Wants To Be Free
10 Jun 2011
Inside the Classics

Back in 2001, I had just begun working as a part-time editor over at Doug McLennan’s indispensable ArtsJournal news site, and I found myself combing through a metric ton of newspaper stories about some previously obscure file-sharing service called Napster. You might remember Napster – it was where you went in the early aughts to download pretty much any song in the universe for free. Or, to put it another way, it was where you went to steal music.

How could it be stealing? Look how cute he is!

There was a lot of debate at the time over whether using Napster actually constituted stealing, and whether it actually mattered if it was stealing or not. The articles I was reading about the attempts by government and the recording industry to shut Napster down were full of tortured metaphors comparing peer-to-peer file sharing to a mix tape passed between friends. Advocates for the site protested that the record companies had been ripping off artists forever, anyway, so ripping off the companies in return was practically a patriotic duty for real music lovers. The whole “information wants to be free” meme that had become so popular during the dot-com boom was invoked (and distorted) again and again by countless well-meaning people whose hard drives were loaded down with stolen music.

I remember having a conversation with a friend at the time, during which I expressed my befuddlement at the idea that Napster might be construed as anything but a global music-stealing apparatus. And I remember being extremely frustrated that, no matter how many times I explained why this was clearly, logically, and irrefutably a fact, my friend continued to disagree. I was baffled.

Ten years later, I think I’m finally starting to understand what was going on, what had caused Americans to begin believing that it was okay (even morally virtuous) for them to take something that someone else was selling without paying for it. Napster was an early blip in what has become a massive shift in the way we perceive and value people in the 21st century. To put it in the crassest and most corporate terms, we have gone from valuing people who produce content to valuing people who deliver that content.

Just to be clear, I’m using the term “valuing” pretty literally here. If you value something, it means that you believe it is worth a certain amount of money, and you are willing to pay for it. You might think that sunsets are pretty spectacular, but if someone told you that they now cost five bucks, you’d snort and go back to watching them for free, because you can. On the other hand, when your cable company raises the amount you have to pay for HBO, you have to do an immediate calculation of how valuable HBO is to you, and whether or not you care to continue paying for it.

There are a lot of people who believe that the internet has conditioned us to accept (or even embrace) a certain level of bad behavior, because we can quickly, anonymously, and easily do things we would never do in the offline world. You would never think of walking into Cheapo and stuffing a DVD under your coat, but you might be perfectly willing to download that same movie from BitTorrent because, hey, someone put it up there, it’s not hurting anyone, I pay for plenty of other stuff, blah blah blah.

But I think blaming the convenience of the online world misses the point entirely. The dangerous shift I’m seeing is that we are increasingly fetishizing content delivery systems (iTunes, Kindle) and the people who create them (Steve Jobs) while becoming dismissive of or outright hostile to the people who create the actual content. $550 for a shiny new iPad2? That’s a bargain for all you get, right? But when you log into iTunes and see that a track you want to download is going for $1.29 instead of $0.99, you immediately feel like you’re being ripped off, don’t you?

And that’s no accident, either. This is the world the content delivery people have deliberately and intentionally created out of the rubble of Napster. And while, in some ways, it’s opened up wonderful new frontiers for artists to reach the broader public, it’s also made it harder than ever for musicians to actually make a living playing music. YouTube videos and too-cheap-to-be-believed downloads allow you into the viewfinder of thousands of people who otherwise might never have known you existed, but it also conditions those people to place zero (or close to zero) value on what you’re producing. And while you’re trying desperately to leverage your online presence into convincing a tiny fraction of your fan base to leave the house and pony up $15-$20 to hear you perform live once or twice a year, they’re clicking over to the next free video clip and salivating over the latest $400 device that will allow them yet another way to enjoy your music without paying you.

This mindset scares the hell out of me. I’m not in the least afraid of technology, or change, but I believe that creativity has value, and that creative people who produce something tangible shouldn’t be expected to simply give it away in exchange for some vague (and usually false) promise of future success. This is why I pay for an “e-edition” subscription to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, even though I usually just read the stories from their free web site. It’s why I pledge to public radio and TV, and why I send a text to donate $10 to This American Life and RadioLab when they ask me to.

There’s nothing wrong with offering up free content. It’s a terrific way to earn new fans and reward old ones, and I’m constantly advocating for my industry to scrap certain outdated rules about recording and broadcasting so that we can distribute more free content.

But when the machine you listen to music on becomes hundreds or thousands of times more valuable to you than the music, we have a problem. When millions of people have convinced themselves that downloading content someone is trying to sell without paying for it isn’t stealing, we have a big problem. And I’m not sure what the solution is.

<April 2020>

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