9.22.2010

3.05.2010

Letters: "The Myth Of DIY" in Israel


Received this note via my myspace account:

Hey Chris,

I'm an Israeli musician. I had my debut album out last year, and I'm the owner of a nice recording studio in Israel. I just read your article "The Myth of DIY" and was really moved by your writing, as a musician, as a professional engineer and producer and especially as an artist (of any kind).

It's not that I haven't read 1,000 economy oriented articles before about the changing music business. It's just that in reality, I see brilliant, brilliant artists practically going to waste, mainly because they can afford two days max of renting the studio. And as an artist and a "businessman", I often find myself ripped between trying to keep my studio alive and working, and the feeling that the song I'm recording at the moment has got to have (at least!) one more day of recording, even if they can't afford it...

Anyway, just wanted to let you know... I don't know...

Very nice songs btw,
bye@!

12.28.2009

Letters: "re: Fuck Love Let's Make Dystopia"


Thanks for your article on music downloading, whatever name you give it. I agree with a lot of the points that you’ve made, and I have some ambivalence toward others. I feel as though I straddle the divide somewhat between those that you view as making righteous decisions regarding the support of artists, labels, and record stores through the purchase of music, and those who unlawfully suck up hours and hours of songs on the internet without paying for it. I am sure that I download more music than, say, most of my friends, I also buy more records than most of them. I am not suggesting that by buying a record this entitles me to three free ones, certainly it does not, but I do feel that by supporting artists, labels, and shops, I sleep a little easier at night, though this does little to assuage my thirst for more and more music. It works the other way, too. I have, countless times, downloaded something more or less indiscriminately, listened, fell in love with it, and gone on to buy the record. There is another point here, and that is the distinction between a record as a physical object and the songs contained in that record as a group of files that can’t be held in the hand. Sure I’ve got days of songs on my computer that came over the wires and only exist as MP3s, but I’m far too much of a fetishist to be satisfied with only that way of experiencing music. I love records. I love the ritual of playing them, I love the artwork, the liner notes and inserts, the singularity of that particular piece of vinyl, and for that matter CDs, though less distinctive and more dispensable, there is a house for that music to live in and I will usually come out of listening to an album with more of an impact if I have something more than track names on my iTunes to reference to the sound coming through the speakers.

This is a different argument, I guess, but it seems related. Growing up in a succession of redneck towns as I did with very little easy access to all of the fantastic music I was certain existed somewhere out there forced me to look harder, appreciate more fully, and in many cases spend more money than those fortunate enough to live down the street from a great record store. During my fledgling time on the fledgling internet, I was able to find resources on this magical music, but in those days it meant reading a lot of hyperbole and appraising thumbnails of album art before going to the one record store in town and cross-referencing titles in their phonebook-style catalogue and ordering $20 UK import Cds, sound unheard.

Much has changed since then. I am glad of having had to struggle to find those formative experiences, it seems a mixed blessing for kids who have unlimited access to anything under the sun. Listening obsessively to tapes I had squirreled away money for a week in order to buy has left a more indelible impression than finding a torrent on my computer I had forgotten was there, even if in retrospect the tape was awful.

As I type this, I’m listening to a record, a record I bought from an independent record store, but as is often the case, I bought it used, so in a sense I am supporting the retailer, but not the artist or the label.

The county library where I live is one of the best in the country and a sizable chunk of the music I own digitally came from CDs I checked out for free, on the one hand, and from a library funded through the taxes I pay, on the other.

These would serve as pretty dubious arguments on the inconsistency of persecuting those that “share files,” certainly it wouldn’t hold up in court, these are just things I think of when the arguments over piracy are de-saturated to grayscale.

This is all pretty unfocused, so thanks for your patience sifting through it. Finally, I feel like it is relevant to say that although I can’t call myself a musician, I am an artist and a writer, and one who is rarely paid for the things I make. I send books that I’ve made or pieces of writing out unsolicited and rarely hear word back. I have always paid postage and printing through the sort of numbing retail work most all of us have had to endure here and there. As an artist, I would like to be acknowledged for the things that I make, and maybe even be paid once in a while. By that same token, I want to support other artists, particularly the ones that depend on the sale of that record to keep them from having to work in a kitchen or a record store selling someone else’s music. I would rather that the musicians I like be making more music for me to hear.

But no matter how much money I spend I will never be able to find all those magical unheard albums out there, certainly I couldn’t find them all in torrents either, but I feel like certain concessions need to be made for the bottomless availability of music and a curiosity to match it.

Thanks for your time.

Letters: "A Sad Nonfiction"


Chris:

Just read the augmented reprise of your insightful "fuck love, let's make dystopia" piece, and it would be great if your perspective could be cloned 20 trillion times, melted down to ectoplasmic infiltration spores, and spread throughout the globe. As a musician who began his career in the days of no Internet and cassettes as calling card, I've lived through and participated in all of the socio-cultural phases of distribution-promotion-marketing-DIY that have brought us to the present day.

When the whole Napster thing started, I was intrigued, and I used it as a tool to seek out the out-of-print, avant "lost classics" that I'd always coveted. In those cases where I found things that were still available, and I liked them, I bought them. Admittedly, if I couldn’t find it in the “real world” I kept it, and I have a drawer full of dusty zip discs to show for this. Of course, my demographic diverges from that of the typical "freeloader" as you so aptly put it. I'm a collector and have been since I was a teenager; I want the object, the mass of a CD or vinyl, the packaging; a dinky MP3 means nothing to me, doesn't excite me, doesn't feel like I'm psychically linked to the work. I never download now (I used to seek out the strange and unavailable on blogs and got one too many viruses for my sins), I use services like Rhapsody (decidedly lacking) to check shit out. Once again, if I like it, I buy it.

One of the fundamental issues here is who "listens” and who doesn't. To me, the true listener, the person who requires music in their lives as an escape valve from tedium, as an inspirational catalyst, as a form of knowledge importation, who LOVES it, will never be a freeloader. To me, the freeloader is someone who, in the past and pre-internet, may have had some interchangeable CDs in their car and that would be it; music is a lifestyle accessory to these people, not an essential soul feeder.

