A recent series of blogs have virally called our attention to the nature of music, artist’s compensation, theft, and morality in the information age.
The first, Emily White (PBS employee) blog post was a candid, homely little ditty that would’ve garnered no attention whatsoever had it not been posted on a famous lefty (though ostensibly public) media site that’s constantly, greedily monitored by academics and pseudo intellectuals bent on finding and exposing the slightest errors to prove how smart they are (kind of like savants of the past that watched for errors on Jeopardy so they could write unpublishable letters to the editor of their local dishrags). Unfortunately, though, it was.
Therefore it drew the ire of a pretentious lefty blowhard who exploited and seized upon it for all it was worth, blogging out his bottled up vitriol all over the internet that previously was only spewed upon his unfortunate students. This washed up college and alternative rocker goes by the moniker of David Lowery, of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. And the rant was even longer and more pretentious than this one.
The third most famous shot over the bow thus far that I know of was Travis Morrison of the indie/math rock band Dismemberment Plan’s cheeky response in which he tellingly referred to David Lowery as ‘dude from Cracker’. His screed was in defense of Emily White and kids who love an endless amount of music endlessly but don’t have an endless supply of cash to be able to purchase it all. It also contained good insights into the history of music ‘theft’ before the internet, and, more importantly insight into a deeper understanding of the generational divide that Lowery seems have entirely glossed over (ironically, considering how much he ‘hates his generation’) in his diatribe.
Unfortunately (for you that have the displeasure of reading my rant), Morrison failed to address another deep issue that Lowery (who made a killing in the most lucrative musical commodification ever, the 1990s cd explosion, due solely to market forces of the time) brought up in his rant; morality.
Side note: Lowery unfortunately consistently refers to morality as ‘ethics’; as a college professor I’d hope that distinction would be more than just academic to him. What’s ethics? Well I ain’t no college professor, but in general from what I know it’s a set of rules meant to govern the behavior of a certain sect, usually used specifically to refer to a group of professionals. It has no inherent value such as that derived from say a divine source such as the Bible.
So when you talk about ethics, you probably shouldn’t use it to refer to consumers, because there is no governing set of rules for consumers. They’re far too diverse of a group (being, well, everyone), and their desires, be they moral or immoral, are provided by the marketplace (whether through a black market or a legal one). The marketplace is what writes the rules here and decides what’s ethical. Therefore, if the vast majority of people are stealing music, it is in fact ethical to do so.
It may or may not be moral.
Morality and art don’t really mix or diverge as clearly for me as for David Lowery. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have the ability to oversimplify the concept of morality like Lowery seems to be able to do without any awareness whatsoever of the irony. Perhaps it’s because I recognize that my morality isn’t necessarily everyone else’s. Or perhaps it’s just because I never made a million bucks off my art, and therefore have no interest in calling people immoral for not giving me a million more.
Ok perhaps that last one was just mean. Then again, I found Lowery’s condescension towards White to be pretty damn mean. Especially all of the patronizing apologies attempting to reassure White that he thought she was a
good person, just misguided. Good thing I ain’t White. I don’t take kindly to being patronized by people who think just cause they’re older, they’re wiser and better (morally) than me. And history is full of younger, stronger people
overthrowing the old and the weak. Especially the pretentious ones.
Ok; now in line with the blog discourse I’m about to send yet another drop into the sea of, my confession.
I’m between the 3 generational decades mentioned in the blogging bow shots above; the ‘naive’ twenties of White, the wizened old crank fifties of Lowery, and the reasonable forties of Travis Morrison. I’m in my thirties.
And I have in the past owned thousands of cd’s. Most of them I didn’t buy. Half of them were given to me by touring bands, friends’ bands, etc., often in exchange for cd’s by my band or myself. The other half I stole. That’s right. I piled cd’s from my local corporate mega mart into my backpack and walked right out the door, time and time again. That’s right; I’m way worse than Morrison ever was. But I ain’t gonna say sorry.
