Some of the bigest stars in the music industry are in the midst of a furious disagreement over how people who download illegally will be dealt with.
Music stars get vocal over downloading
Now this is something we would pay to see - or, perhaps more accurately, download. Ladies and gentlemen, this heavyweight bout of innumerable rounds features, in the blue corner, Elton "Rocket Man" John, the new poster boy for proposed legislation to crack down on music file sharers by cutting off their internet connections. And in the red corner, Tom "Sex Bomb" Jones, supporter of the Featured Artists Coalition, who retorted this week by saying that making threats against individual fans was not the way to make them stop sharing copyrighted music. It will be, you sense, a fight to the death.
Joking aside, some of the biggest stars in the music industry are in the midst of a furious disagreement over how people who download music from unlicensed sites will be dealt with in the future. Of course, this isn't exactly unprecedented. Eight years ago, Metallica were launching legal action to get file-sharing networks such as Napster shut down while the Smashing Pumpkins openly encouraged the practice. This summer, the owners of Pirate Bay in Sweden were sentenced to a year in prison - which led to Paul McCartney saying: "If you get on a bus, you've got to pay. And I think it's fair. You should pay for your ticket."
What's different this time? Largely, the fact that it's so entertaining. Lily Allen has also waded into the debate on the same side as Elton John, and her blog on the issue, It's Not Alright, makes for fascinating reading - not least because she has at least been open-minded enough to allow Featured Artists Coalition members their say, too. She did, though, also say that it was fine for Radiohead - surely the nicest band in rock - and Pink Floyd to come down on the side of file-sharing because they "do sell-out arena tours and have the biggest Ferrari collections in the world".
Her open letter - where she discusses the damaging effect that illegal file sharing has on music, and especially emerging artists - has been supported by the likes of Muse, Keane, Gary Barlow and James Blunt. Meanwhile, FAC, which counts everyone from Robbie Williams to the recent Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle as supporters, doesn't condone illicit file sharing, but doesn't believe the threat of removing people's internet connections is the way to encourage downloaders not to do it.
So why is all this happening now? Because the UK Business Secretary Lord Mandelson has set a deadline of next week for comments on the British government's proposals. And they are a big deal for the world: traditionally, record companies went after the owners of sites that facilitated illegal downloads - which had the slightly ironic side product of giving the sites the oxygen of publicity and millions more users overnight. But hunting down the person doing the downloading at home is something new - and has even had FAC citing possible invasions of privacy.
Amusing and complex as all this is - and a Take That-themed face-off between Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams would be as entertaining as an Elton John-Tom Jones bout - it can actually be boiled down to one crucial disagreement. FAC says new bands make their name on the internet by giving away their music for free to start with, in the hope that it will mean enough people go to their gigs or buy their future records. Meanwhile, Elton John argued yesterday - in words that echoed Allen's - that new artists won't even exist if they have to embark on a career in the knowledge that their music has no monetary value.
What's ironic, of course, is how Allen shot to fame: on the back of millions of people listening to her demos, for free, online. She does at least recognise this, but a look at the comments on her blog is revealing. Nearly every music fan on the street reminds her that perhaps they would buy more music from legal downloading sites if it wasn't so expensive - and many more suggest that the artists who complain about such matters are multimillionaires who are simply interested in protecting their future profits.
It's not quite as straightforward as that - and as FAC says, there has to be a way for artists to be paid for the creative work they do. New music shouldn't be free. But as Radiohead proved with their In Rainbows album, you can make money by asking your fans to pay what they consider a fair price for it. In the end, it's simple enough: record labels and artists will have to work harder to entertain, in the hope that music fans will then recognise that hard work by paying for it. In the meantime, though, the bumpy ride continues.