June 20th, 2012
Here’s what happened:
I retweeted Aimee Mann’s link to a post by David Lowery on his Trichordist blog, a post that he wrote in response to something Emily White posted on the All Songs Considered blog. You should read both posts to get up to speed. Let me know when you’re ready.
OK? So Emily is 21, and she writes about how she is young enough to have never had to go through the transition from physical music to digital. She’s never paid for much music in her life, but she has a large library of mp3s, and she has some misgivings about that. But she’s pretty sure that her generation is never going to pay for music. David’s response is a good read, and very instructive about the state of the music business and the internet, and I won’t try to sum it up here for fear of misrepresenting his position – you should definitely read it.
Some people are asking why I retweeted that link to an argument that is very different from the one that I made in response to the MegaUpload shutdown. The answer is because it made me think. I hesitate to even write this post, because every time I start talking about this stuff it feels like I’m poking a bear – a bear who is a lot smarter and more well-informed than me, a bear who is distributed all over the internet and has various law degrees, and has read and understood all the economic studies about file sharing and the decline in music business revenue. I imagine the bear will write a bunch of posts that make me think even more, and also make me feel kind of dumb about what I said or failed to say. I admit: I don’t know what I’m talking about, and a lot of what I believe comes from gut feelings, personal experience, and wishful thinking. Answers I have none, but here are some things David’s post makes me think about.
I have a different perspective on the music business than a lot of artists because of the way my career happened. Before I left my software job and started Thing a Week, the music business seemed like a private club to which I would never belong. Some of that was self-doubt and laziness I’m sure, but not all of it. I honestly don’t believe I could have made this thing happen under the old system. So to me, the internet is everything – it changed my life, it saved me, it continues to sustain me today. But over the past few years I’ve gotten to know a bunch of artists and industry people who came up in that old system, and who have been watching it fall apart around them. It’s a terrible thing, and as a human being, it’s hard to look those people in the eye while I’m waving the Free Culture flag. So when I read a post like David’s it really knocks me off my feet. What if I’ve been wrong all this time? What if I’ve been suckered in by the Free Culture movement, and all this rah-rah filesharing talk is contributing to the decline of civilization? What if it’s ME who’s on the wrong side of history?
I think David and I agree on at least one point, which is that Emily’s suggestion that buying music isn’t convenient doesn’t really make sense. It’s gotten pretty easy over the last few years to pay for the music that you like. And like David, I think the right choice is to support the artists that you love by giving them money. I also think it’s kind of shitty that there’s a lot of money generated from filesharing activites that makes some people rich and never gets to the artists (see also “Meet the New Boss, Worse Than the Old Boss”). I agree it would be nice if there were an easy way to fix that.
I’m trying hard to find the place where David and I begin to disagree, and I’m not even sure we do. I think it’s more a matter of our perspectives, and the context in which we see all this stuff happening. I’ll start with this: David points out that Emily’s free music isn’t really free, and that she needed to buy a bunch of stuff in order to get this free music: a smartphone with a data plan, an iPod, a Macbook. He wonders why Emily was OK paying for this very expensive stuff, but not OK paying for music. The answer is obvious: those are physical objects that Emily would have had to steal from a store, out there in meat space, using her actual body and hands, risking physical incarceration and getting in serious trouble. I am quite certain that if Emily could go to a website and download a free illegal copy of a Macbook in the safety of her own home, she would do it. Hell, I might even do it. I don’t know that I can articulate here to everyone’s satisfaction why getting digital music for free is different from getting physical objects for free, but it is hard to argue that it is not, in some fundamental way, very different. Clearly, we all think it’s different, otherwise we would be stealing as many laptops as we are mp3s. Mp3s are lying all over the ground waiting for us to pick them up, and no matter how many we pick up, there are always more. Whether you think picking them up is wrong or not, it would be hard to argue that this is not the current reality.