Does this make me immoral? Personally, I think that stealing from giant corporations that exploit the voracious appetites of consumers such as myself that they themselves procure is a moral gray area at best. Especially when they pay their employees minimum wage and make millions for themselves and their industry cronies. I have no idea how much the ‘artists’ made off these cd’s, but from what I’ve heard they’re the lowest paid on the totem pole. And half the ‘artists’ I ‘stole’ from are dead anyway.
So when illegal downloading came along I didn’t experience a new moral conundrum. Now I have thousands of albums in my personal ‘cloud’ (and btw the ‘cloud’ doesn’t mean anything other than that the data is housed in servers not in your house). Most of which, as Morrison was getting at, I never would have otherwise heard. And as a creator of music, I can say wholeheartedly that I’d much rather have 100 people hear and enjoy my music than have one person give me $100 for it.
When I really want to own something I buy it on used vinyl from a local shop. How much money do artists make on that? Especially the dead ones?
And to be honest, I don’t feel all that bad about artists not being ‘compensated’ for their art. Especially considering that I’ve been an ‘artist’ for over twenty years now, have myself made or significantly contributed to scores of albums, have toured and played clubs, and have yet to make enough money to pay for even a damned meal. And my impression is that the vast majority of artists throughout all time are more like me than David Lowery. We work day jobs. We struggle. It doesn’t matter if other artists are making money; most of us don’t. Which means we don’t do it for the money. We do it for the art. And David Lowery and his rich buddies can go to hell when they demand more money and call us immoral for not giving it to them.
In the nineties I saw crap like Cracker, Alanis Morissette, and the Stone Temple Pilots on mtv all day long. And of course this followed the eighties, when absolute venal garbage like Motley Crue and Poison were the rock bands that ruled the airwaves –’alternative rock’ was an ostensible alternative to that venality. ‘Hey yay now we won’t be scarred like that.’ The hell it was. These alternative posers (backed by some idiotic ‘cred’ like hey my new band may make corporate rock but my previous band made college rock) made millions of dollars, and I didn’t (and still don’t) think their ‘art’ should even be called ‘art’. It’s commercial product. And as an ostensible artist, I don’t give a damn about fair compensation for commercial products.
Sure it’d be great to be compensated for doing what I do anyway. But personally I think it would pervert rather than make the art better. I’m a big fan of self indulgent art. Cause it’s pure self expression. It’s not something that’s meant to be sold, and therefore, to me, it’s better. Was Van Gogh a great artist? Was he ever compensated? Do you think if he had been his art would have been better or worse? Art is best when it’s made by the hungry, the disenchanted, the angst ridden. In addition, that’s when it’s most effective as a tool for encouraging
social change. Not when it’s made by rich guys in big mansions on expensive drugs. That’s just commercial products to feed the many heads of the beast.
So you can go on trying to make me feel guilty and calling me immoral cause I won’t give you and your dinosaur buddies an extra couple dollars to add to their hundreds of thousands. It ain’t gonna work. Right now we both live in the jungle. But don’t you fret Davey boy, you and your venal art will be back on top in no time.
As an academic, I’d hope you’d have a good enough sense of media history to recognize that it takes at least decades for a new pervasive mass medium to monetize and properly develop distribution channels for products it disseminates. But apparently you don’t.
So a short lesson in theft; it took Hoover and his clever misappropriation of the ‘public’ airwaves to make radio, and hence music, profitable. Before then radio was ruled by pirates who said and played whatever they wanted. It was a
jungle. And after the government forcefully overthrew the pirates and made their acts illegal, ostensibly under the guise of national security, it handed out no bid licenses directly to its corporate buddies (tell me when this starts
to sound familiar). And henceforth radio shows and music became profitable. And thence followed album distribution profitability, and later television, and so on. The internet’s just the new game in town. And right now it’s free. Something will most likely come along and forcefully bulldoze the jungle in the form of government intervention in the near future, but right now government (as always) is simply examining and monitoring this jungle before the market figures a way to tame it. Only then will government, in collusion with whatever corporate giants have enslaved the jungle, rip the rest down.
Will that make you happy, dude from Cracker?