”

However, Google denies supporting piracy and says it removes millions of links a month from its listings prompted by requests from music publishers. In response, Theo Bertram – the search engine’s Policy Manager in the UK – says:

It’s not for Google to go around the web judging what is or isn’t legal, and I don’t think people would want us to do that. When people tell us, that’s my content on that page, we remove it quickly, and we do almost two million of those every month… but what our research shows is that however much you don on filtering, on blocking, what would be much more effective is to go after the money – to remove the underpinnings, the advertising, the payment processes, from these sites.

While the open letter from the BPI and its all-star list of musos failed to gain traction, and has since fallen by the wayside, the BPI is still bitter about Google’s operations and are continuing to fight the internet giant.

One must wonder whether it is the right strategy to be attacking the search engine, rather than the actual abusers of the service. If anything, Google’s response with a legal download service is proving more productive than the BPI’s sustained attack.

A representative from Google Play defended the company’s actions, claiming “I think [the service] is something that is hopefully going to make piracy obsolete because it’s so easy to operate within the bounds of the law that there is really no need to go beyond them.”

Google’s comments highlight once more the idea that the battle over music piracy and the legitimate alternatives is as much a battle of convenience, an issue that actually may have inadvertently led to the downfall of the CD.

Namely that the record label majors that helped develop the format failed to include copy-protection measures in its inception, because the technology of the decade in which CDs were launched made it more inconvenient to copy music that it was to buy it, their lack of foresight however meant that the reverse quickly  became the case.“I think Google Play is something that is hopefully going to make piracy obsolete because it’s so easy to operate…”

Meanwhile, Google Play is the latest in a spate of IT giants getting in on the music streaming service boom, which now accounts for an estimated 1 billion dollars in revenue worldwide.

Apple have begun developing plans for its own music streaming platform, following a failed deal with music publisher Sony ATV that derailed their initial plans, their main rival Microsoft is hoping to ensnare a larger market, rolling out their ‘all-in-one’ music service Xbox Music – across computer, tablet, phone, and Xbox 360.

Internet radio forerunner Pandora, are already engrossed in a battle for the music streaming market, and have even filed a lawsuit in the United States that symbolically declares war on musicians and songwriters by suing ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) in a bid to lower the royalties it pays artists to use their music.

Meanwhile, the artists themselves are left wondering where all the money is going if it’s not reaching their pockets – particularly indie darlings Grizzly Bear, who aren’t as rich as you’d think –  but Rdio have made a bold new move, recently announcing their new ‘Artist Program’ that pays musicians and recording artists direct – not for the streaming of their music, but for how many fans they can sign up as subscribers.

Additionally, controversial music streaming service Grooveshark have also changed their model, launching a new program that allows user to create an account and like or ‘flttr’ artists with money then distributed between artists accordingly.

All against the backdrop of music pirates shifting to embrace the possibilities of new infrastructures like cloud-based media streaming, while Megaupload’s batty mogul Kim Dotcom has announced similar plans in the re-launch of his own music media empire, which along with Google Play demonstrates that the core issue over music access is one of convenience.

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine