Tag Archives: David Lowery

The Morality and Economics of Ephemera (or: Emily’s Pirate Booty)

Context: Emily White, a young intern at NPR’s All Songs Considered, blogged up a thing about how she loves music but does not buy any of it between streaming services and various acts of borrow-ripping and regular-type file sharing.  Then David Lowery of The Trichordist, which apparently represents “artists for an ethical internet”, wrote a rebuttal which is making the rounds a bit.  Both pieces make some statements worth considering, lying well outside the standard “record companies hate puppies!” / “file sharing is mugging artists at gunpoint!” internet back-and-forth.

 

Since high-value music and patronage of artists is a thing that I support here (and with my bux), I wanted to give The Trichordist a solid rejoinder as I think David’s essay is pretty off-base — but off-base in a new, interesting, and possibly suggestive way.  Read those other essays before continuing.

 

Basically I agree with David that corporations and government are not going to fix the problem with getting artists paid, but disagree strongly with most of the rest of the article.  That is not to say that I fall into the “Free Culture” camp that he sees as the enemy; I have a larger music library than Emily and I have paid for the vast majority of that, recently much of it in payments more or less directly to artists via Bandcamp.  I would love for most people to behave this way. But David constructs a number of strawmen that deny reality and miss the point.

 

First, his whole concept of a corporate-backed free culture movement is nonsensical. Does he really think that it it were not for evil megacorps that digital music sharing would not have gotten out of hand? Blogger please. It was over as soon as 1) CDs containing perfect digital copies of music became available, 2) computers got CD readers, and 3) fast internet became broadly available.  Once those were in place, it was the end of the ironclad traditional music sales model and the rest has been details.  Remember that Napster was a classic garage startup, as has been basically every music sharing site/app ever.  Even if Google stopped serving ads and all the existing file sharing and streaming sites shut down, new ones would pop up and absolutely nothing of significance would change.  It is about demand, not supply.

 

No, the real issue is that people have an innate belief that tangible objects (and services) are the only things that have monetary value and music is no longer a tangible product.  Or turn that around and say that people prefer to only spend money on tangible objects because they are, by nature, not free to manufacture. That is the reality that the author is completely ignoring.  He talks about how people are willing to spend money for laptops and internet service (which they buy for reasons other than stealing music, despite what he seems to suggest), and wonders why they will not pay for music.  The answer is: because, unlike with a laptop or internet service, they ain’t have to.  It is not because of some corporate conspiracy, and not for any of the dumb reasons that he gets by asking college students, who are clearly just creating ethical padding for not having to their spend cash money.

 

So the author’s solutions boil down to: asking that people do the right thing — which I support completely, but is not gonna happen as things stand — and pressuring the content sharing and ad revenue companies to repent, which is ridiculously pointless.  Neither of these things comprise a realistic solution.

 

The truth is that music is our fascinating first entry into a world that we are going to be seeing a lot more of, and which has not fully formed.  It is a world of true intellectual (or I might say ephemeral) property. We have had laws about intellectual property for a long time, but it has always been kind of an in-joke.  We have not been directly stopping the copying of the intellectual property of music; we have been stopping the production of counterfeit sheet music, records, tapes, and CDs — tangible products, not intellectual ones.  It was a convenient simplification because musicians lumped a payment for their intellectual work in with an object that had innate value to people. We spent money on those music-carrying objects because they were singular, unduplicatable, and, critically, could not be had be means other than paying for them or denying someone else of them.

 

Speaking of which, let us talk about stealing for a moment.

 

Stealing an object carries innate negative moral weight for human beings.  And humans also have innate belief that the cost of something is, when things are fair, closely connected to the cost of producing it.  This is naive — and I think leads to the Walmart “it’s all the same shit anyway” low-quality mentality — but you cannot deny that it is the general gut instinct.  Humans are attuned by evolution to respect fairness, but it is a raw kind of instinct.  We only feel the moral tug strongly when public shame is in the balance, and we are only sensitized to bilateral fairness with transactions that are personal and/or tangible.  Any legally-defined form of “stealing” that ignores these instincts will not be naturally respected.

 

Music is the first type of intellectual property that we can now have at zero production cost, without directly denying anyone else, and without any loss of quality from the original.  That means that nothing about copying music feels like stealing and the value of the product remains undiminished; that makes it pretty irresistible.  Emily is probably right; her generation may not ever have any interest in paying for music because they have no legacy memory of a time when stealing music felt like actual stealing like us oldsters do.  And what happens as duplication costs and fidelity of copying other kinds of intellectual property fall to zero — become ephemeral?  This is a good thing overall, as products can now enrich the lives of humanity more easily and at lower cost, but how can we make the economics work for everybody?

 

Here is what I say.

 

I tend to think that the only solution is to find new ways of linking intellectual products to innate moral sensibilities. I hesitate to even call that a “solution” because it is not a corporate or government initiative, it is just something that I believe will happen.  People engage in “fair” music transactions when shame is in the balance.  Stealing music today denies payment to artists, but usually in an extremely abstracted, distant way which few have shame about (and a little ethical padding can make feel like fighting the good fight).  This means that the music business (and others that start to ephemeralize) will likely change drastically.  Nobody is going to feel guilty about denying an international superstar of $2, and the business case for those mega-artists is diminishing.  But if an artist has his/her own site, engages more directly with his fans (musically and socially), and sells directly to them, I think people are a lot more likely to do the right thing.  I can hope that when more people stop copying Katy Perry and start buying from those smaller artists, they will thrive.

 

So the large, hit-oriented recording industry is likely to die, and we should have no issue with that (as if we really had any choice at this point).  I think music and individual musicians will thrive all the more as a result when they begin to find sets of ears that they can connect with more personally without making use of obsolete record industry carpet marketing.  And I think this will be the way of many things in the decades to come:  the downscaling and democratization of creating, producing, and selling all kinds of things.  The innate moral and economic forces of ephemeral products will relentlessly route around anything more centralized, and the appeal of more personal products I believe is high. iTunes is a half-way solution, an attempt to use convenience, selection, and consistent quality to patch the gap between a traditional tangible product-based business model and the new ephemerality of the product.  There is nothing wrong with that, but there are still those moral and economic forces saying that it is not natural, and that is what Emily is pointing out.

 

Emily should still feel kind of shitty for not buying more music; if she loves music, she should at least go find some small artists she likes and who want to like her back, and give them money.  It will feel good, and an increasing number of those artists today are delivering a connection between artist and listener beyond just some mp3s.  But we are not getting anywhere telling Emily that artists are being destroyed by sinister forces that she is supporting.  She just likes music in the dawning of the age of the ephemeral.

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