Wednesday, 2 February 2011

For What It’s Worth: File-Sharing, Art and Noise.

Is illegal downloading killing music? Are file-sharers mean-spirited, tasteless fools who despise the musicians they are callously ripping off? Is music worth nothing in this day and age? Should the wide-open seas of the internet be bounded so that pirates cannot pilfer precious data with such casual ease? It’s a widely-held opinion that Google should shut down torrent sites, even on the old-style liberal left where in any other circumstance the idea of censorship and of the restriction of information by state or corporate forces would be greeted with the sound of righteous alarm bells going off like fox-stalked geese. It shouldn’t surprise me, but exactly how un-punk can you get, calling for Google to block internet highways? Can you imagine Ian MacKaye begging help from the police or from Sony? Clamouring for tighter laws, more and harsher penalties, ferfuckssake? It’s scary how constrained by reactionary suppositions the debate is…


So here’s a thought experiment to recontextualise all that heartless piracy: think about music as being just one of many art forms that are first and foremost activities and experiences. Its status as commodity is secondary to the fact that people like playing music or drawing pictures or watching films or reading books. Never mind any churchy nonsense about edification: art is made and consumed because it feels good to do so. For thousands of years music has had very little to do with money and lots to do with life: people played music because they could and were rewarded because other people valued it; some of those who played music earned a living doing so but plenty of others just played for the hell of it. I could expound at you here to the point of nausea about how the need to create and enjoy and think about art makes up a fundamental chunk of the human animal, but I will spare you before the vicar comes calling; suffice it to say that taking pleasure and solace in music, or in fact any Art with a capital “Ahh”, seems to be woven into the lives of human beings as inextricably as the enjoyment of sex or food or staring out at the sea. Looking at it that way, it is odd and disturbing to think of music – MUSIC! - as tradable stuff, like bacon or Barbie dolls or plutonium.

It’s not as if the pro-file-sharing Pirate Party’s stance on freedom of information is utterly alien to current culture: I give you libraries. Similarly Piratical in some ways, the fundamental principle that libraries stand on is that knowledge is beyond normal concepts of ownership and that equal and free access to these things is desirable. Elementary stuff, but worth repeating when you’re talking about putting artificial, legally-enforced restrictions on the circulation of art. Here’s Philip Pullman on the wonder of a world’s worth of knowledge and intellectual stimulation being yours for the taking and the utter horror of the prospect of market forces (stupid, inhumane, blind market forces) destroying the project of enlightenment and pleasure that set them up for everyone, a National Health Service for the heart and mind, because, wait for it, they don’t make money. The fucking shame of it. (And, and, they’re selling ancient woodland that despite having been held in common for thousands of years is now to be bought and sold as if it were vacuum cleaners. It will be air next; water already having been packaged and marketed and sold back to tap-owners the world over. Pfft.)

It seems obvious to me that it is A Good Thing that books be distributed as widely as possible, that they can, totally legally, be swapped for free through sites like Book Hopper (the Napster of paperbacks) or sold second-hand for fifty pence. That postcard reproductions of extraordinary (and in all likelihood extremely expensive) works of art are bought cheaply and pinned on bedroom walls. And that music made in Manchester can be heard in Kalamazoo or Timbuktu – and vice versa - regardless of the economic or social status of the ears that are hearing it. Is that not a positive thing, something miraculous that the internet has enabled and has enriched the sum total of human experience? I consider the mega-library that the entire world wide web makes out of itself, the wonderful, massive, almost entirely uncommercial project of digitalising knowledge so that it is held in common for anyone to access for free (from Wikipedia to Project Gutenburg and including Wikileaks), to be a wonder of this freshly connected world: stop for a minute to consider how head-stretchingly amazing that is. Deliberately restricting the free flow of music files is entirely at odds with that endeavour.

