This is The Internet™, a glorious place where everyone has an opinion on everything and, perhaps best of all, every opinion is very, very important. And so, naturally, when NPR intern Emily White shared her probably-not-so-rare experience with building a music collection in the digital age, everyone* went bananas. This guy replied to the fairly short column posted on NPR with a whole bunch of other words, while this guy chalked yet another well-reasoned response. A bunch of other people have chimed in here and there and, surprisingly, opinions are diverse. See, that’s the thing about The Internet™: even when you have a perfectly reasonable thought, as Ms. White did, there are a billion other people waiting in the wings to present their equally reasonable opposing thought. It might be beautiful if it weren’t so damned relentless.
* By “everyone,” I mean us music nerds. I’m pretty sure there are a whole bunch of people, like my dad or whatever, who have no opinion on the state of music piracy because they have no idea music piracy exists. These are the kinds of people who may or may not know where the power button on a computer is. You know the type; they can typically be reached @AOL.com.
Anyway, this isn’t really about Emily White or any of the responses that followed. I’ve already shared some of my opinions about this general topic in the past, so there’s really not anything worthwhile to add. But skimming through all this stuff has stuck a question in my mind: why do we only ever talk about piracy as it relates to music?
Of all the artistic and entertainment mediums we have available, music is probably the one thread that ties us together the tightest. Most everyone enjoys films or paintings or photography or books, but there’s something (many things?) inherently different about them. The love for framed art just doesn’t feel as universal as the love for song. But here’s the thing: music isn’t the only art being pirated. Motion pictures begin with anti-piracy warnings for a reason and, so long as you aren’t a major publication jacking someone’s work for blatantly commercial purposes*, it’s pretty easy to yank a picture off a photographer’s website and stick it on your blog. But if you stop and think about it, how much different is downloading a screener copy of a movie or setting an image of your favorite painting as your desktop wallpaper (effectively a wall hanging) from downloading an album?
* Actually, you certainly can steal stuff if you’re a major publication, but the risk of getting caught is significantly greater because there are more eyes focused on you. That, and you have to imagine that ethics are more strictly enforced than if you’re just some dude running a blog about your diet and exercise routine.
There certainly are differences in the details between downloading an album and other forms of art. I don’t mean to paint with such a wide brush here. Being able to download a screener copy of a film is, in actuality, a bit of a hit or miss proposition. And of course, a screener copy will often come with scrolling messages or colorless scenes throughout the film, meaning you aren’t getting full DVD quality. But these are often the only way you can obtain a movie before it hits theaters, whereas you can find most any album at your fingertips well in advance of its official release date. Still, if you wait until the DVD hits stores, you can find a rip of anything. The reason people get up in arms about music piracy is because it’s a way of obtaining something without paying, not because it’s a way of acquiring a product before it hits retail shelves.
Protecting the art of the written word is trickier, especially when you realize that “written word” does not simply mean “books.” When you go to CNN.com and catch up on yesterday’s news, you aren’t, by definition, pirating anything. The content is being offered for free. Print media — or what was once print media — has found ways to adapt to the vast digital landscape, even if that means cutting jobs, eschewing machinery, and vacating brick and mortar buildings*. And while many journalists have been let go, the ones that still linger are getting paid for their work. Readers are just no longer paying specifically to access it.
* I find it confusing to hear people rant and rave about the shrinking job market, then point fingers at politicians for not waving a magic wand and “fixing it.” Computers weren’t invented so we could play Angry Birds. Computers were invented to make our lives less tedious, to turn previously difficult and menial tasks into quick and easy automated processes. This incredible article by Douglas Rushkoff — which I have bookmarked and re-read on a regular basis — says it all pretty well, but to echo one of its underlying sentiments: what did we all expect?
Think of it this way: what if tomorrow morning you woke up, went to visit your favorite music website, and discovered that in order to access the content, you had to pay a fee of some kind? Maybe it’s a subscription fee or maybe it’s a pay-per-click type deal, but either way, you now have to throw down some cash to access the content. I realize that The Internet™ has turned everyone into a writer and that there might only be a small chunk of stuff of a quality worth paying for, but if you really pause to think, written web content isn’t all that much different than newspaper or magazine content, both of which used to cost money. You weren’t paying to read one specific writer as you pay for an album to hear one band, but the premise is loosely the same. Just because you use a keyboard or camera instead of drums or a guitar to create your art doesn’t mean it isn’t still art*.