This difference between physical and digital is the meat in this sandwich. After all, the music business didn’t exist until it became possible to record music onto a medium that could be mass-produced. To be clear, I’m not saying that nobody made money making music before there were records, just that the music industry as we know it is almost exclusively based on the idea that there’s a physical object you can sell, and that access to that physical object is the only way you can play the music whenever you want. That’s obviously over. And it doesn’t just put a bunch of corporate suits at risk, it puts artists at risk. We know that the record industry is falling apart because look at these charts and graphs. The scary thing is, there’s also a very real possibility that in the long term, being a musician will no longer be a thing that you can do to make money.
It’s already happening. The job of being an artist and the business of selling music have both changed and are still changing. The money flows to different places now – it goes to Spotify, Grooveshark, Google, MegaUpload, Apple, Amazon. Some of them give artists a decent cut, some of them give artists nothing at all. Some of them are real douchebags, some of them maybe have the sheen of non-douchebagism, but the truth is that none of those guys care about artists because they are businesses (in contrast with many wonderful label people I have met, who are often fans first and business people second). This is how things are, and it’s good for some people and bad for other people. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
John Roderick tweeted a quote from Michael Penn. I don’t know the source of it, but here it is: “Recorded music exists now in a nether world between commerce and charity, dependent entirely on the ethics of strangers.” He’s not wrong. And that reality has a great deal to do with the fact that music is now a digital thing – it costs almost nothing to reproduce and distribute in unlimited quantities. There is no scarcity anymore, no discrete physical object to build a business around, no reason to pay for it other than wanting to support the artist so they can make more music, a long term proposition that isn’t always the first thing you think of when your finger is hovering over the download link. Some people support artists even though they don’t have to, which is a lot like how it used to be before there were recordings. You might call that nether world between commerce and charity “patronage.”
I believe this is the long-term future of all things, not just music. Here is where I will lose a large percentage of my audience, because I’m now going to get a little science fictiony and start talking about the future of nanotechnology and 3D scanners and printers, and the eden of abundance that awaits us in a glorious future of machine saviors. Stay with me though, because I’m going to bring this back to the David Lowery post in a bit.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s just say that within a few years there will exist a pretty reliable, pretty cheap, consumer 3D printer that you can buy at Staples and have in your house (this is not a crazy thing to say). You can give it the specs of an object and it will print it out in plain white plastic. Your costs are the machine, the raw plastic, the time it takes to print it, and whatever you pay for the digital file that has the object specs (hint: some people are going to charge you, but the internet is going to drive the price of these kinds of files towards $0). Let’s say there’s also some pretty accurate, pretty cheap 3D scanner technology out there too.
Your kid loves Legos. He’s got an X-wing fighter kit that he’s super excited about, and as he’s putting it together, one of the little pointy laser turret pieces on the tips of the wings slips out of his hands and falls down the central air conditioning vent. No problem. You fire up the old internet, and you find www.legowarez.to, the small crazy place where all of the Lego nuts go to obsessively upload and catalog 3D scans of every lego piece that has ever existed. This site is ad supported, and some douchebag in Nigeria is getting rich off it. But you find the file for the piece you need, you download it, and a few minutes later you’ve printed out a replacement piece.
How do you feel about that? Do we need to step in and protect Lego’s interests? I’m assuming that this act is some kind of theft of intellectual property – you are, after all, getting a copy of a thing for free that Lego presumably owns. But their business is not just based on intellectual property, it’s also based on the manufacture of these objects. So I don’t know, you’re not stealing a Lego piece precisely, but you are stealing the idea of a Lego piece, and not just a brick, but a specific custom piece that they spent money and time to design, create, and license from George Lucas. Ethically, it’s a little complicated, right?
Let’s take it further and say that you have a cheap and reliable consumer 3D scanner at home, and every time you get a new set of Legos for your kid, you scan and catalog the whole thing just to make sure you have a backup copy of all the pieces, so you don’t need to poke around the annoying, popup-laden, douchebaggy legowarez site the next time you lose a piece. How’s that? Still OK? Or is that not cool? You are presumably stepping a little bit on their business interests, because that might represent a bunch of replacement pieces you will not be buying from them. And theoretically you could print out a second copy of a Lego set that you only paid for once. But if it’s all just for personal use, maybe you’re OK with that.