In respect to my own music making, I've operated in the red as a musician and to express myself for years now. After a time of punk-rock fueled dissolution and absurd rock star pursuits, I came to the realization that if I wanted to make the kind of music I wanted to make and survive, I would have to abandon dreams of supporting myself from it. But, I could never abandon the art itself. So, for the past 20 years or so, I've had quasi-white collar day-jobs that have allowed me to make the kinds of music I’ve wanted to make without needing the money from it. I'm an artist, and why should I give up being an artist just because the chances of "making it" or living off of it are slim to none? Fuck that. So, the entire freeloading issue is a source of complicated ambivalence for me, and one which I could go even more into depth on than this forum will tolerate. I will say that occasionally I feel as if the current state-of-affairs has brainwashed me; I'm so used to paying for making and archiving my work that simple reimbursement is never a consideration. I even feel ambivalent about using the word "art," a moniker which my work certainly deserves.

I've adopted new paradigms in reaction to this, such as limited edition releases, to lessen the sting. I’m also lucky enough to have my solo work (Lid Emba) sponsored by a small, independent Atlanta label so I'm not just floating around with no anchor in the maximum meta-sea out there.

We live in an age of entitlement, maximum saturation, and laziness. In a word, decline. I produce despite all that because I have no other choice.

Thanks.

Letters: "pirating"


People want to, or at least claim they want to, pay artists for music.
People don't want to pay record execs who exploit artists for music.
Around the internets, this is the claim people continue to make.

12.20.2009

Letters: "Microchip Spirituality"

Ahhh. Thank you for that.


That was a really really terrific article, as was your original one.


I'm a teenager - apparently a member of a hopelessly self-entitled and over-privileged generation - whose sole income comes from working in an icecream shop twice a week. Beyond that I don't have any honest justification for the amount of music I download (or 'freeload', as you call it). I'm really conflicted about it - like, I know I should be a vegetarian, but meat tastes SO FUCKING GOOD. Those hundreds of dollars I've handed over to independent stores and labels and bands this year doesn't mean much after I senselessly download 30 albums in one day. I try, I do try to buy! But it's almost always out of guilt. Vinyl sounds better, but it ends up sitting on my shelf while I listen to it on my iPod.


There's very little incentive to spend money on music beyond guilt or object fetishism. Both work on me, but I think artists ought to capitalize more on the latter. Like Of Montreal's Skeletal Lamping multimedia packaging extravaganza, or the intricately illustrated spinny wheel on the cover of Menomena's Friend or Foe. Even the cheap cutout fold-up paper tent thing that came with Bromst. Or even the essays accompanying various compilations or Sufjan Stevens symphonic road tributes. Can you think of other recent examples? They're convincing enough for me, and maybe even for someone who hasn't given the issue any thought.


In regards to your hate mail - what sort of person actually takes time out of their day to email someone who disagrees with them unless it actually affected them in some way? I'd say that's a positive reaction. If it gets under their skin, your argument may eventually dissolve into their, uh, blood stream and into their.. wallets?


Anyway. Sorry if this is riddled with errors and/or long-winded, I'm a bit drunk right now (was just out Supporting Local Music! yeah!). My point is: that was great, thank you, the end.

Letters: "DIY, Piracy, and Freeloading"

Hey Chris,


I'm not sure if you remember my letter but this is the music writer who grew up from Brooklyn. I responded to your first DIY article and recently found your blog containing the follow-up on tinymixtapes. I hope this is an appropriate means of reaching you since you included it in your blog post.


What's striking is that this year live music finally surpassed recorded music in revenue for the first time in many years.


Labels, major or otherwise, will always have an edge in that they are the gatekeepers to high quality material. From concerts to vinyls and CDs their product will always trump anything that can be obtained on bittorrent. The problem, from tickets to records, as always is price control. And with a generation raised on Itunes free bittorrents are a reasonable alternative for younger listeners to quality materials. Its not the same as getting a bootleg DVD on the street. Enough people think its acceptable enough based on their own experience with music so they'll go with free.


With that mind set at the forefront, music in this country has always operated on a hyper capitalism model with virtually no oversight (LiveNation merging with Ticketmaster this year is the most dramatic example). You even say in your article that money is a means of voting to keep an artist in business. But money is also a broad arbiter. Niche performers never get enough to sustain more than a meager and temporary existence. In indie rock for example, you are expected to have a break out record that will attract a buyers coalition large enough to sustain your momentum. Wilco is a great example of this. They've culled a fanbase of jam band enthusiasts, indie rock followers, NPR devotees, folk fans, country fans, yuppies, noise/experimentation enthusiasts and many others. Had the band kept a select following with polarizing music they'd be living hand to mouth. But because they are considered indispensable to so many groups they must continue on and the money pours in.


So when we vote with money, aren't we also asking for broader appeal and, possible, a more watered down product in certain instances. Not all mind you, but sometimes the big record doesn't make it and


In other countries when the government gives out significant funds to the arts at more then the top grant-worthy levels, mid-level institutions thrive from their involvement as well. Moreover, sharing something because more palatable because, like the Smithsonian, people will have already paid for the music in tax dollars. So it won't truly be for free and that eliminates the free-rider impulse.


Outside of that ideal situation of massive funding for diverse genres what about the here and now ? While the internet provides a mechanism of piracy it also provides for a sense of intimacy. Amanda Palmer recently got her fans to pay for certain aspects of her tour through donations (lodging, food, etc.). That's incredible. They feel close to her not only because of her music but because her availability to fans and gift incentives she's provided with records. John Darnielle posts on his forums and gives out free music on occasion. Anni Rossi is giving out a free EP for people who sign up for her updates. Being accessible pays off and it doesn't require a one sided investment. They've invested more time into making me a fan and I've responded in kind. Its not voting with money if the relationship feels more reciprocal.


So in other words, killing everyone with kindness has worked and the Internet has played a role in that. Its an old system. Just as I mentioned about the 80' underground in my last letter: when you have a connection with the audience via college radio, gigs, fan clubs, and record stores you will have a customer. I'm less likely to steal from you the performer if I know you and what you've done for me. So on the upside I get the quality product you've made with your label and I've helped out a person I've felt invested in. That personal investment makes the free low quality alternative much more hollow.


That ran long I apologize. Keep up the good work.

12.18.2009

Letters: "Freeloading, DIY, etc."

Uh, forgot to thank you the first time for the article. I'm a 30-year-old dude that teaches full-time in order to support my other full-time job as a musician/label owner. Since I found a career that I love and want to do for the rest of my life, I haven't stressed about making a profit from performing or releasing music, but I do hope to come close to breaking even
someday. I'm often frustrated by music journalism, because until I read your article, I hadn't come across one piece of music "biz" writing that treated small-scale music-makers like myself with any respect.

There's a lot more I could say, but you obviously already understand. Please keep on spreading the good word - most people under 26 (or so) have no idea about the economics behind music making, and no other writers seem to care.

12.16.2009

An Addendum to "Fuck Love, Let's Make Dystopia" (Tiny Mix Tapes)



In the process of some last minute editing, I failed to make the distinction that the Corporate Patronage model I speak of towards the end of the article is seen most clearly in the licensing of music for advertising campaigns and corporate sponsorship for tours and album releases, etc. I can see how my conclusion might not add up for some readers, may even seem a bit paranoid, without the mention of licensing and sponsorship. I regret this.

As with "The Myth Of DIY," I don't expect anyone to agree with each and every facet of my argument. This piece is much longer, less focused and more fragmented than the article which spawned it. "Fuck Love..." has given me a chance to unpack many of the ideas I've wrestled with since last summer, and I thank readers for humoring me. I'm excited to receive any feedback, positive or negative and will post any received letters on this blog (chrisruen@gmail.com). Comments can also be left below. Unless I find my arguments being grossly misrepresented, I'll try staying further away from the debate this time around.

Many readers misunderstood elements of the first article, namely that I somehow hold the belief that all artists deserve to be paid for their work. Not true. Rather, I'm arguing for meritocracy. That the artists whose work is meaningful to individual consumers and fans deserve/need compensation and support for their work via some version of the commodity system. This accepted and embraced system, mixed with the democratic possibilities of the internet, looks like an attractive means to ensure that the "best" artists prosper at the hands (and wallets) of their audience while more marginal ones likely fade away. No system is perfect, I know. The commodity system simply appears preferable (and much more realistic) when weighed against the other models I mention in the piece. And it's certainly preferable to the repeated, deterministic notion that though we have no clue what the "new" model will be for free music - that "something will happen," "someone will figure it out."

Maybe. Maybe not.

Not all revolutions are ultimately beneficial. The French Revolution of 1789 began with the most idealistic, Enlightenment-inspired hopes of freedom and inalienable rights. Instead, reality served up the Reign of Terror. Subsequent instability didn't leave an opening for greater freedoms, as the revolutionaries hoped, but the rise of Emperor Napoleon a mere ten years after the Bastille was first stormed.

I don't claim a talent to predict the future better than anyone else. Still, I fear the blowback from Freeloading will render a cultural reality comparable to that of France, when a utopia felt just within reach suddenly turned into freedom's greatest nightmare.


2009: Fuck Love, Let’s Make Dystopia


Revisiting “The Myth Of DIY” and the tragic logic of Freeloading

[December 2009]

Some rules of writing needn’t be articulated due to their mind-numbing self-evidence. Here’s one: “Avoid telling the reader he/she is an ‘asshole.’” In an article published on Tiny Mix Tapes last summer, “The Myth Of DIY” (TMT Feature), I ignored the above rule. I risked alienating some, if not all, of my audience, when I said:

If you find meaning and beauty from a musician’s work and you want them to continue creating it — then you are obliged to support them. If you like the idea of record stores, the people they employ, the values and spirit they promote — then you are obliged to support them. If you’re consistently doing one without the other, then on some level you, not Metallica, are the asshole.

But if we’ve learned anything from the internet, what better than a little profane name-calling to get a point across?

I expected an ambivalent reception to the article and, if I was lucky, hate mail. My hope was not to win friends, but to get a conversation started about the real-world implications of a music culture where few people actually pay for music. I wanted readers to look past the millionaires of Metallica and think more carefully about the prospects for independent artists and labels if a critical mass makes paying for music obsolete. No music critic wanted to appear in sympathy with Metallica or major labels. No artist or record label wanted to appear in opposition to their fans. In the wake of this communication breakdown, the elemental issues of the debate were barely being discussed.

Ambivalence to my article, it turned out, was not an issue. A couple of hateful emails did find their way to my inbox, saying I was just a bitter, failed writer/musician and my arguments had zero merit. I was personally introduced to one of the more charming internet memes - “KYS” (kill yourself). A handful of message board posts popped up, calling my article the “worst file sharing article” of all time. This was the best reaction I could hope for, to at least provoke a few people. The pessimist in me believed any argument against a facet of the internet would be greeted with plugged ears, open hostility, and empty charges of being a Luddite.

But reality offered a nice surprise.

The hate mail was inconsequential in comparison to the many “Thank yous” I received from music fans and musicians alike. Even most of those who didn’t agree with my arguments seemed to reconsider the issue. A favorite email came from a teenager in Texas:

Hey! I just read your article, "The Myth of DIY" and it kind of blew my mind. I, a 17 year-old kid in the suburbs of Texas surviving on a small allowance and the occasional babysitting check, have always pirated music in the spirit of "hey, there’s no way I could afford all the music I love, so I’m sure the bands would want me to listen somehow." I also justify this by buying the occasional record and pirating the rest, but with over 8000 songs on my iPod and a vinyl collection that won’t even fill up a bookshelf, I have to realize that I could have bought more and supported more of my favorite artists, but due to the convenience and free-ness of the internet, simply didn’t.

As someone who tries to support independent businesses over the Wal-Marts and Starbucks that cost less and are easier to find, this hipster ‘share-the-music’ ideology really just comes down to being a load of hypocritical bullshit. SO, thanks for the article, it was a big wake-up call, and I’ll definitely show it to a few friends.

