Each of us has a choice to make. Each and every consumer of music can, of their own volition, choose how they behave toward musicians and thereby create the future they wish to see. Our choices have consequences. Choose poorly and unintended consequences can arise. Choose wisely and you can foster and propagate the things that you love most. We are all individuals with the power and opportunity to make these choices, but what choices do we make?
For the longest time, the debate about music downloading, file sharing and piracy has centred on technical and legislative solutions to the very real problem of the destruction of the income base for musicians and their allied technicians. In every case, the assumption is that people will tend toward dishonesty, if left unchecked and will, therefore, need to be reined in by some powerful, controlling hand. So far, regrettably, the evidence supports the assertion.
People are behaving in a way that, if continued, will guarantee that no musician can make a living at creating music, so that fewer new works will be produced, at a very high standard and so that no artist will be able to afford to develop to the standard currently expected of them. Yes, we’ll have no end of amateur, bedroom productions, some of which may be brilliant, but the time, energy, investment and collaborations that produce the highest quality music releases will simply not be supportable by the remaining income allowed to musicians.
If you, as a music consumer, wish to see a world in which very high quality, new music is no longer made, then continue to steal music. If you wish to have a situation where there is no such thing as a professional musician, don’t, whatever you do, succumb to paying musicians for the music they make. Why should you? Music is so freely available, that it would seem foolish to part with your money to obtain it, wouldn’t it?
Everybody that swipes a copy of their favourite artist’s latest work from Bit Torrent trots out the same tired, old, inaccurate and disingenuous arguments. They’re all baseless. Here are some of the most popular ones:
1) Rock stars are so rich anyway. Why do they need more of my money? – Well, that might be true for some existing rock stars that made money when it was possible to do so, but no new artist is wealthy, or can aspire to be wealthy, save the one percent that has massive sales, like Adele. The vast majority of new artists working in music have barely adequate, not modest, incomes. Painters do better! By the same token, musicians would be far better off dropping the pretence of being wealthier than they really are and display a more humble and realistic public face, to counter this myth.
2) I’m poor. I haven’t got the money to pay for music. – That argument doesn’t cut much ice in the supermarket, when you take their groceries without paying, does it? It also isn’t completely honest. The same people that say they are too poor to shell out for music spend forty quid a month for their access to the internet and another forty on their mobile phone air time, operating their expensive iPods, iPads, iPhones and laptops to do so. Still more will pay for digital television subscriptions. They will happily pay for hardware and bandwidth/access. Why is that stuff affordable, but music not?
3) Record companies are shysters anyway. Why should I make them richer? – Record companies have behaved appallingly; there is no doubt about it. Their record of fair play is not wonderful, yet some musicians did prosper, despite their greed and avarice. Today, record companies are, in reality, a source of loans for artists, at credit card rates. They’re a debt financier, little more. The risk is borne entirely by the band. Also, more and more artists are starting independent record labels, so when you stick it to the record companies, you are, in reality, sticking it to the artist directly, in most cases. You don’t want to support a record company (maybe with some justification, in the case of the monoliths), but you have no qualms about enriching Apple, or Google or your ISP. Aren’t those corporations also guilty of the same corporate misbehaviour that record companies have engaged in? Bit arbitrarily selective in your choice of corporations to punish, aren’t you?
4) I’m just one of the millions of fans. My illegal download won’t make any difference. – Sadly, most albums released sell fewer than 5,000 copies. Only a minority sell 10,000. The number of artists that sell a million can be counted on your hands.
5) I’m promoting the band and their music, by sharing it with my friends. – That remains to be seen. How many of your friends pay for the music, in the end? Do they simply promote the band, too, so that in the final analysis, all there is out in the world are free, promotional copies of the artists’ albums, given away for free as if doing the musicians some huge favour?
6) I don’t like that artist all that much. I wouldn’t have bought their album anyway. – Really? Then why listen to it at all? Why did you make a copy? If you don’t like it, delete it.
7) Culture ought to be free, man. – So, by that reasoning, everything you work at, for a day job, ought to be free as well, whether that’s writing insurance documents, status reports for your project or examining loan applications. Teachers should work for free, too. It follows logically from this position. Anything that contributes to our culture should be free. And maybe that’s right, but why single out musicians for that nascent social experiment? Put your money where your mouth is and repudiate all earnings. That’s the route to cultural utopia. Why the foot dragging?
8) We have enough music. Why do I need to subsidise yet more indolent, parasitic, long-haired, freaky people making a God awful noise? – Yes, we have a rich and varied back catalogue of music. If you wish that the current back catalogue will be all there ever is, from this day forward, then cling to this argument. If, on the other hand, you want something fresh, new and original to come along, once in a while, you had better figure out how to pay for that happy accident to occur. It won’t, without your support of an industry that can nurture it.
9) Being a musician isn’t real work. What do they really do for a job? – If gigging, rehearsing and practicing, performing and travelling to every little town on the map, to make music, isn’t real work, try it for yourself. See if you can just get up there, in front of an audience, and make it happen, without spending your entire lifetime striving and struggling to get better at being a musician. See how you do.
