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Ben Weasel Speaks for Me

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Pretty much, anyway.

Here’s Ben’s promised, fiery (and terrific) essay on how the the “totally free music” conceit and internet theft impacts The Little Guy.

I wrote a bit about this last year (and received tons of abuse for it– get ready, Ben.)

Many of the evangelists for the free content revolution, and a fair few of the less strident advocates, often mention that (a) some tech-savvy musicians have been able to use the digital-swap culture to their advantage, recognizing that unauthorized copying is going to occur anyway, and employing it as a marketing tool for other commercial products; and (b) that the music fans who download a lot of mp3s end up buying more CDs than those who don’t; hence (c) Free Music is a net plus for independent musicians, at the expense of no one but the evil record companies. (d) Everybody wins!

Now (a) is quite true (I’ve attempted to do a bit of it with my cyber-busking and pre-release of demos– with modest success.) (b) may well be the case, and seems plausible, though I don’t know how you could check. (c) and (d) however, are extremely dubious. These are all non sequiturs with little bearing on the issue of where unauthorized downloading (in lieu of buying) records falls on the morality/immorality continuum. It’s not an easy question to answer. (Somewhere between murder and giving blood– not sure where.)

As a practical matter though, Ben is absolutely right about one thing: the Free Content model (by which I mean the idea that someone, somewhere, other than consumers ought to foot the bill for producing recordings), if carried to its logical conclusion, will lead to less, less interesting, music. Period. Particularly if you’re interested in “alternative” or off-beat music; under the Totally Free Music model, most of your favorite albums would never have been recorded. Think about that next time you listen to your “free” downloaded song from Zen Arcade. And say goodbye to the Zen Arcades of the future.

It’s astounding how many people don’t seem to realize that making music, like everything else, costs money. As Ben points out, most musicians don’t have a prayer of making a living at it; those that try usually end up living somewhere around or below the poverty line. (Me included– that’s right: I’m a Lucky Ducky. Hot dog!) But even aside from the standard of living issue, there’s a more pertinent angle when it comes to recordings of songs (which are precisely the things which are supposed to be “free.”) Producing them costs money, too. Even if you’re the most selfless, ascetic, not-for-profit, doin’-it-for-the-kids, sacrificing-it-all-for-art music martyr who doesn’t mind living like a dog among dogs, the fact remains: if you’re going to make a record, the guy who runs the studio has to get paid. (You’re wondering where all those free studios are? They all had to close down because they couldn’t pay their rent.) Now this money has to come from somewhere. And the Free Music extremists don’t really seem to care where it comes from, as long as it isn’t them.

(From time to time, I’ll even receive mail that goes something like: “hey, dude, I downloaded all your kewl punk rawk tunez for free! When are you guys coming to Iowa City?” Not realizing that, to some degree, there might be a connection between his decision not to purchase CDs and the band’s disinclination or inability to buy enough gas to drive all the way to Iowa.)

On the other hand, I see lots of exciting possibilities in the technology and in the digital culture (despite the bloody-mindedness of some of its advocates). And I even kind of like the idea of fans sharing recordings with each other as part of an ongoing discussion about my greatness [hah! —ed.]– though I wish it could happen in such a way that enough people still buy enough records that I can still have a prayer of convincing someone to let me make another one. When anyone asks for permission to post mp3s, I almost always say yes. As I’ve mentioned before, “democracy, whisky, sexy” entered the fan consciousness instantaneously– something I’ve never experienced. That wouldn’t have been possible before, and I think it’s really cool. Sharing/hawking my works-in-progress over the net has been a tremendous, useful experience, and I really believe it will help draw attention to the “real” album when it comes out and perhaps help make it more successful than it might otherwise have been. I intend to do more of it in the future.

However, it seems to me that the decision of whether to make songs available for free really ought to rest with the writer, the artist, the copyright owner. And there is a general feeling on the part of Free Music advocates that this is an outrageous, unreasonable, scandalous expectation. I admit that it may be an unrealistic expectation, but that’s hardly the same thing.

When I wrote the little, unassuming piece I mentioned above, I received tons of email, overwhelmingly negative. Ben’s email to me about it, in fact, was only one of two positive ones. A lot of it was along the lines of “boo hoo, poor baby, why don’t you stop whining and get a day job?” (Profanity and scatology omitted from this example for aesthetic reasons.) But the general thrust of the angry mail was that the very idea that writers ought to have a right to control their own work was illegitimate, beneath contempt. I was genuinely shocked by the hostility that arose with regard to this simple, to me unassailable, proposition.

I know, I know. You don’t want to rip anyone off. You’re just tired of having to buy a whole album of crap just to get the one good song. You know, the good one, the one that’s on the radio all the time. And you get a lot of satisfaction out of sticking it to the record companies who want to make you suffer through so much crap when all you want to do is rock out to The Good One. That’s all well and good. But don’t kid yourself that downloading, in lieu of purchasing, a record is neutral (or even, God help us, helpful) when it comes to the artist.

And Ben’s right: it’s a formula for narrowing the amount of quality music even further. If you can’t make enough money to pay the studio guy, you don’t get to make another record. It’s that simple. Only Good Songs from now on, right?

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About Dr. Frank

  • Eric Olsen

    I entirely agree that the “all free all the time” model can’t and will not work. What I rail against here most of the time are the foolish methods deployed by the RIAA and their government toadies to enforce the unenforceable. And, as you mention, there are legitimate consumer issues about price and flexibility. I believe the industry can compete with free with reasonable pricing, excellent service and ease of use, education, etc.

    But I also know that an entire generation has now come to music as an entitlement, and the only way to really solve the issue is probably some kind of blanket Internet license fee.

    As the wise Jim Griffin writes: “The world never has and will not long tolerate purely voluntary payment for art, knowledge and creativity. Copyright is our expression of purpose in this regard. Tougher and more draconian laws will be the result of a failure to address the issue in some manner, and purely voluntary isn’t on the list during our lifetimes. Our choice: Voluntary blanket agreements or imposition by government? I’m for the former, but read Steven Cherry closely and you will see that the latter has been our past and will continue to be the preferred policy absent a cogent alternative.”

    So the government is going to have to step in – when will the industry stop fighting this?

  • Me

    An internet license? Hmmm….I wonder if in the future we’ll see “internet detector vans” and portable internet detectors (there is an annual TV license fee in the UK, and it is illegal to watch TV w/o paying the license fee, and to make sure unlicensed people are not watching TV over there, the TVLA [TV Licensing Authority] has TV detector vans going up and down the roads to see if unlicensed people are watching TV, and in suspected cases, the TVLA enters the offender’s home and uses a portable TV detector to see if the TV has been recently used).

  • Eric Olsen

    They won’t need to worry about individual users – this would work at the ISP level. You can’t get on the Internet without an ISP.

  • me

    So in other words, the ISPs will have to raise their prices. I think that would suck ass. A $5/month tax would be my limit…anything higer would piss me off (and since this is the U.S. gubmint, they would probably institute a $10/month internet tax plus and annual $100 internet license fee).

  • me

    Hey wait a minute…what if your only internet access is going to places that have hotspots (provided you have a wireless notebook PC) which do not charge you for wireless access? That has to be taxed someway…either the place of business starting up an hourly usage fee or annual internet license fees. So it won’t be up to the ISPs…it will be up to the government. Chances are that when there is an annual internet license fee, mere ownership of a computer requires payment of the internet license fee (with the penalty being either confiscation of your computer, a fine, prison, two of these, or all three).