If I’d even gotten through to teenagers, the demographic so often cited by naysayers as a generation lost to the concept of paying for music, perhaps I was on to something. Meanwhile, some of the message boards initiated in complete disdain turned into heartening and substantial discussions of the issue in all of its confusing twists and turns, argumentative dead-ends, and simple truths. I felt optimistic and emboldened, but also more aware of the internet’s dark side.

I became involved in a discussion-turned-argument with a few writers (one, in particular) on the private Tiny Mix Tapes message board. Unfortunately, the exchange turned nasty toward its conclusion and I was reminded of the internet’s ultimate danger. Divorced from face-to-face communication, it’s easy to only see others as representations of ideas you already view as good or bad and become divorced from common humanity, new experience, and responsibility for your words and actions. If global politics were exclusively conducted by message board, we’d have nuked ourselves out of existence long ago.

Online, the illusion is real and reality is replicant. If gone unchecked, a small, incestuous minority can convince themselves of just about anything. In all of the reading, writing, and arguing I engaged in on the subject since “The Myth Of DIY” came out, I’ve been shocked by the incoherent, backward arguments of The Pirate Bay and its ilk. And even as TPB now fades into the background, I fear the warped and childish ideals it has propagated over the years have laid the foundation for a new reality, one that empowers the corporate interests it supposedly despises and leaves us all worse off.

----
----

- Sharing, Piracy and Freeloading

Are we talking about “sharing?” Is it “piracy?” I find these terms of debate lacking.

Since kindergarten, we’ve been urged to share, to not be greedy. Neighbors share garden shears, investors share risk, and friends share music. The best way people can share music is probably by listening to it together (in physical presence). But friends have also traded physical vinyl back and forth. Analog tapes gave birth to the mix tape, bootlegs, and the now infamous “Home Taping Is Killing Music: And It’s Illegal” campaign. Then CD-Rs and CD burners came into play. All of these early examples are somewhat inconvenient, cost money, cost time, and involve hand-to-hand sharing. They also necessitate someone actually purchasing the album and making copies for a handful of friends.

When I used Audiogalaxy way back when, I didn’t say, “Hey, I sure feel like sharing some music today,” before I logged on. In most cases, I read about an album, saw a video, heard a song in a cafe or on the radio, then consciously downloaded that artist’s work for free when I was home because I could — not because of some contrived “deep human need to share” as TPB or Lawrence Lessig may cite. In many cases, I’m quite sure I would have purchased the artist’s work if I didn’t have the option to steal it for free.

So while computer networks are functionally means of sharing and copying information, when we enter a torrent search for Ducktails (the artist, not the show), we’re not doing either one of those things in cultural reality. We’re ostensibly accessing an online store where the complete history of recorded music is offered for free. Most of the time, the content is not being offered with permission from the artist or producer. It is effectivelystealing. Cory Doctorow or the EFF can hide behind technicalities and inconsistencies of copyright law (of which there are many) and claim that universal guilt somehow translates to universal innocence and a justified free-for-all, but that does not excuse ignoring basic responsibility for one’s actions. If people want to steal, that’s their choice. At least own up to what’s really going on. The term “file sharing” further muddies an already murky debate.

On similar grounds, I reject the term piracy, used as a substitute for “copyright infringement” or “unlicensed copying.” Piracy traditionally involves reaping some form of monetary profit, which I know most downloaders have no interest in. Also, it lends an unearned, romantic quality to the very unsexy practice of uploading and downloading bits of digital information. Here I do give TPB credit for appropriating the initially derisive term and making it their own. For a bunch of scraggly anarchists, they were remarkably media savvy.

I propose a new terminology with the hope of zeroing-in on this complex issue: Freeloading. The Freeloader uploads and downloads unlicensed content as if it is free. Most Freeloaders have mixed feelings about their actions and are unsure whether they’re ultimately ethical, helpful to musicians, or harmful to the record industry. But they engage in the practice because, after all, it’s free, and it feels like a victimless crime. But other Freeloaders, like TPB, believe in Freeloading as an ideal, that it will set culture free, purify music, and strike against the evil capitalists. Then there are the apologists for Freeloading, like Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow, and Chris Anderson. While they are careful not to endorse the act of Freeloading outright, they proclaim that technology’s wisdom is self-evident and almost always above question.

I’m partial to the definition:

Free∙load∙er
noun
A person who takes advantage of others’ generosity without giving anything in return.

----
----

- Reverse Arguments

No one was arguing in 1998 that Freeloading would make a better world. No one was bemoaning the grand injustice that one had to pay for recorded music. Many record prices were too high, sure, but consumers asked for lower prices, not the obliteration of pricing. Some labels may have taken advantage of artists, but the hope was for better terms on record label contracts, not the obliteration of record labels.

A stroke of technological convergence allowed for Freeloading. While eBooks and tablets are just beginning to be tinkered with for the purposes of digital Books, Newspapers, and Magazines, MP3s found their happy home in the iPod much earlier. The year everything changed was 2001, when Napster shut down and the iPod was first released. It was also the start of the record industry’s steady collapse.

Digital technology set the ideal conditions for widespread Freeloading, and thanks to the Napster v. Metallica debate, the action even felt democratic. Freeloading rapidly spread among young, internet-savvy consumers. People loved the thrill and excitement of being able to find anything they were looking for, for free. It was too good to be true. What wasn’t to like?

We had been told everyday of our lives by advertisers and marketers that we could have anything we wanted, that our infinite human desires could be satisfied. But Freeloading took that insatiable demand for More and made it amplified and limitless. This felt pure, revolutionary, and real.

But artists and producers began to take notice. Some began to fight against the practice. Now, rather than simply “doing it,” any exuberant Freeloader had to come up with a counter-argument. No one wants to see themselves as destroying music or hurting artists. No one likes to admit to stealing.

But rather than seriously and honestly try to evaluate the original practice of taking artists’ works without their permission and its likely effects, their argument started with the assumption that Freeloading had to be okay. It had to be a good thing, only because they wanted to believe it so badly and had likely grown addicted to the practice. Since then, Freeloaders have worked backwards, searching anywhere possible for splinters of justification. That’s what we continue to see today.

