Monday, October 25, 2010

Pay For Your Music

A few days ago, I put up streams of Page CXVI's music—not only with their permission, but at their express suggestion. They want you to hear their music. They want you to enjoy it. And ultimately, they're hoping you'll buy it. So am I. If you enjoy the streams, go to their site, spend the $7 for the download, or $10 for download and CD, and listen in your car and your computer and everywhere else to your heart's content. Two things you really shouldn't do, even if you can:

  1. Rip the recordings in any way, shape or form without paying for the music. I'm well aware (and no doubt so are they) that this is easily doable with a stream out there like this.
  2. Keep streaming the recordings indefinitely, enjoying the music at your convenience but never actually buying the music for yourself. If you like it, buck up and buy it. (In fact, that's what I would say even if the music were available for free download.)

This is a rare case where good ethics and pure pragmatics coincide, at least if you're willing to take a view longer than your nose. The first action is clearly an ethical breach, insofar as it's a violation of the law of the land. The second, of course, is not morally suspect: as I said, Page CXVI wants this music streaming, in hope that it will broaden their audience and ultimately bring them more paying customers. Pragmatically, however, you still should buy their music if you like it—indeed, the pragmatics here are so compelling that I'll simply leave aside the ethics of piracy for the rest of the discussion. (I'll take it up another day, perhaps.)

That desire to be compensated isn't crass, isn't wrong, isn't selfish—whatever you may think, and whatever the most common view on the internet these days is. I think it is beyond dispute that the record label system is fundamentally broken—perhaps irreparably so. The internet has both contributed to that brokenness and exposed what was already present. It has also empowered an entire group of people—my generation—who feel entitled to whatever they want, whenever they want it, for nothing at all. The result is devastating not only to record labels but to artists. Indeed, an argument can be made that the major labels are hurting the cause of good music and shafting good musicians, but all of that is incidental: for most artists, you can't hurt the label without hurting them, too, and by and large most labels aren't good hearted enough to put the musicians first. If you hurt the label, you're hurting the musicians most, not their corporate intermediaries.

Legal enforcement is not an option here. The Internet is too big, with too many channels, and too much rerouting ability, for the hammer of law to have any impact at all in the long run on illegal file-sharing. Piracy, as we have come to know it, will inexorably crush any governmental or regulatory attempts to squash it. The War on Piracy is more futile and more pointless than the War on Drugs. The only possible remedy is cultural: only if we have a deep-rooted change in the views of th people doing the downloading and sharing will artists receive compensation for their work.

Why should you care? Why shouldn't you download music for free if it's available legally, and never pay a penny? Why shouldn't you stream Hymns I and Hymns II all day long without buying them from Page CXVI? It's not a moral issue, right?

The answer is simple: how much do you like Page CXVI? If you enjoy them enough to spend any significant amount of time listening to their music, buy it—because you buying their music is the only way they get to keep making more music. Sometimes, given the way the music industry works, it's the only way for an artist to make up the money he spent creating the album in the first place: yes, much of the music out their is produced at a loss to the artist, even the good stuff. You're undermining the most basic aspect of capitalism: coupling market value to revenue stream. Other factors contribute here, as well, especially oversupply on the market: so much music is produced that all of it begins losing worth. However, if the music is of sufficiently high quality that you want to listen to it all day long, you're without a good excuse: if you listen to it but refuse to pony up some cash for it, you're devaluing the work that went into it and furthering that economic decoupling. The result is a loss not only for the artist but also for the society to which they're contributing. That means you.

There are solutions outside of those proposed by the record labels. Many artists are building their careers successfully on the, "Try it and do us the favor of paying if you like it" model. The same model has had a modicum of success in the software development world—but only a modicum, and in th elong run it becomes difficult to sustain. After all, unless your product is simply astoundingly good (and even if it is), people would generally rather not pay for it. Being honest here: there are several pieces of software I use regularly but which I have never supported financially. They're available for free, and I take advantage of that. However, it's in my best interests to do so—something I've been increasingly thinking on over the last few months as I've pondered the relevant issues in art.

Making music, like creating good software, is hard. The current laws on both are a mess, and enforcement is a nightmarish joke. Something has to change. In my view, that something must be culture: as a culture, if we are not predisposed to value others' work and time, we will take it for free, and deprive future culture of the future contributions of those artists and workers who can no longer afford to spend their days without renumeration. People need to eat, and every argument I've heard advanced from supposedly capitalist views ("If it's good enough, people will pay for it!") leaves me asking one simple question: if you don't think their music is good enough to pay for, why are you listening to it?

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