* And don’t you dare argue that “well, so-and-so’s blog sucks,” because the argument could just as easily be made that “so-and-so’s music sucks.” Paying for media has nothing to do with the perceived quality of that media. If you believe albums should be paid for, you can’t make that opinion exclusive to the stuff you dig. Granted, I’m not suggesting everything published online should have a fee attached to it either. That would be madness. But just as we can all agree there’s a difference between a brand new Beach House record and a bunch of goof-off songs recorded on a kazoo in a bedroom, we can certainly find a way to decipher the difference between quality written content and a blog where some chick takes photos of her cat and writes witty captions for them (although, would that be any different than, say, a comic book?).
The argument could be made that by paying your Comcast bill, you are paying for this non-music media content. How much did a newspaper cost 25 years ago? Fifty cents a day? And so if you bought one every day, Monday through Friday, you’d be spending about $10 per month to get your local and national news, sports, classifieds, and yes, opinions about things like which films you should go see and which albums you should run out and buy. That’s cheaper than a month of online access today, but far less inclusive. The ways in which we receive and digest our content, as well as the means by which the content creator stands to profit, have changed, but the content itself is still pretty much the same as it’s always been*. The difference is, we don’t specifically pay for it. Even if you’re paying your Comcast bill every month, that money doesn’t go directly to CNN or the Washington Post or whatever other source you’re hitting up each day. And while there’s advertising money involved, the truth is, there’s always been advertisements in our papers and magazines. Again, the shift has occurred primarily on a platform level.
* But there’s a whole hell of a lot more of it. Remember: while The Internet™ has made it easy to acquire any album or song you want on a whim, it has also facilitated the emergence of many successful careers. Thirty years ago, the music available to purchase might have filled the shelves of a grocery store. Today, we’d need a space the size of one of those Walmart Supercenter atrocities.
And with regards to Ms. White’s piece, consider this bit of irony: as an intern, she’s probably being paid in experience and contacts rather than currency (sorry, I realize it’s a bit improper to blindly speculate about one’s compensation). So here we have a writer whose words have set off a landslide of discussion — which has to be considered among the goals of any columnist, aspiring or otherwise — yet doesn’t stand to profit much at all outside of whatever exposure this may bring. In effect, her art form stands to go unrewarded in much the same way your favorite band’s might if I download a torrent of their album. That’s not to say a person deserves to be paid for igniting a conversation by confessing to not paying for things, but it’s kind of interesting none the less.
Admittedly, the idea of paying for written content on the web is a big, messy can of writhing worms, if only because a subscription or pay-per-click system would almost assuredly fail unless it was adopted across the board. Services like Netflix have done wonders for film, but their long-term sustainability remains in constant question. If CNN decides to charge me to read their articles, fine. Whatever. I’ll go get my news wherever it’s being offered up for free. And can you imagine the uproar if folks had to pay their Comcast bill and then dole out even more money to access the majority of content? It would be the shittiest shitstorm you ever did see.
Do I think you should have to pay a fee every time you read a blog post or look at a photograph? No. Absolutely not. Do I think downloading music is a more imminent “problem” than downloading PDFs of a book and transferring it to your tablet to read? Sure.
Ultimately, I have far more questions than answers. Despite what anyone says, I don’t think there’s a golden idea to help the music industry back to financial prominence, to resurrect the lost art of the printed paper, or to put photographers with amazing vision up in ritzy penthouses. Sean Parker and John and Shawn Fanning invented Napster, not the phrase “starving artist.” This quandary isn’t new.
But the question of why music piracy demands such an overwhelming majority of the digital theft spotlight remains apt. Music may be our collective first love, but if we’re going to take up the fight of getting our artists paid, should we not be looking out for artists of all types? Even on The Internet™, where a billion conflicting opinions exist in a constant state of convergence, that seems like a principle on which we can all find some common ground.