Oct 18, 2013
I can’t remember when I first read David Lowery’s impassioned polemic directed at
an NPR intern all the companies who profit from the exploitation of musicians and other creative artists, but I decided to revisit it after reading David Byrne’s more recent lamentations on streaming services and the sorry state of artist compensation in the modern age.
Byrne’s piece bothered me primarily due to this conclusion/claim:
…the whole model is unsustainable as a means of supporting creative work of any kind. Not just music. The inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left. Writers, for example, can’t rely on making money from live performances – what are they supposed to do? Write ad copy?
His argument boils down to this: Unless people can make a living creating art (or, more awkwardly producing “creative content”), then art will cease to exist.
Believing, as I do, that humans are creative by default (though that creative impulse may, sadly, be acculturated out of them over time), I found this claim preposterous.
It also got me thinking things like: So what? Humans have been creating interesting artifacts for several thousand years. No human lifetime is long enough, in fact, to consume and adequately appreciate all the cool stuff that has already been created. Maybe we should focus on appreciating what we’ve got instead of producing more stuff that will go unappreciated.
Along the same lines, I thought: Humans have only been able to make money off recordings for about 100 years. Given the many millenia of human civilization, why did we think this set-up would go on forever?
Also, for the record, that “Write ad copy?” bit got under my skin because that is, in part, what I do for a living.
Focusing on Exploitation
My feelings of irritation led me back to Lowery’s post because I seemed to recall similar feelings when I read that.
For those of you who haven’t yet read it, you should. Lowery is a smart and articulate rhetorician who builds a strong case for why the NPR intern in question should feel bad (and doing something) about the fact that she has 11,000 songs on her iPod but has only purchased 15 CDs in her life. (By contrast, I have purchased over a thousand CDs, records and cassettes! Of course, I’m a lot older than Lowery’s Emily.)
I was glad I re-read Lowery’s piece because his argument is in fact nuanced and informed and focuses, unlike Byrne, not on whether or not being an “artist” is a financially viable career choice (to whit, Byrne writes, “Many musicians…will eventually have to find employment elsewhere or change what they do to make more money”), but instead on the business models that allow certain entities (Google, filesharing sites such as the Megaupload, and the manufacturers of devices that allow people to access the internet) to profit from the interest that people have in music created by their favorite artists.
Focusing on the exploitation is a stronger move than focusing on whether or not a life in art is a reasonable career choice. The real problem isn’t that people are trying to sell music but no one is buying it (because they can get it for free one way or the other). Rather, the problem is that nameable entities are making money off the technology that allows people to get the music for free.
To illustrate, if a filesharing site participates in an ad network, and ads are served on pages where, for example, someone could illegally download songs by Neil Young, then that site stands to make money (if someone clicks), the ad network makes money (because they are paid by the advertisers), and, of course, if the ad works (do ads work anymore?), then the advertiser may benefit as well.
The only folks who don’t profit in this schema are the artists and whoever financed the recording and distribution of their work in the first place.
Ethics and Intent
Interestingly, Lowery ended his Jeremiad with an appeal to ethics. He called on the NPR intern and her peers—in fact, anyone who accesses music without paying for it—to consider the moral implications of what they are doing and change their behavior. Why, he asked, should you willingly give money to huge corporations (Verizon, Apple, et al) and yet stiff the starving artist?
As sympathetic as I am to moral arguments—and Lowery does make a compelling case, painting the ethical dilemmas of the current generation in rather stark and unflattering terms—that’s an uphill battle. It’s going to be difficult to build a groundswell of folks pledging, I guess, “to never download without paying,” or something like. Hell, we can’t even get people to drive without texting!
That being said, he and his comrades may have some traction when they focus on the intent of the profiting entities. In an interesting post entitled, “Two Simple Facts about Technology and Piracy: iTunes vs YouTube,” they raise a question that I have never considered: Why is there no porn on YouTube? It certainly can’t be the case that no one uploads it. It is also certainly not the case that no one would watch it if they did.
Instead, it is the case that YouTube is very good at identifying and removing it.
Similarly, the post asks, why isn’t there a problem uploading and selling music to which you have no rights in iTunes? Why aren’t there a slew of daily claims to have wrongfully uploaded content taken down? It’s not the case that illegally uploading content to iTunes is technically impossible. Instead, it is the case that Apple is very good at detecting and removing it if it happens.
The only conclusion that one can draw from this, it is suggested, is that YouTube intentionally opts not to strictly enforce the rights of copyright holders where it would matter most: at and around the time of upload. The simple fact of the matter is that infringed content draws traffic and, rather than treating it like porn, YouTube instead, it would seem, chooses to cover its ass by enforcing rights upon request after the fact, benefiting from the traffic generated in the meantime.
Do What You Love
Making money from “doing what you love” is a cherished dream in our culture. Nevertheless, making money from doing what you love is difficult. You need to be good at it and you need to be lucky. Criticizing the current state of affairs, as Byrne does, from the standpoint of “your making it harder for people to make money from doing what they love,” strikes me as whiney.
At the same time, there is another dream in our culture: Making money from doing nothing at all. The corporations who benefit from the infringement of copyright are living this dream.
And that just don’t seem right.