t h e t r i u m p h o f t h i e v e r y

so then, the illegal downloading of music. it’s here, it’s unsurprisingly popular, there seems to be little, if  a n y t h i n g  at all that anyone can do about it; but what, precisely, does it represent? what is it heralding?

an egalitarian world of tomorrow? an artistic, utopian orgy of access and horizon-broadening freedom?

or a sad, sordid den of button pushing thieves? a plague of greedy, instant gratification junkies, with no more attention span than they have appreciation for what it takes to create  a n y t h i n g .

i’d like to say i think it’s the former but i’m afraid that case is getting harder and harder to argue.

let’s get one thing straight, i’m no musician. this is not something i claim, nor do i seriously entertain any musical ambitions. i dabble from time to time and enjoy doing so. if i give away an ‘album’, be it cd or download, then i have very little to lose. but i have a number of friends who are musicians, who try (or indeed barely manage) to make their living making music.

the most successful of these has worked tirelessly for a decade or more and has achievd a great deal in their genre. this person is known world wide in their field and very respected. they have played live around the world (though not stadium sized rock gigs or anything) and they get by financially selling cds and lps from their home, which means they can just about scrape by. or they had been until this year. sales are plumetting and it’s for one reason only. e v e r y t h i n g  they have ever released is available to download for free on the internet. everything. this is of course because people or persons who bought a copy have uploaded it for everyone else to steal.

yes, sorry, should have warned any young people reading this that i was going to use that word. i’m well aware that using the ‘s’ word when discussing this upsets downloaders and makes me look like a terrible old fart. i appreciate that i come from a generation that prized (perhaps even fetishised) the artifact. we bought lps, we bought cds, we liked the artwork, the packaging, lyrics sheets, and we knew this place when it was all fields, blah blah blah. the demise of the artefact is a red herring and only the entry level problem i have with illegal downloading, being as it is a problem with downloading in general, illegal or otherwise. you don’t want the artwork? ok. you don’t mind your downloads being compressed all the way to fuck and back in mp3 format? fine. you want to be like one of those pikey little cunts you see playing their shit music through their even shittier mobile phone speakers? ok. your loss. you have officially singled yourself out as something other than a music fan. but if you don’t care about that, i certainly don’t.  but again, the squashed mp3 is a concern with (practically) all downloads. this really isn’t an argument about age or about fogey-ism. there never was a golden age and change is a good, if not great thing.

this is an argument about stealing, plain and simple. and while i know that using the ‘s’ word allies me with thoroughly punchable moaning millionaires like metallica, this misses the point utterly.

you don’t get people scanning in novels and uploading em because A) it’d take too long B) the recipient would either have to pay the cost of printing themselves,  or read the whole bloody thing on screen, and C) reading a book takes too long maaan, like, who reads anyway dude? (i think i just threw up a bit in my mouth)

see, this is all conducted under the guise of a kind of hippy “music’s in the air, maaan, art belongs to the world, you can’t, like, own a feeling” avalanche of steaming shit, but it’s a smokescreen thrown up by the embarrassment that, in fact, they  k n o w  they’re in the wrong. people roll their eyes sheepishly when asked if they download, mumble about major record labels.

one art form is seen as more legitimately stealable than another. it’s bizarre. music is now seen as stealable as, say, the image of a famous painting was seen about a decade or more ago. take the mona lisa, make it into a t-shirt. technology has made the theft of music equally as easy. the only difference is that the art world has a seemingly inexaustable supply of rich patrons / investors, so why should damien hirst care if i make a split cow t-shirt? he might fall over a pile of money on his way to sue me and break a nail. but music is immediate and populist and so has no such safety buffer. mona lisa t-shirts are raining down on the streets, all you have to do is pick one up and put it on.

