digital music

Creative common sense: the value of creative work

There have been some really vivid debates happening recently centering around artists and how they are compensated for their work.

Much of the focus was a blog post by David Lowery, the leader of bands Cracker and Camper van Beethoven and an advocate for musicians. His blog The Tricordist published an excellent post yesterday as a response to an NPR intern admitting on air that of the 11,000 songs she’d downloaded, she paid for almost none of them.

I talked about this here back in January and it’s a debate that’s been raging for a decade or so now since the advent of Napster. It also seems to be primarily generational, as younger music fans simply don’t see paying for music as a necessity.

What musicians have to rely on when people don’t honor their work.

I see obvious parallels between musicians and journalists. Ironically, the NPR intern – ostensibly a journalism or broadcasting major – will soon be in a job market where paying jobs have shrunk and the few opportunities open are often internships.

The TV stations and newspapers in Chicago don’t think it’s economically wise to hire a newbie out of college, and much of their remaining budgets go to on-air talent or production needs. So those fact checkers, graphics editors and admins? All interns, all free.

In other words, Emily the NPR intern will soon be experiencing the same thing the musicians she’s downloaded have: working without compensation.

I have 13,000 tracks in my iTunes and have paid for 99% of them. Some may have been “ripped” from physical CDs but at some juncture, I paid for them. I have a small, tiny sliver of unpaid tracks that in most cases, were unavailable in any format or out of print.

Maybe this is the hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn old man coming out in me, but it IS increasingly a moral issue to me. If people don’t understand that they are stealing, then we have a serious issue.

How would most hourly employees feel if, at the end of two weeks of work, your company simply didn’t pay you for your work? We’d have riots in the street.

Why is that unacceptable for “most of us” but OK for artists, musicians and writers?

Another recent content related controversy surrounds the cartoonist Matthew Inman, better known as The Oatmeal, and a conflict he’s had with the team that runs the Web site FunnyJunk.

FunnyJunk appears to be a site where users upload content – any humor-based content they want. Inman found several hundred of his works uploaded to FJ without any attribution as to who created them.

I won’t fully recount the blow by blow here – it’s just too odd and bizarre to believe – but instead of honoring Inman’s intellectual property claims, FunnyJunk’s lawyers sued him for compensation, claiming they had been slandered.

Or in simpler terms: An artist was expected to comply with the free, uncompensated use of his work.

Sound familiar?

To me, these issues underscore how we see work in this country, what we see as valid work (often only white collar work is valued), and how we compensate people for their time and efforts.

 

Music Monday: The value of music

Instead of blogging about a musician or band this morning for Music Monday, I wanted to ponder the value of music in today’s mostly digital marketplace.

More to the point, I want to ask: Do you believe it’s OK to download music for free, without giving anything to the artist?

This is not a new discussion or a new issue – it’s one that’s been happening for more than a decade.

As music sales have moved from brick-and-mortar stores and physical music platforms like CDs to digital files, so has the ability to access MP3s and music files online. Napster was the first platform to encourage music trading, but even without it around, a thousand others have popped up in its wake.

And the concept of “owning” a piece of music vs. having access to it on a smartphone or computer is an increasingly gray area, thanks to new platforms like Spotify, which uses a mixture of music files and its own radio station.

I guess my debate is more of a moral one: why do so many people think it’s perfectly OK to take something without paying for it?

One argument that’s always put forth is that all record companies are evil behemoths and won’t miss the money. Yes, many record companies past and present have only a tenuous connection to the artistic side of the process, if they have one at all. Many labels have mishandled artists or mismanaged their money or made decisions that were good for business but bad for art. No doubt about that.

But if a record company is not paid for the product that it distributed, I can guarantee it won’t be their general ledger that takes a hit. The artist will. And that’s likely why artists are now consistently saying they make no money whatsoever on an album. Touring is their sole way to make money from the music they create and play.

The second argument is more troublesome to me, and the argument is essentially this: I’m [fill in the blank: unemployed, underemployed, poor] and can’t afford to buy this music, so I’ll just download it.

But that’s never made sense to me. The inability to pay for an item does not entitle you to have it for free. The fact that people think that it does just reeks of entitlement. (To be blunt, for many of the people I’ve heard this argument from, it’s also a serious case of white privilege and veiled racism.)

When people loot during a crisis, there’s almost universal condemnation of that action. And it is morally wrong. It’s often an act perpetrated by people who are poor and who may be looting for the basics of life to survive.

Downloading music and not paying for it? Is digital looting.

Is my own conscience clear? I feel that it is. I pay for files on iTunes. I think there’s been maybe two or three times that I’ve downloaded a file; in all those cases, it was a “leaked track” by one of my favorite artists. I knew the moment it became available I was buying the entire album.

For a few older albums, I “ripped” the album from a physical CD into my iTunes library. I bought those albums several times over (on vinyl and cassette) so I know that I’ve paid for the music.

And I still make mixtapes, so to speak (on CD now). So I do share songs with friends. But (a) I’ve paid for the song/album and (b) if I share it, it’s not going to be shared into infinity with thousands of users. And (c) I’ve introduced people to music which in many cases spurred them to buy the entire album and/or other music by the same artist.

Maybe it’s just me entering the hey-you-kids-get-off-of-my-lawn phase, but it really troubles me that so many people see no issue with stealing music.

Because no matter how many ways we slice it, my final thought always comes back to this: How would you feel if you worked for a week, or two weeks, or whatever your pay cycle is….

….and on payday, the end users of your company’s product came to your office/store/widget factory and said, “Hey, we’re taking your paycheck. We appreciate your work, but don’t think you should be paid for it. Thanks!”

I’m guessing mass rioting would occur. So if it’s not ethical if someone does it to you, why would it be ethical to take the value (perceived or monetary) of someone else’s work and assume it as your property?