* * *

Freeloading says that music is free because it “feels” free, because it can be had for free. No regard is given for the elemental fact that if permission is not granted by the producer or artist, if they’re explicitly offering the product and asking you to pay for it, then one is both taking and stealing. The argument that because music can be had for free, so it isfree, is the justification of the schoolyard bully, the plundering Empire, and, yes, the pirate.

Freeloaders say no expressed idea or recording has an intrinsic value. It’s like water, everywhere and naturally occurring. Music is everyone’s, so we’re justified in taking it. No artists’ labor has an intrinsic “monetary” value, and we all need to just get over the dirty concept.

If one is to maintain that music has no inherent value, though, they must also accept that nothing else has an inherent value. And they’re right. No one’s labor or work has a predetermined, objective value aside from the value others ascribe to it via the system of consumer markets. But within our system, a consumer’s willingness to pay for an item determines its value. By maintaining that all music is free, the Freeloader guarantees all music being comparatively worthless. To them, a beer or a pack of cigarettes apparently contains more value than any work of art. In the process, Philip Morris and Anheuser-Busch are rewarded for their investment by the paying consumer while record labels and artists are left for dead.

So while Freeloaders are buying clothes, food, drugs, and toothpaste, the music they supposedly need above all else gets left out in the cold — along with the artists who made it and the label that supported and promoted it. If what the consumer/person most deeply “loves” has no relative value, what does that say about their own relationship to human-made art and beauty, to our capacities for gratitude and consideration? It’s a cold, loveless worldview. The portrait of human beings submitting to microchip spirituality. That is the philosophy of Freeloading at its most extreme, one its conscientious practitioners try so hard to flee, ignore, or drape in phony idealism.

Surveying the arguments, I’ve come across the qualifying phrase, “In our current economic system…” This implies that some vastly differentiated economic model is just over the horizon. But the commodity system isn’t going anywhere. A world without humans setting value via payment would be a world without money, a hopelessly utopian illusion the Freeloading movement for some reason allows itself.

But I may be just as guilty of allowing myself utopian illusions, that consumers can step back for a moment to intellectualize the commodity system as one of utilitarian support for artists. Just because you’re not holding a piece of vinyl in your hand, the producers of cherished music are no less entitled to compensation. Then again, one can make another choice, that the producer is entitled to nothing, no matter how much their work has enriched one’s life.

When you see a Britney Spears CD priced at $20 or read of a painting auctioned for millions, of course the commodity system for art appears crude. It is crude. How can anyone put a dollar sign on it? That said, on balance it may be the best system we can hope for. One of the ultimate questions in this debate is, does the commodification of art cheapen it or actually provide an infrastructure of support in which an artist’s work can survive and flourish?

Much of this debate is inspired by an uneasiness with capitalism’s shortcomings and the sense that greedy corporations are more in control of the music we hear than fans or even artists. Freeloading was spawned just after a period when major labels gorged on revenues from boy bands and teen queens, easily marketed to their audience via another scourge to independent music fans, MTV’s TRL. In 2001, Metallica seemed perfectly aligned with major label interests, and the majors remain the primary enemy of Freeloaders.

But the appropriate punishment for major labels putting out mediocre music isn’t to rationalize a blood-letting of the entire industry, it’s to throw support behind smaller labels who need and deserve it. Paying for recordings costs money. Distribution (both online and off) costs money. Promotion, just as vital as ever, costs money. Labels like Jagjaguwar or Thrill Jockey or Matador offer artists a needed platform, and the only artists who can afford to go it (more or less) alone, like Radiohead or NIN, only have the option after years of the most "corporate" kind of heavy-handed, major label support. I can only assume there’s a good reason why their pay-what-you-want experiments have remained so very isolated.

People want as much shit as possible for free. That’s the foundation of Freeloading. It is hyper-consumerist, not anti-consumerist, and appeals to our lowest common denominator — irrational desires for appropriation and endless pleasure without consequence.

----
----

- Tragic Logic

No one knows what to do.

Some say music needs to operate on a model of patronage, as in the era before recorded music, so artists don’t need to worry about selling albums. Others promote instituting a voluntary collective license. No one is totally sure how this would be funded, but it would allow Freeloading to continue more or less unabated. Artists and labels would eventually be compensated according to the frequency of downloads. Related to this is the IP tax, in which customers pay a few extra dollars a month for their broadband, and the pot of funds would be distributed according to frequency of downloads.

These ideas are interesting, sure, but are they particularly realistic? How long would it take to actually set up such a system of compensation for artists based on download frequency, and what dire straits would the music industry be in by that point? Do we really want a government-run organization allocating funds to artists? I place more faith in tech-savvy teenagers finding new ways to Freeload than I do in the government’s ability to stop them or establish a centralized system.

What seems most realistic to me is a patronage model, but not one financed by the Nobles of yore. I fear we are sewing the seeds for a corporate patronage model. And rather than setting artists free from the constraints of commodities, having to market themselves to fans and major labels, they may increasingly need to instead market themselves to car companies, banks, media conglomerates, insurance companies, etc.

What I see as potentially tragic is that this is the complete opposite of Freeloading’s supposed goal. It’s supposed to make music less commercial. In actuality, it may make musicians so desperate that they have no choice but to become more commercial. The fans and musicians end up with less power than before and even bigger, maybe nastier, corporations come out in greater control of the fate of artists.

How any of this is preferable to a consumer directly supporting artists and labels through the commodity system, albeit an intellectualized one, I don’t understand. Ideally, independent labels would become more open in this debate and explain what a fair royalty rate actually looks like. Perhaps the parameters of fairer record deals can become known and publicized, so consumers can support labels and artists with a bit more confidence. This may exert upward pressure on bigger and bigger labels to offer better and better deals, if they see consumers respond in the same way coffee drinkers flock to Fair Trade. That’s myidealistic fantasy.

