2009: Fuck Love, Let’s Make Dystopia
Revisiting “The Myth Of DIY” and the tragic logic of Freeloading
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:
A person who takes advantage of others’ generosity without giving anything in return.
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.
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.