Clarification: When I write, I don't prepare or organize my ideas, I just write what I would say if I was talking to you in person, so sometimes my blogs end up a little messy. I don't even proof-read what I write before posting it so you may find grammatical mistakes and poorly written sentences. Sometimes I'll read my blogs a day or two after publishing them and I may re-write things that weren't too clear and any embarrassing grammatical mistake. Also, English is not my first language, so I apologize if reading my blogs become a struggle. Of course, if this is the case, I would imagine you wouldn't continue reading.

Jun 19, 2012

Thoughts On "An Open Letter To Emily White" And Piracy.

This is a response to this open letter written by David Lowery to Emily White, an intern at NPR All Things Considered, who wrote this blog on the NPR blog.

If you don't want to read all that, which I'd recommend doing, then this is the TL,DR: Emily, a music lover who wants work in the music industry, wrote on her blog that there are 11.000 songs in her iPod, but she's only paid for a handful of albums. Most of her music came from ripping her friend's CD's, ripping the college radio station she works at CD's, or were added to her iPod by other people. David wrote a letter directed to her (really directed to the younger generation who don't find downloading illegal music a bad thing), telling her how harmful this mentality is to the very same artists she loves. It was well written and well intentioned, and explains it very nicely even giving some great real life examples to support his argument.

I'm a musician myself. I've never made a dime off music but I'm still trying. For every dollar my band has made, I've probably invested 10 or 50, I don't know. I'll make music until I die because I love doing it. I would still make music if I was certain I was never going to make it. These are my thoughts on this open letter.

First of all, it seems to me that Emily is the wrong target. I mean, we all are the target, the idea is to make everyone understand how important it is to support the artists we love. I say she's the wrong target because if what she says on her blog is true, then she's the equivalent of someone home taping records back in the day. While home taping may have had its own moral issues, I think it was generally accepted and not looked down upon, and it never threaten the music industry or its artists, like they were claiming. Home taping peaked along and in parallel with the music industry. I don't have statistics, but I'm sure for every album sold there were several home taped. I don't see these as lost money (the home tapers were not going to spend any money in the first place, besides the price of the blank tape), and I think they serve a purpose in favor of the artists. Promotion, specifically, they help spreading the word which reaches more people willing to pay for music (parenthesis to drop this question: should artists pay their fans for the promotion they sometimes provide, which sometimes could translate into a lot of money?).

I believe the issue David was addressing had to do more with illegal downloads. The "loot" places, as David calls them, the act of downloading an album from public website while being aware that it's illegal is the real issue here, not the people who "home tape" their friend's music. Either way, this is probably irrelevant, and I may be wrong. Now, while I'm a supporter of a fair artist compensation, and while everything stated in this letter may be true, I believe that what he's trying to accomplish is simply impossible to achieve, and something comparable to winning the War On Drugs, for example. It's a position from someone who's stuck in a paradigm. I'd be really glad if I discover that I'm totally wrong and we start seeing a voluntary change in favor of artists, and suddenly the people of the world start compensating artists fairly for their work. But at this very moment, I can't see this ever happening. I think that hoping for this change is naive, and working trying to re-educate people in this matter is useless, you may be able to make people a little more conscious, and even contribute a little bit more money, but it won't even get close to solving the problem. There won't be a massive voluntary change. The other solution would be forcing this change, which can't be done without crippling our freedom or changing for worse this wonderful place we call the Internet or without the risk of serious abuse of power, as we've recently seen in attempts like SOPA.

We are going through an abrupt change brought up by progress. It's as simple as that. The internet opened a door that changes the game completely, and the game now has very different rules than before. We are adapting to progress and trying to find the new model, meanwhile those who had been big players for decades are facing their imminent collapse and doing all they can to avoid it or at least delay it. Naturally, they don't think they should play the game with new rules, especially when no one really knows what these new rules are. I believe many victims will result from this change, big labels, indie labels, famous and completely unknown artists, many of them won't be able to stay in the game. But how many lives were affected negatively by the industrial revolution? Countless. The industrial revolution fucked many lives, yet we can't look back and say the change was not a positive one in the end, a change which many more lives have benefited from and continue doing so many generations after it happened. It's natural to resist change, especially if it's affecting us or the ones we love, no one wants to be a victim or have a loved one become one, and when this change ends up in death, it gets personal. I may be a victim of progress myself.

