I. Students Chime In
Back in February, I stumbled across an essay written by a twelfth grader named Kamal Dhillon. In it, he argues that file sharing may be illegal, but it is not ethically wrong. The essay had been entered into the Glassen Ethics Competition and Dhillon won. Out of eighty entrants in the contest, the essay that won the one thousand dollar prize and got republished in The Winnipeg Free Press, argued that yes, copyright infringement can be morally justified. Though the views that Dhillon expresses in the essay and the sheer intellectual resilience that he displays in it are not characteristic of his entire age group’s attitude towards file sharing, nor does his understanding of the issues seem to reflect that of most twelfth graders, it got me thinking. What happens when fans are not stupid anymore? What happens when there are high school students who happen to have a firmer grasp on the file sharing debate than some of the executives and artists who get quoted in the headlines?
I mean, they are smarter than a twelfth grader—right? Most likely not, I am afraid. Readers of blogs like Music Think Tank and TechDirt, who live to learn about and make sense of the impact of technology on the recording industry and have observed how file sharing has reshaped our cultural lives—i.e. you—are in fact, smarter than a twelfth grader. But, what about these out-of-touch executives, commonly relegated to “struggling dinosaurs,” whose only exit from this industry entails mass extinction of their kind and the destruction of the music empires they created? What about all those artists in recent years who have made off-the-cuff comments about file sharing, only to be criticized for their complete disconnect from the arguments? Better, how do Dhillon’s arguments stack up against some of the viewpoints that have been gaining traction in recent weeks?
The other day, audio engineer Jon Sheldrick sent in his thoughtful post “Why You Should Pay for Music;” it has been republished on The Huffington Post and Music Think Tank. In it, he argues that rather than “scaring people into buying music,” he advocates “a culture in which people actually want to spend money on music, because they understand the positive repercussions it has on the medium of recorded music, and the lives of the artists that produce it.” In contrast, Dhillon believes that society “has benefited overall from file sharing.” He, in a sense, argues that it is not that we do not need people to become active participants in their cultural lives, but that they should also be able to deconstruct the obfuscation of reality and the arguments that surround file sharing. He is realistic in his observation that millions of people engage in the act of downloading music and find the arguments against it to be “unfair, inconstant, and irrational.” How does Sheldrick fair?
II. The Value of Music
“The problem,” he argues, “is that many people just don’t value music in a meaningful way.” This is the first of many instances where I happen to disagree with Sheldrick. See, he makes the point that people value music “in the sense that they enjoy it, and love rocking out on their iPod.” However, “they don’t value it in the sense that they will willingly fork over $1 for a song,” enabling the artist to keep producing music. This argument is misguided; it fails to ask the more meaningful question. Is it that people do not value music? Or, is it that music has become in some way disconnected from its value?
Though it would take a whole other essay to establish the basis for that argument, it goes something like this: With the rise of corporatism in the record industry throughout the 1980s and 90s, executives disconnected themselves from what used to matter the most: the music. As the business evolved from the long-term career-building view that artist development allowed to the short-term hit-making machine that mass-media provided, they grew dependent on a business scheme that was never intended to serve fans as actual people who had a personal connection to their culture. Rather, the workings of the CD-Release Complex reduced fans to a mere collective of consumers. They were free to make meaning together—through top-down artist brands and their music—as long as they did so as identity seeking individuals. The artist “brand” replaced peer-to-peer human relationships with an abstract, corporate-created one, and functioned as the fan’s belief system; it employed mythologies, sacred rituals, and iconography that served as a substitute for the features of a real artist. This corporatization continued on to local radio stations and record stores and reduced the natural progression of music culture; it oversimplified the process by which real culture develops and evolves.
In a few decades, the music culture in which people participated became tilted toward the priorities and behaviors of the multi-national corporations and media conglomerates that were responsible for its planning. In the process, our culture became dismantled and replaced with simulations of culture—big-box retail outlets, commercial radio stations, and MTV—and as the record industry skewed itself towards their needs, the harder it became for real culture to thrive. The further people got from the process through which music is created and culture formed, the more disconnected they became from the value of it. And the more music culture became detached from its origins and exchanged for a corporate simulation of one—an existence meant solely to promote behavior that improves the profits of the corporations manufacturing it—the more that music became disconnected from its value and the material processes of its creation. By 1999, the height of the record industry, it was a nearly $15 billion a year business. At this point, most people’s relationships to the artists that they loved were mediated merely through corporations. Fans grew dependant on artist brands for self-presentation; consumption became participation in their cultural lives, their path to individualism. These paths, however, only separated and disconnected them further.
More than a decade later, we still identify with and are even more fascinated by the plight of these abstract corporations in the digital age than we are with the flesh-and-blood artists that they represent, now why do you think that is? Do you really think it is because “people don’t value music in a meaningful way” or are things a little more complicated? I would argue that they are more convoluted than Sheldrick leads us to believe. Has music become devalued to some degree, due to the social epidemic of file sharing and those born-digital who have embraced it? Sure. But, they have become disconnected too.
III. Misunderstanding Complex Events
Next, Sheldrick shares his experience of what is was like to download music illegally in high school, and then as a recording engineer a few years later, witness first hand the effects that the social epidemic of file sharing had on the very industry that he was attempting to enter. There were artists with sizeable fan bases questioning whether or not they could afford to record another album—even though there was obvious demand; musicians no longer able to afford paying recording engineers; and studios, big and small, all over New York City were shutting their doors. All of this, Sheldrick writes, “was a direct result of people not paying for music.” Okay, stop. First off, the problem with Sheldrick’s perspective here is that sometimes recording engineers like him forget just how vast the chasm is between them and real people.
Yes, it would be beneficial if more people had experiences like Sheldrick—such experiences are illuminating—but it is important to remember that it is real people, not recording engineers, who determine the fate of our culture. They may have the same experiences, but see them very differently. The reason for this, as I argued above, is that, sure, such experiences would help remind listeners of the significance and value of music. However, in reminding them, we are admitting something important to our understanding of this debate and the shortcomings of Sheldrick’s argument—not only is there an apparent disconnect between listeners and the value of music, but that the inherent value of music has, in some way, become disconnected from the music itself. Undoubtedly, over the course of the era of recorded music—approximately the last hundred years—people, in becoming more passive participants in their cultural lives, lost their connection to artists and to the labor that creates music. For some people, if not most, their participation begins and ends at consumption; they are not as sensitive to the material process of art’s creation as Sheldrick, nor do they have a vested interest in maintaining the barriers of music consumption and keeping them as high as possible. This is, perhaps, why the rift between real people and music industry professionals in general is so prevalent, because they are not committed to solving a particular problem, like financing and distributing recorded music. Therefore, when something like file sharing comes along and disrupts the process through which those operations occur, as well as, the business model of the record industry, it is important to remember that people are not committed to preserving the music consumption hurdles in order to keep the record industry’s solution viable. And, since it is people, not professionals, who determine the fate of our culture, we must foresee the web as an opportunity to reconnect them to the process through which music is made. That way, they have their direct experience of the labor that goes into creating music, and not just someone telling them about it.
In addition to this, Sheldrick falls into the cognition trap called “causefusion.” In Blunder, historian Zachary Shore argues that this trap pertains to “any misunderstanding about the causes of complex events;” it “leads us to oversimplify, often at our own peril.” Tell me Sheldrick, were these things that you witnessed a direct result of file sharing or were there other things happening? In my humble opinion—beyond the social epidemic of file sharing—it is more useful to consider the rise of the networked audience and the personalized music experience; the death of the CD-Release Complex and the fall of mass marketing; the fracturing of the media landscape into niches; the end of the format replacement cycle; the explosion of alternate and immersive entertainment options; the converging of top-down corporate media with the bottom-up participatory culture of the Internet; the evolution of social music; and the “broken” condition of the traditional music consumption system. Likely, these technological and societal shifts had much more to do with the tragedies that Sheldrick witnessed and file sharing played minor—if any—role.
After this, Sheldrick changes the topic of his argument and expresses his view on how recorded music “provides a listening experience that is unique and rewarding in its own right, and listeners should strive to preserve that.” Is this possible? I mean, can listeners strive to preserve the loss of the concerted sonic experience? Romantic notions such as this tend to forget that listeners do not program the mediums through which they play music. Therefore, the biases of the medium that they are susceptible to also are not under their control. Though many audiophiles likely thought about boycotting the wide-scale adoption of the iPod, the average person’s listening habits do change and they are not precisely “in control” of that. Mediums are biased; they promote different ranges of social behavior. If you want to live in the woods with your 45’s and listen to them on your record player, do it, but it is hard to say it is up to listeners to preserve the experience. In an ironic twist, Sheldrick follows this logic by making an assertion that aligns directly with thoughts that I have been exploring in recent months. He argues that fans need to buy their music, learn how to listen more closely and savor it, that by purchasing music and going through the process to obtain it—the waiting, the anticipation, and getting to finally own it—they will inherently enjoy the music more. Exactly. But, there is a problem with getting to a place where you can actually savor your music—you have to buy it first. If the arguments that I have made about the paradoxes of choice overload in culture are correct, then it is getting harder and harder for fans to decide what music to buy every day, their ability to savor their music is overtaken by the effect of overwhelming choice.
