‘Isn’t saying that copyright laws are turning our children into criminals the same as saying arson laws are turning our children into pyromaniacs?’ is just one of the salient, incisive quotes about music piracy in Chris Ruen’s just released book, Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Appetite For Free Content Starves Creativity.
If the title hasn’t already given it away, the book is an examination of society’s penchant for expecting free music and the often-invisible flow-on effects. Some of its key areas of examination are the moral and ethical dilemmas faced (or, frighteningly, not faced) relating to freeloading as well as the industry’s (unsuccessful, cautionary tale) response to freeloading. Indeed, ‘To pay or not to pay? It is the existential crisis of the digital age,’ writes Ruen, as the internet ‘refashions reality’.
Ruen is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the gold-stamp-approval publications of The New York Times and Slate. Freeloading is painstakingly researched and contains interview transcripts and reproduced letters from industry greats who offer insight into the issues far more authoritative and more measured than those we find on internet forums.
Though his stance is clear—stealing music is stealing music, however you want to try to absolve yourself of your culpability—Ruen’s approach is balanced and comprehensive; the eminently readable (if occasionally thesis-like) book’s final pages contain footnotes to his research and quotes.
As befits a book focusing on gamechanging technology and our uses of it, Ruen’s first chapter commences with Steve Jobs unveiling the iPad, a device and its constituents the normally free-for-all enthusiast Chris Anderson proclaimed to be industry-saving and that ‘show media in a context worth paying for’.
Whether that’s eventuating remains to be proven or disproven, but Freeloading examines many of the key dust-ups and moments in the industry over the last 20-or-so years, notably the recent SOPA bill and Metallica versus Napster. The book examines the alternative models and revenue streams artists and companies are exploring such as subscription and streaming services, DIY, and 360 contracts. Most of all, it examines the cultural and ethical minefields of illegal downloading, firmly affirming the necessity of ‘user pays’ (as outlined in this industry insider quote):
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 […]—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. Out of basic politeness, I (probably) won’t say any of this to your face and neither will your friends, your record store clerk, or your favourite band. But it is the truth.
Hindsight’s a beautiful thing, and history has shown us that record labels didn’t handle Napster and its copycats well. Adam Farrell from Matador sums it up this way in Freeloading:
The thing the music industry did—the mistake was to reapply the rules. They thought it was a new format and they could take it over and make money from it, but all they did was create this global game of whack-a-mole. I think the biggest mistake was taking 25 million people [who] were actively engaged in music and dispersing them. They let loose a virus, in a way.
What’s unclear—and what Ruen’s book reminds us—is what the labels should have done. In a chapter entitled ‘Angry Armchair Quarterbacks’, Ruen quotes and industry insider as saying, ‘“If the industry had only made a deal with Napster …” Everyone’s got an answer for how to change the record industry, but I’m not sure what they think they would do.’
Another industry exec flags the double standards when it comes to musicians making money from their music:
… photographers expect to be compensated for their work, filmmakers expect to be compensated—for some reason musicians are supposed to work for free and if they object to this then they’re greedy and letting commerce overwhelm their art or something?
I had the (mis)fortune of working for Australia’s largest entertainment retailer throughout my undergraduate university studies, and I saw firsthand the way the industry struggled with (and failed to) address the sudden and explosive arrival of illegal downloading and filesharing. It was a fraught time and a fraught topic, incensing those of us who actually worked in the industry and who saw and experienced firsthand its effects. One of the most galling aspects was people’s so-what shruggery.
The questions and answers tended to be then and tend to continue to be:
Newspapers are dying? Well, shit happens. New musicians have a harder time building sustainable careers than ever before? A starving artist is a good artist. How will writers make great works if no on will pay them? That’s their problem, not mine. Who says artists deserve to make money anyway? Can we perceive the dire circumstances of P2P technology and fine ways to lessen its damages? You can’t find technology. No, sit down, enjoy the spectacle with the rest of us.
It’s no small irony and shackled by a weird case of resigned déjà vu that I am now living through the same Sisyphean issues in my own industry. My hope is that the publishing industry finds a way around people’s entrenched it-should-be-free perception, but also learns from the music industry’s whopping mistakes—quashing the filesharing creates more issues, but it’s also necessary to find a way to monetise the model and to collaborate.
As the Marshal McLuhan quote with which Ruen opens the book states: ‘If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves’. I can’t help but think the publishing industry should be closely reading Freeloading and other analyses of the music industry’s (at least partially self-inflicted) fate.