There are many reasons why putting a price on your music doesn't work today, in my humble opinion, particularly in the case of digital downloads:

  • When you buy a song, you don't own the song, but the right to listen to it, and this causes a few technical issues. If you live with a roommate, and you have your music on your computer while the roommate can't afford a computer or an mp3 player, and you play your music in your computer all the time, or when your roommate asks you to, or perhaps, whenever he/she wants because you let your roommate use your computer, then we basically have the same case as someone ripping his/her friend's CD's. What should be done in this case? Should be try to convince people that they should pay whenever they find themselves in a situation where they can listen to music they didn't purchased themselves? 
  • And what if for example I buy a CD, which means I'm buying the right to listen to a collection of songs along with an item which stores the media I'm buying the right to listen for? When mp3's and digital downloads were not around, if I by any chance lost my CD (or any other physical format), or if I scratched it becoming it unreadable, that shouldn't void my right to listen to the songs contained in that CD, but I don't recall a single case where you didn't lose such right. Even if you had bought an album several times you can't claim a free of cost virtual copy of it, why did I lose my right? And if I decide to download it from an illegal source, then I'm still a pirate and a thief. Really? We talk plenty about how the public fucks the artists/labels, but we choose to not even point out when it's the other way around. I can understand why we never thought about that when consumer music was 100% tied to a physical medium, it would be too difficult to track a transaction made 50 years ago, but this little issue should have been fixed several years ago. I think iTunes and similar services are the only instances where this is dealt with correctly. 
  • In a global economy and with the internet connecting humans form every corner of the world, it's so easy for an artist in the US to be heard by someone in Nigeria, or Bolivia, or China, but it makes no sense to price a song at $1 globally. There are countries where the average person makes less than a hundred dollars a month. The value of music might be the same, but this doesn't translate equally with money. The value of the right to listen to a song in China might be 7 cents (just a number I came up with, this is not real data), and this should be the price they should pay. 
  • But what about someone who lives in the US but who's poor and a music lover? In the open letter David estimates that artists didn't get about $2000 because Emily decided not to pay for her music, and that it would have been about $17 a month had she decided to pay for all this music. In reality, if Emily would have bought the music it would have been about $11000, more than five times what David said, which would bring the monthly fees to about $90. That's a lot of money for me, but not that much to many others. Should I just not listen to music if I don't have the money? Would the artists benefit more if I didn't know about them, therefore didn't go to their shows, buy their merch, tell my friends, and talked about them online? As an artist myself, I'd rather them to have all my music.

It's not that straight forward, the morality of downloading music is not really uniform, in my opinion. While an illegal act is an illegal not matter how you see it, the morality of downloading music can't be generalized. I can't speak for every musician, just for myself, but if someone who struggles to make ends meet downloads and enjoys my music very much, I wouldn't mind not being compensated monetarily for it. I do, however, would really appreciate if this person at least helped my band in some way, perhaps talking about it on his/her Facebook profile, sharing our videos, I don't know, telling other people about us. In the case someone downloads my music and didn't really like it, I don't think this person has any moral obligation towards me. But if we're talking about a rich person who enjoys my music and doesn't feel obligated to compensate me, then I'd think there's something morally wrong with this person. I do agree with David regarding any corporation benefiting from musicians in any way, by profiting from ads revenue, hosting music files, etc, I think they should pay a percentage of their profits to artists, a license, but that may just be another lost war, this I don't know.

Then what are we supposed to do? Wait and see who fails and who survives? I supposed not. But asking people to pay to download their music which can be downloaded for free won't achieve anything, guilt trips will only go so far, but this new "morality" won't revert back. The key of the problem here is thinking the only way 99% of artists are going to be able to continue their careers is by convincing people to pay for all the music they download. I'm certain, this will have to change, the ones who will survive will be the ones who can figure out a new way to make a living, an alternative, an innovative way to sell their services, the old way alone doesn't work anymore. We'll have to think outside the box, and it may take some time, some trial and error, but we really have to get rid of the old paradigm, which is holding us back and is making this painful process longer. What we need is to look forward, is getting to the other side already, and this will never happen if we continue thinking about how things used to be. Things used to work a certain way, but that's not how they work now.

Everything David says is accurate, and while I'm not justifying downloading music illegally, I don't think we can point fingers at the people who does this and blame them for the current situation of the music industry, and I don't think that trying to re-educate people will achieve anything, or even if this was possible, this wouldn't help the situation either, I believe this would make things worse. Perhaps part of the problem is over-saturation of music, I don't know. What I do know is that the rules have changed, and attempts like this are well intentioned, but are not really dealing with the actual problem we're facing.

We may never solve the problem, but one thing we do know for sure is that no matter what the situation is, Rick Astley will never let you down, and we should always be thankful about that.


Unknown said...

"Then what are we supposed to do?" ..

How about .. whenever possible reward the technology and business models wherein the artist has a reasonable slice of the proceeds. You can buy direct from many artists, and if not, channels like CD Baby and Bandcamp. The technology exists.