----
----

- Dystopia v. Utopia

One of the comments on my original article stuck with me the most. The reader lamented the lack of balance in our discussion of the issue. Either the downfall of the music industry is all the internet’s fault, they wrote, or it’s given a free pass and everyone else is to blame. I agree entirely. The internet primarily makes our communication and commerce more efficient, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for businesses and institutions to reap some profit in order to survive. It reduces production costs, but doesn’t eliminate them. A company that doesn’t earn revenues or secure investment online will eventually go out of business, just like in the real world. In the case of music and media, the internet ought to allow us to more directly and efficiently compensate the content producers (artists, labels, writers, publishers). The rise of the MP3 should cause the unfortunate shuttering of many record stores, at least those without a devoted clientele. That kind of shift makes sense. But deciding not to pay for music on some warped principle isn’t the internet’s fault, it’s the fault of shortsighted consumers and the music community at large for allowing Freeloading to expand unchecked. Institutions require investment online, just as in the real world. Otherwise they perish.

No doubt the internet is an amazing, powerful development of human history, freeing up information and helping us manifest our greatest hopes and dreams. It can catalyze the election of our first black President or shed sunlight upon a repressive Iranian regime. It can erase boundaries of geography and spirit. It can facilitate a more verdant artistic culture. New, compelling voices can find an audience regardless of birthright. A music fan is no longer dependent on Clear Channel-owned radio or having a great record store in their area. We can sample more music on our terms than we ever thought possible. A cultural meritocracy can be more realized.

But if no one casts their vote of support via payment, then what good is any of this technology?

Without the consumer’s direct support, labels will continue to perish and great bands will have to dramatically scale back their operations. Publishing companies will lock their doors. Magazines and newspapers will continue their agonizing death, and the loudest voices in media will be the ones who can already afford not to be adequately paid.

The internet offers individuals greater power than we’ve ever had, but with this technology comes responsibility. We can accept this and use the internet in ways that deliver on its promise of democracy, openness, and progress. Or, thinking ourselves powerless and passive, we can sit back and watch as everything lasting and healthy about our media culture fades into history. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about the internet — it has potential for either. It’s what we choose to do with it that matters.

The closing moments of Steal This Film 2, the online documentary produced in part by TPB, might come close to capturing this entire debate. At the very least, it captures the sublime irony of Freeloading.

The final image is not one of hope or dreams, but of destruction. We see a large building repeatedly collapse into rubble. As the credits ominously roll, the makers of the film plead with the viewer to donate, of all things, money. After all their talk of the cheapening infection of money upon art and ideas, that lazy musicians (however talented) and bloated film companies were simply wrong to expect payment for their recordings and productions, the cocky anarchists of The Pirate Bay ask for monetary donations not once... but twice.

Someone, I suppose, needed to pay their production costs.

7.16.2009

Pro-Piracy's Backward Logic


Digital technology suddenly allowed for online piracy, and the practice rapidly spread amongst young, internet savvy consumers. People loved the thrill and excitement of being able to find anything they were looking for, for free. This was really too good to believe. What wasn’t to like about it? We had been told everyday of our lives by advertisers and marketers that we could have anything we wanted, that our infinite human desires could be satisfied. But piracy took that insatiable demand for More and made it amplified and limitless. This felt pure, revolutionary, and real. Then artists and producers began to take notice. To them, the problem was obviously illegal and unjust on many levels, and started their fight against the practice. Rather than simply “doing it,” now any exuberant “Pirate” had to come up with an argument of their own. But rather than seriously and honestly try to evaluate the original practice of taking artists’ works without their permission and its likely effects, their argument started with the assumption that Piracy had to be okay. It had to be a good thing, because they wanted to believe it so badly. Then they worked backwards, searching anywhere possible for splinters of justification. That’s what we continue to see today.

-----------------------------

When I wrote the DIY article, I was unaware of the pro-piracy movement’s idealistic, theoretically-based, and shockingly incoherent arguments. I’ve seen versions of the following repeated again and again.

-Recorded music has no inherent value.
-It’s free and there’s no reason to expect someone to choose to pay when it’s free.
-The music is free because there’s no demand for it.
-Musicians should be making music because they love it and should never expect to be paid, no matter how great they may be. A musician’s labor has no value. The only value is in paying for distribution costs, which no longer need to exist. Therefore it’s free.

-------------------------

The logic runs backward while the arguments run in circles. They say the music is free, because it can be had for free. No regard is given for the elemental fact that if no permission is granted by the producer, if they’re explicitly offering the product and asking you to pay for it, then one is both taking and stealing. “Sharing” is not going on here. It is “sharing” if the artist gives it up for free, granting their permission. The argument that because it CAN be had for free, it IS free, is the justification of the schoolyard bully, the plundering Empire, and yes, the Pirate.

Sensitive to the likelihood that what they’re doing is in fact stealing, the Pirate resorts to another, seemingly high-minded argument, that recorded music is just an idea and that no idea or recording has an intrinsic value. It’s like water, everywhere. It’s everyone’s. No artists’ labor has an intrinsic “monetary” value and we all need to just get over the dirty concept.

Unfortunately for this argument, it must also conclude that NOTHING else has an intrinsic value. No one’s labor or work has a determined value, except for whatever value someone else, aka “We,” put(s) on it. A world without humans setting value would be a world without money, a hopelessly utopian illusion the pro-piracy movement for some reason allows itself. Of course, this will never happen, so we must return to the idea of value as a social construction.

The pro-piracy movement holds fantasies of objectivity. That art (all art is based in an idea and the ability to execute it, after all) has no value. Period.

But listen...It is those who take without permission, who refuse to pay, who decide as individuals that art has no value. No one else. We determine value by the level of support we’re willing to give. It bears the question, if these things really have no value, then why is the Pirate at their computer so rapt with whatever content they search for? If what the consumer/person “loves” actually has no value, it begins to look as if the person believes they also have no value, that no one has value - either their lives or their work. It’s a contagion of negativity, uselessness, meaninglessness. That is the true philosophy of piracy, one its conscientious practitioners try so hard to flee, ignore, or drape in pathetically phony idealism. Of course, there are others who simply have an underdeveloped value system, one which can’t hear the debate at all. I’ve been getting to know them a bit.