So to the uncomfortable reality of file-sharing: the itch that the music biz can’t resist scratching. Only very recently in the big scheme of things have people sold their music by making it into bits of plastic: the bits of plastic cost money to make and therefore have monetary value. These days people don’t want or need to buy quite so much plasticised sound. That particular bit of history is pretty much over, gone the way of Top Of The Pops and Smash Hits. I don’t want to be glib about the impact that the downwards trend in physical purchases might have on those who have built their lives and careers around the idea that discs were saleable, although it’s debatable whether sales of actual records has ever been responsible for that much of an average musician’s income: of course it’s utterly shit if you’re losing your house or can’t pay for recording time or have been dropped by your record label, but the reality of the situation is that infinitely copiable digital files that cost nothing to reproduce and take up no physical space have, on one level, no value at all. No labour was involved in their reproduction and there is no scarcity to measure their value against; selling something that can be got, endlessly, for free is always a bit of a challenge. (Not that it is entirely without precedent: here’s a sharp and illuminating dissection of how Western financial and cultural mores have managed to sell the apparently unselleable, from yoga to baby milk to megabytes. Whatever the value of an MP3, it needs to have a price if i-Tunes is going to sell it, although determining how much it’s worth is apparently quite a random business. A single track might cost 79p to buy, but in a US file-sharing case last year, the judge decided that someone who had downloaded 30 songs from Kazaa should pay recompense of $22,500 per song. It’s now been reduced to $2,250 on appeal, but is that how much the bytes were actually worth? Is that a true representation of what the record company might have lost in sales? Impossible to tell: they’re plucking these figures out of thin air and taking no account of the income actually generated by increased fandom from things such as concert tickets or merchandise or follow-up (physical or digital) purchases (anyone who snorted at the idea that home-taping was killing music can tell you that it did precisely the opposite: it generated fans by the thousand).

Art is a problematic commodity in general, there’s no doubt. For all its glorious, multiple layers of value (piled on top of the mundane monetary ones) it’s a slippery beast; squeezing it successfully into a market-based economic system is going to involve constraints and trickery on behalf of those who would profit from it. It’s bad enough making stabs at defining what is or is not art without trying to figure out, for example, how sculptors can make a living when they might take a year over the creation of a single piece. And how about my friend who makes intricate site-specific installations out of pretty, prickly, plastic tags that be-web a vacant room: how on earth can she sell that? How do writers earn their daily bread? Some do get paid (more or, ah, usually less generously) per review or article, or have readers who will buy paper copies of their poetry and novels, but thousands of copies of their books may be leant out by libraries for minimal reward or sold by second-hand bookshops for no reward to them at all, borrowed, shared and given away until their leaves come unglued. Countless others write anyway and share the product of their hours of labour on blogs or zines for nothing. Photographers? They don’t get paid per view; all those images on Flickr or in galleries, gorgeous, clever, touching, thought-provoking, laboured-over, life-enhancing stuff: it’s mine to pore over for free. It’s obvious that artists do whatever they can to make a living, labour that may or may not be directly or indirectly related to their art work. Don’t they, like musicians, deserve recompense for all their hard work, as the anti-p2p brigade protest? “Deserve”, of course, is a tricksy concept, almost as tricksy as “hard work”: what does Patrick Gale deserve to get in return for my enjoyment of his novel that I bought in Oxfam last week and spent three achey-eyed nights devouring? Deserving or otherwise, he got not a penny from me, poor dear.

So most musicians are not alone in finding it difficult to make money (any money at all, let alone a living) from what they do. It’s a hotch-potch of strategies wherever you look, and there’s not even the cushion of the dole or the blessed Arts Council Grant to put lentils on the table any more. Add the imminently breaking thunderhead of Tory cuts to a couple of years of recession and it’s obvious that file-sharing is only one piece of the economic puzzle. The disc-selling game is up and the lumbering megacorporate beasts that are the major labels are all but obsolete, middle men without a cause. They know they have to diversify, into the games market, into streaming, into merchandise, into selling experiences and services rather than records and they will have no compunction about dropping the bits of their edifice that don’t serve profitability. Like bands that turn out not to be Kings of Leon. Or notionally independent subsidiary labels. This is, after all, The Man we’re talking about. What’s left for musicians is the age-old problem of getting their labour rewarded fairly and adequately.  Same old chestnut that Marx and co. grappled with.