10) Music is a luxury. We can get by without it. – If a world without music at all is what you desire, then you’re welcome to it. I know many people whose very mental health, spiritual well being and happiness depend crucially on there being music to play. We used to have a world where very little music was available. It wasn’t nice. It wasn’t very civilized.
At the root of most of these arguments is the fact that money is unnecessarily scarce, for the vast majority of people. Wage growth has been stagnant or negative, for the past few decades. Standards of living are eroding, under the pressure of austerity measures. Personal indebtedness, which was offered as an alternative to higher wages, has exploded to the point where the piper must be paid (what an ironic phrase that is!) Youth unemployment averages out at twenty five percent in Europe, peaking at fifty percent in some regions. The one percent that Occupy was against has it all, but fails to buy enough music to make the music industry as viable as it would be, if everybody had the disposable income available to buy more music. The problem is actually an economic, political and monetary one. No ordinary person is doing very well, at whatever they do. It is reported that more than seven million households in the UK are just one unexpected, large bill from financial disaster. But why disproportionately punish the musicians that might be able to offer you the comfort of their music and the solace of their lyrics?
On the other hand, are musician’s expectations calibrated to what the average person earns, or are they still expecting to become fabulously wealthy millionaires? When they say they make no money in the music business, do they mean they can’t pay their mortgage next month and run their fifteen year old second hand car, or do they mean they can’t vacation in Cancun this year, replace their one year old BMW, or pay for the upkeep on their second home. I’d love to see the figures, but I would hazard a guess that for brand new artists, the ability to even eat, let alone pay for a place to live, would be under threat. For more established artists, I wonder what the level of their financial distress due to falling incomes from recorded music really is. If they’re exaggerating it, then they will only further alienate their potential customers.
In fact, people have never consumed so much music or had such variety, but they’re looting it, especially amongst the younger demographic. They are taking it from the producers, without fair compensation. Musicians, in response, are leaving the industry in droves, studios are closing down, and musicians are committing suicide. Many more musicians cannot contemplate supporting a family, so their musical experience is not going to be passed down to the next generation as readily. There won’t be as many children of rock stars to receive that knowledge. There won’t be rock stars. We’re selectively reducing the amount of musical heritage passed down from musician to junior musician, in effect. We are, by our actions, selectively reducing the number of young musicians that benefit from their father or mother’s musical experience, in the population. In future, musicians will either be first generation musicians, or else get lucky enough to learn from an elder that is outside of their direct family.
So next time you want to listen to some new music and feel that it is inconvenient or stupid to buy it, think about what your actions mean. They mean a world in which a desire to listen to some new music can, in the future, never be met. It is a world that ultimately falls silent, or else endlessly repeats the same old music, ad infinitum, like some demented doomsday jukebox. It is a world of poorly made, trite, poorly executed “songs” made by well-meaning, but unprofessional tinkerers.
It has to be said that the industry bodies that represent song writers and recording artists have done very little to help artists sell directly to consumers and to make it possible for consumers to conveniently obtain music in all of the forms possible. They haven’t even been straight with consumers about what the product is (is it a piece of plastic, a single performance or a long-lived license to some intellectual property?) Instead, they’ve focused on red herrings like piracy laws, high profile court cases against hapless grandmothers and Draconian internet spying solutions. They have therefore brought contempt upon their own heads and by association, the musicians represented by these bodies. They didn’t want to upset the record companies. That was a strategic blunder. The record companies were always just toll collectors and gate keepers. The value creators are the musicians and technicians. They backed the wrong interests.
It’s a sad irony that people that love independent music don’t adequately support independent record companies. Sure, artists need to get collectively better organised, to make their music available at fair prices, directly to the public, in convenient ways, disintermediating the crooks that have bedevilled the music industry and taken money for old rope as a percentage, but if artists do succeed in that aim, you need to stop stealing their music. You shouldn’t have to be told. You should be able to act responsibly, in the interests of the long term future of music you wish to see. The one you might imagine where music is free, produced by a captive, slave population of musicians that works for nothing and doesn’t need to eat, yet produces works of freshness, originality, passion and sublime beauty, isn’t going to happen. It can’t happen. It can’t happen, because you wouldn’t do it, if you were in the musicians’ shoes.
Musicians, for their part, need to make it easy to do business with them and to buy their products legitimately. They need to improve their products and make more products available, with innovative, new features or available in , new ways. Complacency is out. Those musicians that don’t already do so also need to compare their incomes to most people, not the wealthiest in society.
But if you are a music consumer, think about the world you wish to create, by your acts, and then act accordingly. Put your money where your mouth is. You don’t need to worry about the piracy laws or the spying of the internet companies on your listening habits. None of that, I predict, will make a blind bit of difference to the incomes of musicians, in the long run.
It’s not up to them. It’s up to you.