The point is, even $1 a month is infinitely better than $0 a month for artists of the world .

CE54R said...

Yes, I have a blog called "without you we're nothing" that talks about this. It would be great if people "tipped" artists like they tip other professions. We're used to pay $1 every time a bartender opens a beer for us. They deserve that tip, and every time they open a beer, they get $1. If people could think that way, a lot of musicians could actually be musicians part time. I think this is possible, and it's only a partial solution but it's something. What I'm trying to say on my blog is that trying to make people stop downloading music is not possible, and if it was possible, it wouldn't change anything. I don't think we can think about "buying music" anymore. I think right now we should think the same way we see the tips we give bartenders.

Brilliancemagazine said...

I read this one a few days ago but my iPad kept freezing up when I tried editing my comment. When I was a teen I remembered setting our vcr to record Speed Racer and as I walked away, I thought that I was breaking the law in recording the show. I realized back then that recording music that you did not purchase was unlawful. I began thinking about all of my teenage friends that were doing the same thing. For a while I had quit recording tv shows because I felt so guilty. I grew up in a poor home and regardless of that status my mom was real strict about telling the truth and not stealing. So, this staunchness from my mom followed me almost wherever I went. In my limited knowledge, I always had the idea that if I bought music I had ownership of that song and whom I chose to share it with was my right. 38 years later I see that I was wrong. When the mega fight between Metallica and Napster ensued it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I thought that SINCE they were mega-rich that they could at least share SOME of their music for free. But deep down inside I knew that Napster was wrong, delightful and popular in ripping music but wrong. I have made tapes before and recorded music on cd for friends still that nagging feeling loom in my head about sharing music the more I educated myself about copyright. I knew that I was somehow taking money out of musicians’ pockets. And every time I read about music sharing, ripping and copyright, I go back to that day of my epiphany. I used to wonder why radio would overlap constant station branding during the air of new songs but understood that it was to honor copyright laws or to be protected by them. Now, that I have a clearer understanding about the nature of copyright law and the honor system, I think the only way this problem solves itself is for people to just pay for what they music they want. It is perceived as a thin line to claim it theft to do otherwise, but I do. I no longer rip music or share music. I buy songs that I really want. Thinking back to those days when I would come home with a brand 45 and play it loud from my bedroom blaring out of my bedroom window, and when a few of my neighbors would ask to borrow it to record it that is where I had to make a decision to say No. But then I was afraid of losing my friends if I said so and normally gave in. How can this problem be fixed? I think it will self-destruct before that happens.

CE54R said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CE54R said...

If you can pay for all your music, I think you should, but things are a little different now than what they used to be. It's understandable the guilt you feel over taping music, but I don't think many people, especially outside the US shared the same feelings.

To show you how complicated this copyright issue can get, let me ask you this, what do you think about buying used records or CD's? I used to buy tons of used music, because it was very cheap, and I'll assume you are OK with it, since they were legitimate copies. Now, did you know that artist make no money whatsoever from used CD and records? Me taping a friend's CD, downloading a CD, and buying a used CD have the same results for artists. Then why is it legal and why you don't feel guilty? Check it out, a business is making money from artists using their own music and it's not sharing any of the profits with the artists. If you ever bought a used CD you should be feeling guilty right about now. What the CD store is doing is basically the same as someone in China who duplicates CD's and sells them in the back of their car. And that's a little overlooked and important issue from the time pf physical media, not there are many many more complications. There are many more instances where we "break" or "abuse" the copyright law and don't compensate artists, but these are "socially accepted", so the morality of it depends a lot on culture and society. I hate buying mp3's, I prefer something physical, and if there was an album of a band I wanted but the only option was to get it from iTunes, which limits the amount of devices I can play MY music on, I'd rather download it from somewhere else and send the money directly to the band. I have 5 computers, an iPad and an iPhone. Was it immoral for me to download the music illegally? Furthermore, sharing music is probably one of the best things you can do for a band, especially an unknown band that has no airplay or money to promote their music. This is true now as it was back then. By sharing someone's music with people who may like it, you are actually making the artist money. The game is on the numbers. The more people know an artist, the more money they will make, because there will always be people willing to pay. Not sharing your music with your neighbors, particularly if this is music they aren't familiar with will not benefit the artist, it will harm the artist. You may have avoided the creation of one pirated copy of one album, but you're shutting down the possibility of future purchases from your neighbors and your neighbor's friends, and their friend's friends, etc.

In the end, I think it should be like you said, people should pay what they want or can, or there will have to be money for artists from every single business or site or place that benefits in any way of someone elses music.