The analogy that springs to mind is that of the coal industry. Yes, really, it’ll work, I promise. Coal became unprofitable; pits got threatened with closure; miners went on strike. But keeping the pits open just because the miners needed work was never going to happen. The REAL problem was not the fact that mining coal was no longer profitable, but that the massive crunching teeth of industrialism chewed up and spat out PEOPLE. People who had families and hungry stomachs and feelings and lives. (Why would we do that to ourselves? Why comply with a system that treats us like fuel? Another story… ) But plenty of people, including yer standard lefty types in well-intentioned solidarity with those whose jobs were disappearing down capitalism’s chomping maw, argued passionately to keep things as they were, to stick with coal, instead of demanding that energy and ingenuity and compassion be spent on finding equitable, humane ways to make sure that people weren’t chucked on the scrap heap along with the redundant pits. That’s how I see those who are trying to force the music business to stay as it is by treating the sharing of etheric bytes as straightforward theft: they’re clinging onto coal for dear life, when there’s wind power and waves to harness, as Luddite as you like.

You need to zoom out considerably to see the wider picture: the fight that’s worth picking is on a much grander scale than imagined by those who nit-pick about the selfishness of file-sharers. The problem is not to do with the motivations of p2p users (who are as likely as anyone else to be musicians themselves and, it seems certain, buy more music the more they download for free) or the ease or not of making music without the backing of labels or state-of-the-art studios or sharp-eared engineers (of course you can make fantastic music on your computer or a cheapy four-track; doesn’t mean you should have to) or even the quality of pop music in 2011 (alive and kicking: some dross, of course, same as it ever was, but a good fistful of pearls): it’s about the undeniable fact that new technology means times have changed for ever. Maybe Bandcamp will soon be turning uploaded and shared tracks into hard currency by the (virtual) shedload; maybe the examples of Kristin Hersh or Amanda Palmer (both of whom fund their music-making in very direct and ingenuous collaboration with their fans) will serve as inspiration for countless new strategies; maybe Spotify or LastFM will actually start turning a profit. Who knows? This is a transitional period: in a decade’s time it will probably be face-palm obvious how musicians can get paid for the work they do. And the Sisyphean enforcement of anti-filesharing regulations will surely be viewed as the heavy-handed, hopeless, reactionary, tunnel-visioned task that it is.

I’ll end with a quote from John Philip Sousa (an American composer who lived from 1854 to 1932 and after whom the sousaphone is named). Despite his predilection for new and interestingly-coiled brass instruments, he was a neo-Luddite, deeply suspicious of how new technology would affect his art and particularly worried about the effect of mass reproduction on music. He predicted the phonograph would cause "a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestation, by virtue - or rather by vice, - of the multiplication of the various music-producing machines.”
Sounds familiar, if not exactly a popular view of the advent of mass-produced recordings. I’ve seen enough comments about the dire state of the charts today and the bleakness of a downloadable future to sniff out the same smell of fear in the arguments of the similarly Luddite anti-p2p-ers: their good-hearted intention to protect and preserve ordinary people’s livelihoods turns to ill-focused anger at change and mass society in general. Maybe it’s time to blame something other than the use of new technology for crap working conditions and see the accessibility of digitalised music as a liberation rather than a threat.


  1. I'm making an album which is taking a frightfully long time. It's not cheap to do and I don't expect many people to buy it, but if I didn't make it I wouldn't feel complete. I also don't expect many people to download it legally or otherwise. I don't even know how people get record deals anymore... but selling the "product" to make money hasn't even entered my mind, despite the album being utterly spellbindly fabtastic, kidz! Maybe I need some great merch; mugs, T-shirts, ear plugs and the like.

  2. Where to begin? Oh, let's start here:

    or here

    or here