IV. The Morality Issue
“At the end of the day, it’s really a moral argument,” Sheldrick concludes. He concedes though, that in the music world, much like life in general, that “the moral road is not always the easiest route to take.” To understand the limitations of this argument, let us return again to the views Kamal Dhillon expressed in his winning essay, “Not Wrong, Just Illegal.” He writes that, “in many areas the world over, the action of uploading and downloading copyrighted material is illegal and people know this. Yet, they still download music without paying anyways.” Why then, are so many people choosing to simply ignore the copyright laws? “Part of the reason is that people question whether the law that forbids sharing of such material online is morally justified,” he answers. On the topic of the morality of file sharing, he rather convincingly argues that, “The fact that something is illegal doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily immoral.” He argues, that on a global scale “young people are questioning the merit of the laws that forbid them to share material.” They think that copyright laws are unjust and know they are easy to break without getting caught. Just as important, he asserts, is that most young people regard the act of sharing their music with others as morally acceptable. So, is it really a moral argument? “You’re talking about a non-violent activity largely in the privacy of your own home, or bedroom or dorm room, in search of great music that turns you on—that is inherently a joyful, if potentially addictive, activity,” music critic Greg Kot told me in an interview. “It’s also completely organic: The Internet, above all, is a tool for sending and receiving files. That music files would be part of that culture is only natural.” In the Copyright Wars, legal scholar William Patry has argued that the only reason the subject of morality comes up, in terms of the file sharing debates is that people use it “as as a way to cover up the inability to justify expansion of rights on economic grounds.”
“Indeed,” Mike Masnick of TechDirt adds to the discourse. “Since copyright is intended as an economic right, the argument over copyright needs to focus on the economic issues…a properly calibrated system is one where there’s the greatest overall economic good and everyone has the greatest opportunity to benefit…” At that point, he rightfully asks, “[Where’s] the morality question at all?” There is not one. Those who claim morality in an economics discussion on copyright use it as a crutch because they cannot support their position. Masnick, then, firmly states, “There is no moral issue at all.” In other words, it is not that the moral road is a difficult route to take, as Sheldrick wrote, it is that, in debating the issue of file sharing, it is a route that should not be taken at all. Under scrutiny the argument just does not hold up. Masnick believes that those who use the morality foundation to support their arguments are wrong on two major points. “First,” he says, “is the idea that it means creators of content can’t make any money.” When, in fact, he argues, “nothing can be further from the truth.” Then, he argues that the second point revolves around the idea “that there’s a right to make money.” He maintains his position that this line of logic is completely false because economics is not a moral issue; it does not care about anyone’s ‘right’ to make money from his or her creative output. Therefore, neither should you. Andrew Dubber of New Music Strategies has summed up this argument quite well. He writes, “Making music is not (usually) a job of work. It is a creative act. You don’t have the RIGHT to make money from your music. You only have the opportunity. If you make music speculatively—that is, you create it in the hopes of making money from it, then you are a music entrepreneur. As such, entrepreneurship rules apply.” Even though many artists invest a good deal of energy, effort and expense in their creative ideas, they will probably make no money. The thing that most people forget is that nobody owes them the money just because they put the work in. Being a successful entrepreneur means that artists have to meet people’s needs and wants in a way that allows them to make money. Not by, as Dubber puts it, “making things that people will not pay for, insisting that they should, and then complaining that their morals are to blame.” He then poses this question, “Even if it was true that all the people you wish to target with your art are immoral thieves…why would you insist on trying to change their behavior as part of your business strategy?” After all, Mark Earls wrote an entire book on this topic called Herd, its lesson: “Mass behavior is hard to change.”
To be clear, my intention here is not to suggest that Jon Sheldrick is not smarter than a twelfth grader—not at all. He has written a very well thought out essay and it deserves the attention that it has garnered. However, we need to take a moment and recognize the implications of a culture where a twelfth grader is capable of understanding and expressing the arguments that surround file sharing. Chances are—out of the eighty entries in the ethics competition—someone made arguments that were similar to the points that Sheldrick argued, but they did not win. When presented with an essay like Sheldrick’s, as good as it is, someone like Dhillon is capable of finding his way through the maze of the issues and asking the follow up question that makes Sheldrick’s argument drop like a house of cards. He likely does not know about Masnick, Patry, or Dubber, but the information is out there. Fans are not stupid. Yes, file sharing might be illegal, but to them, it is not wrong. Therefore, making these outdated pleas—that focus around arguments that have, by and large, been debunked by leading experts—about why fans should pay for music is not going to resonate with these kids. You tell the right crowd that file sharing is a moral argument and they are going to think you are an idiot. Not only that, but responses to file sharing like this, they do not seek any imaginative nor creative insights. They do not help people understand the issues better. All they do is make other artists and employees in the cultural industries feel better—about themselves. Instead, of taking what could be a great opportunity to clarify the issues that surround this social behavior and helping the general public comprehend reality, I would contend that all Sheldrick has done is confused them further, turning the discourse into that of post-lunch student chatter.