someone told me something about theatre years ago that think applies here. he said don’t give away too many complimentary tickets to a performance. the less people pay to see it, the less they will appreciate it and value it.” the excuse for illegal downloading of course, or one of them, is that it’s developed a ‘try before you buy’ culture. if i’ve heard “if i like an album, i buy it” once i’ve heard it a million times. and it’s bullshit. i see no evidence that ‘getting your stuff out there for nowt’ is anything like a stepping stone to ‘getting your stuff paid for’ unless maybe you’re already famous. radiohead gave away their album for fuck all, then loads of people bought it. but they’re radiohead. bob tit-monkey and his incontinent syncopators do the same thing, d’you think they’ll sell even a minute fraction of the cds? no. they’ll be downloaded, swallowed up and forgotten. they’ll be flipping burgers before you know it.

my musician friend was asked in an interview what he thought about illegal downloading and he replied it was theft. the interviewer reacted like he’d just told a racist joke. the interviewer seemed to view the person who uploaded my friend’s life’s work as something approaching a hero. “so many more hundreds of people will hear your music” he said. but will they?

well maybe. maybe. but the transaction between the musician and the listener is an important one and it’s changed. the listener who pays nothing is no longer invested in the product and so anything that takes effort, anything that’s not immediately satisfying or easily digested will suffer. a shopper on the hunt for free music might return with a hundred albums. a thousand. the album that’s a ‘grower’, that takes a little thought, is less likely to be given a chance. this so called democratization of music consumption will very likely also become a dumbing down of the medium itself.

recently trent reznor, that perennially angsty teenager, posted sobering advice to young bands which effectively said ‘give your music away for nothing’: “music is free whether you want to believe that or not. every piece of music you can think of is available free right now a click away. this is a fact – it sucks as the musician but that’s the way it is (for now).” similarly, though with somewhat more cynicism, william bennet posted a blog justifiably ridiculing david tibet‘s threat that illegal downloaders would be cast into the lake of fire, and suggesting that while illegal downloading really does “impact how much you’re able to commit to invest in making your music”, still the message seems to be the same: this is happening, it has happened, it will go on happening, and there’s fuck all you can do about it.

i have to say i think messrs reznor and bennet are probably right. the thieves win, a few millionaires whinge, but ultimately the musician suffers.


3 Responses to “t h e t r i u m p h o f t h i e v e r y”

  1. 1 itllallendintears
    January 8, 2010 at 10:04 pm


    i’ve long suspected that the music industry’s problems are largely self-inflicted. they’ve spent so long attempting to reduce talent to commodity that most creative types flee their control. on the whole people areny interested in paying for the crap being churned out, and therefore the culture has changed.

    what the above article says to me is that the people who still care about music still end up buying it, even if they are no longer trusting enough to fork over ‘sight unseen’.

    i await rebuke.

  2. 2 unsong
    January 9, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    the music industry is inarguably a ham-fisted shit-agrandising, venal monster guilty of some of the worst that ‘culture’ has to offer. no question. picking their pockets is a good, even noble idea; picking the pockets of artists you supposedly admire isn’t, and is counter productive. i wonder how many people stick it to ‘the man’ by illegally downloading then pop a cheque in the post to the artist.

    “people who illegally download music from the internet also spend more money on music than anyone else, according to a new study.”

    if you’ll pardon the pun, i just don’t buy it. yes, some people must operate this way but the idea that human nature would support having something for free then paying for it to me defies our species’ basic bottom-feeder mentality. it’s not difficult to hear some or all of an album online to see if you like it without illegally downloading it. it’s certainly what i do. go to the band’s website / myspace page / youtube channel; go to amazon and hear samples.

    “the people who file-share are the ones who are interested in music,” said mark mulligan of forrester research.

    interested in possesing it, yes. interested in its quality or contniued production, no.

    “they use file-sharing as a discovery mechanism…”

    and, i would add, a ‘finders keepers’ mechanism too.

    “we have a generation of young people who don’t have any concept of music as a paid-for commodity,” he continued. “you need to have it at a price point you won’t notice.”

    why? why do you “need” not to notice it? why is it a negative thing to actually give something in order to receive something you want? it’s not an argument for rampant capitalism, it’s an (agruably naive) argument for basic, ten year old child level ‘fairness’. you don’t want to give it to a record company? fine. but withholding payment directly to an artist is t h e f t .

  3. 3 unsong
    October 7, 2010 at 9:29 am

    of course with the advent of the ‘kindle’ etc. books w i l l be stolen in the same way as music.

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