Do the right thing: On digital piracy and ethical fandom

Published in The Music, November, 2013

In a recent interview with SPIN magazine, Trent Reznor made his position in the digital piracy debate abundantly clear: “[My album] costs ten bucks, or go fuck yourself.”

The problem with this particular dichotomy is that those who choose to go fuck themselves and download the album for free are really choosing to fuck Trent Reznor. A wiser artist might tread more carefully in our techno-dystopian landscape, because this is the cold, hard reality: if your fans don’t have a good reason to support you, they probably won’t.

There is a shifting tide in the piracy discussion, a backlash against the decade-long free-for-all in which ordinary citizens became rapacious consumers of “free” online content. In what author Chris Ruen calls the ‘Decade of Dysfunction’, digital files were increasingly perceived to have no value because they cost virtually nothing to replicate and share, because oversupply destroyed their market value. So-called digital determinists – tech industry acolytes who worship at the altar of innovation – argued that we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube: the free exchange of digital content is an undeniable fact of the new electronic frontier and the quicker creative types adapt to it, the better.

For a while artists went with the flow, experimenting with free and pay-what-you-feel distribution models, expressing excitement about the potential of this brave new world of access and exchange and merrily predicting the decay of the old business model. Gleefully, musicians pointed out that the same major labels that had screwed over fans and artists with CD price gouging and predatory record deals were now under attack. Their reign of terror was over: artists could now connect directly with fans without those soulless gatekeepers sucking up all the profits.

A few years down the road, and the mood in the arts community is changing. Artists have come to realise that the growth of the creative industries relied for decades on financial risks taken by record labels, television networks and film studios – those erstwhile demonic bloodsuckers actually invested in artists and had “skin in the game”; suddenly, they are viewed as a vital part of the creative ecosystem. Lately, it has dawned on artists that their “free” content is being exploited for profit by The Pirate Bay, Youtube, Spotify and myriad other players in the filesharing and content streaming business. Meanwhile, artists like Reznor, Thom Yorke and Lily Allen are now claiming that the net result of being able to download oceans of music/film/literature for free is that people have started to think that music/film/literature – the art itself rather than the copies – is worthless.

In his book Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Appetite For Free Content Starves Creativity, Chris Ruen goes in to bat for the disenfranchised artist, particularly musicians. He argues that Lars Ulrich was a brave and visionary soldier in his fight against Napster, that SOPA was a reasonable response to an entrenched culture of copyright violation, that quality art will disappear if we do not protect an artist’s right to earn a living from his work. Ruen’s well-researched and highly polemical book lays the groundwork for an artists’ rebellion against the free content model. Alongside cultural critics like Jaron Lanier and Camper Van Beethoven’s David Lowery (who writes extensively on this subject for The Trichordist), Ruen argues for a world in which artists’ are entitled to determine what their art is worth. As Trent Reznor put it, “…ten bucks, or go fuck yourself.”

Ruen’s pro-copyright, protected profits stance places artists on the moral high ground, looking down upon their fans. His characterisation of your typical downloader oscillates between the unthinking, passive dullwit and the greedy, immoral parasite, while the artists that appear in his book are noble, impoverished and underappreciated. They work so hard; they pour their hearts and souls into their work; we claim to love them, but we ignore their rights and condemn these industrious souls to a life of financial insecurity and struggle. The problem is, this representation of ‘greedy us’ and ‘poor them’ doesn’t resonate; it clashes with four decades of rock and roll mythology. Being a rock star is ‘the greatest job in the world’, right? Isn’t that what they said? This mythology was convenient when it helped to sell records, but now the narrative is shifting and making art is a slog. And maybe it was always hard work, but that doesn’t make it any less of a privilege. An artist’s ‘work’ is to express their soul and bring beautiful, interesting and unique things into the world. Depicting them as downtrodden proletariats who are being exploited by their file-sharing, flesh-eating zombie fans is both laughable and divisive.

The reality is, fans have a choice: do I pay for this or download it for free? Instead of stamping their foot and demanding ten bucks, it might be useful for artists to recognise that fans have that choice. Technology gave musicians the means to mass-reproduce their work through vinyl, cassettes and compact discs, which was a massive boon for recording artists. The latest evolutions in technology have undermined copyright and empowered the audience. It is a rich, content-drenched world in which people around the globe can share cultural experiences immediately, dive into endless niche passions, remix, respond and share their world with the click of a button. This is a beautiful revolution that does not function with existing copyright law, which is fine because copyright doesn’t serve us.

The idea that copyright protects an artist’s living wage is naive: copyright protects the profits of content corporations while restricting cultural access to financially disadvantaged people and controlling the way we communicate and respond to our world. ‘I have a right to be paid for copies of my work’ is a dying philosophy. Let it go. Good riddance to a corrupt system. This doesn’t mean the death of art. If means that if you want to be an artist, you’re going to have to surrender your sense of entitlement and respect your fans. You’re going to have to ask your fans to support you financially while you endeavour to live a spiritually rich, meaningful life and to fill their lives with beautiful shit.  Don’t like it? Be a plumber.

As fans, it is our job to not be stupid arseholes. It is our job to do the maths on the endgame of all this free stuff and choose to financially support our artists. We have to become responsible patrons of the arts and vote with our money, lest corporations do it for us, sponsoring and branding every goddamn corner of the cultural universe; deciding what art lives and what art dies. Ethical fandom is a moral stance similar to buying organic or biodegradable products, and much like those decisions it is both altruistic and self-serving. If you pay for your music, TV and films, you are doing the right thing by the artist you love and you are enabling them to enrich your life. It is a choice. The choice is yours. But it’s the only one that makes any sense.