Also, the “no demand” argument...if there’s truly no demand, then why do you want any of the things you’re downloading for free? Demand is a fundamental element of market theory, but it relies on the assumption that people AREN’T STEALING! This is so simple, I almost feel stupid pointing it out. Also, if there were truly no demand, then no one would be paying for these items at all because no one would want them. Those enamored with Piracy seem reluctant to reckon with the simple realities and implications of their own choices and personal responsibilities.

One "DIY" Regret


In meeting some increasingly intense criticism to my DIY article this week, I decided to give it another look and make sure I still agreed with the soundness of my argument as the wider debate develops.

I stand by everything...except for one point.

In one paragraph I bring up consumers “burning albums for others” and I clumsily lump it in with the piracy issue. It’s a brief mention, but I regret it. They’re two different issues and placing them together confuses my argument. This debate really doesn’t need any additional or unnecessary confusion. I see burning CDs, while sharing some strong similarities with online piracy, as in the tradition of making tape copies and such. It’s faster, easier, cheaper than it used to be - sure - but to equate the unbelievable efficiency of Torrents with the time, effort, and social inconvenience inherent in trading physical reproductions ignores the truly revolutionary nature of the internet, where millions around the world can simultaneously obtain any movie, any song, any album in a matter of a few minutes and at zero direct cost. That’s a fundamental difference from trading tapes and CDs, an old controversy made increasingly obsolete by the iPod. While my essay certainly holds some implications for that other controversy, I wasn’t seeking to address it in the article. They’re two different debates, if linked by history, and I see the online piracy debate as the exponentially more urgent of the two.

7.14.2009

Rebuttal to Rebuttal


Also found this rebuttal posted on "dx_xb's" last.fm account. This person, it seems, simply doesn't buy my argument, doesn't see piracy as much of an issue. In fact, they claim that teenagers are pirating less, not more. Also, they say if Led Zepplin could succeed even with extensive touring early in their career, then bands today have very little to complain about. For the record, I have no ideas or mistaken illusions as to the "Glory Days" of music. I don't know what that would mean, even. However, if such "Glory Days" were to exist for bands, it would probably sound a little bit like this:

Grant also secured for the new band an advance deal of $200,000 from Atlantic Records in November 1968, then the biggest deal of its kind for a new band. Under the terms of the contract secured by Grant, the band alone would decide when they would release albums and tour, and had final say over the contents and design of each album. They also would decide how to promote each release and which (if any) tracks to release as singles,[27] and formed their own company, Superhype, to handle all publishing rights. Atlantic was a label known for a catalogue of blues, soul and jazz artists, but in the late 1960s it began to take an interest in progressive British rock acts, and signed Led Zeppelin without having ever seen them, largely on the recommendation of singerDusty Springfield.

That's also from the wikipedia post on Led Zepplin, for the record. I don't believe I need to point out how many ways Led Zepplin is a poor example when trying to dissect the current situation for music and musicians.

The rebuttal also hinges heavily on a quote from the Melvins' King Buzzo. He says the internet isn't destroying music and people should just enjoy what's going on and not worry. But he doesn't say anything on piracy. In fact, in a casual visit to the band's website, the first thing they do is lead you to BUY their record from Amazon. They're on just the kind of small, struggling, artistically exciting record label I'm thinking of in my argument (Ipecac). They're not giving their music away for free. Also, do you like the idea of the Melvins having to sell ringtones to make ends meet? Is that how the music industry ought to save itself?

Hit Nerves and Bullet Points


In my daily "Myth Of DIY" tracking, I've found two message board threads well worth checking out. One is from Hipinion and the other from a Phish-related board called Phantasy Tour. Both originate from the conceit that my article is worthless on nearly every imaginable level. Now, to the bullet points...

-David Denby: “At a higher level, attack-without-reason works by separating distaste from argument. Nothing needs to be demonstrated or argued. Just attack."

-Both threads are actually started by the same internet entity, “gravalax.” He/she thinks I’m annoying, which is for them (or anyone else) to decide. And I’m a really, really terrible writer. I already knew that, actually. But my article seems to have touched gravalax, angered them, on a deeper level than they’d like to admit. I know, it’s righteous of me. On the other hand, I think I’m reasonably correct regarding my very simple and, yes, obvious argument. In the Phish message board, “gravalax” quickly states that they agree with supporting artists, labels, and shops. Then says they disagree with my arguments, when they’ve already agreed with what I’m arguing for. I don’t see a major problem. They go on to tell someone who “likes” the article to “kys” - kill yourself. Interesting.

-The Hipinion thread is highly recommended. Entertaining and substantial. It takes a few serious turns and, I assume, achieves the direct opposite of gravalax’ original intent.

-Certainly, the pricing of music looks to go through some radical changes. Ones that will take time. This is the inevitable, “digital” effect on the market. But it doesn’t justify leaving artists and labels, or whomever YOU value in the music culture, out in the cold. Whatever slightly new model emerges certainly will lead to lower prices for new music, and perhaps higher prices for vinyl. But stealing is not a sustainable model. It looks to remain a part of the industry, but its proper place is a marginalized one. Putting it there, as a community of consumers and fans, is the first step in the industry evolving into something that actually is made more fair to everyone - at least the DIY crowd I speak of. That’s why I don’t suggest people ought to stop pirating completely, only because it seems an unreasonable demand on my part. On the other hand, I think it’s completely reasonable to ask people to pay for at least some of the music by the artists they love and enjoy. Yeah, it’s obvious.

-Beginning my own path as a musician inspired much of my thinking on this issue, but I have zero immediate possibility of making money from it. I’m not even close to there yet. I write words far more than I write or perform music. I’m primarily approaching this as a concerned consumer, fan, and friend of music. Artists or labels hands’ are tied a bit in this argument, because someone can so easily turn and accuse them of greed or of whining. It’s easy to be condescending and tell someone they deserve their hardship, that they chose it for themselves. It’s much harder (and more humane) to identify with and understand where they’re coming from and put it in the context of your own relationship with art. More voices from artists and label owners are needed on this issue, but readers have to allow them some room to make their points without resorting to attacks and name calling. That is plainly evidenced on the Hipinion thread.