What if a new Death Star kit came out and you didn’t buy it, but instead went to the legowarez.to site and just got the whole thing for free and printed it out? This is pretty clearly uncool I think. It’s money that Lego would have gotten but did not – well, probably, assuming you would have bought it in the absence of an available pirated version. In fact, this transaction created some small amount of profit for the douchebag in Nigeria who puts ads on legowarez.to, the 3D printer company, and your internet provider. That’s money that your sense of justice might tell you belongs in Lego’s pockets instead. So, what are our ethical obligations here? Do you think we should figure out a way to shut down legowarez.to? Do you think we need to get the 3D printer company to take some responsibility and give some of that profit back to Lego?
What if the Lego nuts created and uploaded specs for a bunch of Lego pieces that didn’t exist? What if they made, and published for free, the specs for a kit that connected Legos with K’Nex, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and almost every other extruded plastic construction kit you can think of? (Whoops, someone already did that actually.) That’s kind of cool because it’s an innovation that is otherwise extremely impractical – it makes an end run around about 4,000 lawyers, and crosses all sorts of intellectual property lines, and makes something that enables your kid to create a super awesome log cabin death star ferris wheel. It just would not happen without this technology enabling Lego nuts to be Lego nuts. Now what? Do you feel the need to protect Lego and K’Nex and Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys and the entire molded plastic kit industry from this threat to their business? Because once anyone in the world can just make a new Lego kit and publish it online for free, this corner of industry is going to slowly disappear – revenues will drop, layoffs will happen, and career molded plastic kit people will eventually no longer be able to make a living.
Now take all those things that just happened with Legos and imagine them happening with auto parts, shoes, forks, watches, clothing, eyeglasses, medicine, food, beer, smartphones, iPods, Macbooks (and here’s the mind fuck: with 3D printers themselves). Where along this chain do you choose to put on the brakes? (<--Strawman alert: I concede that David Lowery is not advocating the obstruction of the 3D printer industry. Hang on a second.)
Now I sound like a crazy utopian futurist person. UNFOLLOW. But I think this is where my thoughts and priorities diverge from what's in David Lowery's post. I believe it's a noble and just pursuit to try to get some of the money that's flowing to MegaUpload and Google to flow to artists. It is definitely on the side of good. And I agree that the ethical choice is to pay for music (because I am an old person). I think it would be nice of Emily and her generation to realize that artists she loves deserve her financial support, and I'm pleased to see that on sites like Kickstarter, patronage is alive and well, at least for now. But I don't know if I'm going to spend a lot of effort trying to convince Emily that what she's doing is wrong, or trying to convince Google to give some of their ad revenue to me. These feel like a short-term goals, a little like skating to where the puck was a few minutes ago. I submit that it is maybe not the right place to focus our efforts. Frankly, I'd prefer it if we could make some progress on this 3D printer technology, because I am missing a lot of Lego pieces.
Even though they may spell doom for my profession, Emily's attitudes toward music feel a little bit like a piece of the future to me, a little bit like the way we're all going to feel about Legos and auto parts and eyeglasses in a few decades. Emily's kids are going to be born into a world that makes them think even LESS like us old people about the ethics of intellectual property in the digital realm (a realm that will increasingly include actual physical things). They're going to seem to us like depraved, heartless monsters who think it's OK to steal Legos. Even Emily is going to be shocked and surprised.
This is my bias: the decline of scarcity seems inevitable to me. I have no doubt that this fight over mp3s is just the first of many fights we're going to have about this stuff. Our laws and ethics already fail to match up with our behaviors, and for my money, those are the things we should be trying to fix. The change is already happening to us, and it's a change that WE ARE CHOOSING. It's too late to stop it, because we actually kind of like a lot of the things that we're getting out of it.
I don't know how to get all that artist money back, and I don't know if we ever will. I don't much like that Spotify pays out so little to me when their service is siphoning directly out of the gas tank of my mp3 sales. But I sure do love having Spotify here on this computer I keep in my pocket. The flood comes and it doesn't matter if the water is right or wrong - you get in the boat, you stack sandbags, you climb on the roof and wait for a helicopter, and sometime later the water is calm and the world looks different.