-I am making zero cash from any of this. I could be pitching or writing stories that might minimally profit my bank account, instead I’ve been staying on top of this article and its aftermath every day because I think it’s important. Also, I feel I may have tapped into something significant, if obvious, here and am trying to expand on it, turn it into a bigger project. But whether or not that will be at all successful is another matter. The chances of gaining any profit remain slim to none.

-Someone on Hipinion touches on Jeff Tweedy reportedly taking home somewhere around 100,000 dollars a year over the course of his career. Considering that the band has always had a reasonably wide audience and major label support, you can extrapolate quite a bit from that number. It's not a very big figure, really, considering just how successful his band has been. If I'm not mistaken, they even played a sold out New Year's show at Madison Square Garden a couple of years back. Imagine for a moment what the average artist on Thrill Jockey makes. On this same point, here's a quote from a New York Times Magazine article about another very successful artist in the Indie realm, Neko Case:

Case courts surprises in her music but not in the commerce behind it. She was cast on — and then cast herself on — her own devices for so long that when it comes to business, she has insisted on complete independence. She has recently turned down major-label overtures (“And I’m so glad that Elektra, for example, didn’t come to me early on with an offer,” she says), retains all the rights to her songs and has never made a publishing deal. She does share revenues with Rigby, the guitarist. “Paul really helps me compose my music,” she says, “he always knows which chords to use when.” Otherwise she retains artistic and financial control of her productions. What are those revenues? Well, in her best year, 2006, when “Fox Confessor” was released and she had an extensive tour to go along with it, she had gross revenues of about $360,000. Of that figure, she says, about $320,000 went for professional expenses — equipment, transportation, the band’s pay and so forth.

7.13.2009

DIY: When Blogs React

Over at popmatters.com, the Crazed by the Music blog written by Jason Gross commented on my article. He seems to understand the essence of my argument:

Right now, my favorite two articles are Chris Ruen’s "The Myth of DIY" (Tiny Mixtapes) and Glenn Peoples’ "Analysis: Everything Is Wrong With Free Moby MP3 Story" (Billboard). It’s probably no coincidence since both deal with the same subject- challenging the idea that free music is the best thing for the industry now.

In Ruen’s article, he questions fan’s commitment to artists that they supposedly love when they download their music for free.

“If you find meaning and beauty from a musician’s work and you want them to continue creating it — then you are obliged to support them. If you like the idea of record stores, the people they employ, the values and spirit they promote — then you also are obliged to support them. If you’re consistently doing one without the other, then on some level you, not Metallica, are the asshole.”

You could easily laugh off Ruen as a fogey who’s impossibly trying to turn the tide of the online revolution since we’re obviously only going to support bands by NOT buying their music, right? But he does have a point. Even if millions of people aren’t paying for it, why shouldn’t you still support bands and performers you love? It’s OK to buy tickets to their shows or their merchandise but it’s not OK to buy any of their music just because other people aren’t? I like paying out for albums by bands that I like and I don’t feel like a sucker for doing it (though I’m not thrilled that artists still get only a tiny bit of my money if they happen to be on a major).

Thanks Jason. Over at Well Respected, they have a more critical take, and one that partially misunderstands my argument. In my view, their post is an example of how easy it is to get caught up in, as they say, the macroeconomic issues. When this is the case, the discussion becomes very abstract and usually ends with people throwing their hands up in confusion. My point is simple, but not so simple as "Don't Pirate." What I hope Well Respected takes from the debate is that we all, as individuals, have a say in what this music culture ends up looking like. And as much as pirating will never go away, it doesn't mean we can't support those artists and institutions we value. And I disagree entirely with the fatalistic, "Genie out of the bottle" non-argument. All one needs to do is take a look at some of the letters in earlier posts to see that minds are being changed. It turns out that our personal actions are meaningful, and we can change things if we first recognize a value in doing so. Support the music you love, respect the artists who made it for you. What Well Respected said:

The ethics suggested by the author of this article regarding music piracy is essentially: don’t. It isn’t helping anyone - the artists, the local record stores, and most likely you, too, because you’ve probably become more flippant and noncommital in your acquisitional habits.

It’s a well reasoned and impassioned piece, but also very anecdotal and it largely glosses over and/or ignores several macroeconomic implications of buying records versus illegally downloading (who actually profits from the sale, what’s the role/significance of record labels these days, what’s the monetary value of an mp3 file and who “owns” it, is there a financially viable alternative to the current model of selling music, etc.). Considering the source of this article, Tiny Mix Tapes, those seem to be major omissions — and I only say that because TMT generally does a great job keeping abreast of important business and copyright developments surrounding the music industry, but they also do more than almost any other site to demonize and lampoon the RIAA and big, bad record industry execs.

The myth the author is disspelling, I think, is the notion that by not paying for music we’ve become righteous bandits who are sticking it to The Man and finding our own way of supporting indie bands directly on the road, when in actuality we’re just cheap, selfish geeks who are making it next to impossible for the musicians we love to make a living making more music we might possibly love. Fair enough. But what’s the solution? Only buy new music and only buy it direct from the band or your favorite local record shop? It’s a nice goal, and something like that may have worked 20 years ago (although I suppose it’s debatable how many indie artists made a comfortable living + retirement savings on their DIY releases in the pre-Napster era), but the proverbial genie is already out of the bottle and simply arguing “Piracy: Don’t Do It” isn’t going to change much when everyone and their brother is already music blogger who think they’re entitled to the internet’s neverending supply of “promotional” downloads. But maybe it’ll help us to think twice before right-clicking in the future?

7.10.2009

DIY: Musician Speaks


Great article, Chris. I've been toiling away as an artist here in NYC for more years than I'm eager to admit. I release my own music and all funds come directly from my pocket.

The most frustrating thing, of course, is that barely anyone pays attention to my music aside from a devoted bunch of fans i have developed over the years. I mean my email list is about 100 people.

Generally I perform in the dive bars up and down ninth ave. here is Hell's Kitchen. My turf. Those gigs bring in very little cash.

Nowadays I spend time promoting myself and my cd's online. I did pay for promotion a couple of times but it's a much better idea to just hold on to the money and spend it on guitars and strings.

Thanks for the article. It's always good to learn that one is not alone.