Wednesday, 10 April 2013

“Sticking it to the man” by saying “stuff you” to artists

Promoters of economic theft recently have been pointing to Amanda Palmer’s inspiring TED talk—“don’t make people pay for music; ask them” she says—as grounds for saying the “old model” should die, copyright should go hang, and every artist should be just like AFP*.

Palmer argues her outstanding success in getting her fans to support her financially is built in large part on trusting them. “I put myself and my work out there, I ask to be embraced, and I am embraced.” As a promoter of artists rights myself, and also as one of the 24,388 people who trusted her enough to back her new record (I bought the vinyl), I figured I’ve got a dog in this fight. 

Palmer makes almost daily contact with her fans on social media and in the flesh, literally, using that contact and community to generate donations and sales for things sometimes far removed from her music itself. Even otherwise sane economists can be heard to argue that this is how all artists should be forced to make money “in a post-copyright regime.” “The music builds the market for the artifacts and the experiences,” they insist.

It’s crystal clear however that the would-be destroyers of artists’ rights have got it wrong here, because as David Newhoff explains, not every artist is, nor should they be forced to be, an Amanda Palmer:

Kudos to her for talking about it.  But if we are meant to draw a conclusion that her experience is the new model, as some will claim, I think we’d do well to remember that there is more than one kind of artist and more than one medium; and I don’t know why the principle of creators’ rights is not seen as inclusive rather than exclusive in this regard.
As much as I enjoyed Palmer’s talk, my immediate thought after watching it was about one of my favourite authors whose work is no less provocative in literary form than Palmer’s is in music and performance. John Irving still writes prodigiously in longhand, and his own descriptions of his work habits reflect an asceticism typical of most serious authors.  I don’t think Mr. Irving takes time to tweet let alone crowd-surf, and he is unlikely ever to strip down so that his fans can sign his naked body (at least let’s hope not). But jokes aside, we are blessed to have a society that produces both the Amanda Palmers and the John Irvings; and I don’t understand why anyone thinks we need to choose a system that would favour one over the other.  Believe it or not, the one unifying principle that supports these two artists, as well as all others, is copyright.
Copyright doesn’t say Amanda Palmer can’t manage her career as she sees fit; it says that it is her absolute right to do so.  Combine that right with the First Amendment, and she’s a force to reckon with.  But so is the comparatively reclusive novelist who may best be capable of “connecting with fans” only through his writing. Copyright gives that author the freedom to stay home, indulge in one of the most solitary activities imaginable, and accept publishing deals, if that’s what best serves the work.  And nothing about that model prevents the Amanda Palmers of the world from doing things in a completely opposite manner.

As Newhoff points out, why is it either/or?

As was argued here the other day, copyright gives creators choice—the choice to put out the hat, to give their work away, or to charge for it and live from the proceeds.

Whereas what the removal of copyright says to all the creative non-Palmers—to the John Irvings and Thomas Pynchons, the JD Salingers and the Harper Lees—is “Fuck You.” In Large Capital Letters.

Copyright gives creators the freedom to create. Taking that away takes away their livelihoods, and sometimes—if they’re shy and sensitive and only marginally commercial—their lives. David Lowery (of bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven) tells the sad stories of two of his dear friends, Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous:

Both of these artists, despite growing global popularity, saw their total incomes fall in the last decade. There is no other explanation except for the fact that “fans” made the unethical choice to take their music without compensating these artists.**
    Shortly before Christmas 2009, Vic took his life. He was my neighbour, and I was there as they put him in the ambulance. On March 6th, 2010, Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart. Anybody who knew either of these musicians will tell you that the pair suffered depression. They will also tell you their situation was worsened by their financial situation. Vic was deeply in debt to hospitals and, at the time, was publicly complaining about losing his home. Mark was living in abject squalor in his remote studio in the Smokey Mountains without adequate access to the mental health care he so desperately needed.
    I present these two stories to you not because I’m pointing fingers or want to shame you. I just want to illustrate that “small” personal decisions have very real consequences, particularly when millions of people make the decision not to compensate artists they supposedly “love.” And it is up to us individually to examine the consequences of our actions.

Lowery was writing this to a young student boasting about possessing around 11,000 songs on her iPod she’d downloaded without paying jack to the musicians.  “It is not up to governments or corporations to make us choose to behave ethically,” he explained to her. “We have to do that ourselves.”

I also deeply empathize with your generation. You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality. Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change–if a machine can do something, it ought to be done. Although it is the premise of every “machines gone wild” story since Jules Verne or Fritz Lang, this is exactly backwards. Sadly, I see the effects of this thinking [everywhere].
    These technological and commercial interests have largely exerted this pressure through the “Free Culture” movement, which is funded by a handful of large tech corporations and
their foundations in the US, Canada, Europe and other countries [and which promotes  …
    The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for hundreds of years of western civilisation is the artist exclusively has the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time. (Since the works that are are almost invariably the subject of these discussions are popular culture of one type or another, the duration of the copyright term is pretty much irrelevant for an ethical discussion.)
    By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to continue to let these companies violate the law without being punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality and principals to match what I think are immoral and unethical business models.
    Who are these companies? They are sites like The Pirate Bay, or Kim Dotcom and Megaupload. They are “legitimate” companies like Google that serve ads to
these sites through AdChoices and Doubleclick. They are companies like Grooveshark that operate streaming sites without permission from artists and over the objections of the artist, much less payment of royalties lawfully set by the artist. They are the venture capitalists that raise money for these sites. They are the hardware makers that sell racks of servers to these companies. And so on and  so on.

In other words, those people who think they’re “sticking it to the man” by ripping of musicians are actually gifting dosh to crony capitalists like Kim DotCom, who would like the law changed thank you very much to allow them to make piles off unearned money off the backs of unrewarded artists.

But it’s worse than that. It turns out that Verizon, AT&T, Charter etc etc are charging a toll to get into this neighbourhood to get the free stuff. Further, companies like Google are selling maps (search results) that tell you where the stuff is that you want to loot. Companies like Megavideo are charging for a high speed looting service (premium accounts for faster downloads). Google is also selling ads in this neighborhood and sharing the revenue with everyone except the people who make the stuff being looted. Further, in order to loot you need to have a $1,000 dollar laptop, a $500 dollar iPhone or $400 Samsumg tablet. It turns out the supposedly “free” stuff really isn’t free. In fact it’s an expensive way to get “free” music… Companies are actually making money from this looting activity. These companies only make money if you change your principles and morality! And none of that money goes to the artists! …
    The existential questions that your generation gets to answer are these:

  • Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?
  • Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?
  • Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?

This is a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the point. But it’s as if:

Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

Hardware: Giant mega corporations.Cool! have some money!

Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class.Screw you, you greedy bastards!

Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!

I am genuinely stunned by this. Since you appear to love first generation Indie Rock, and as a founding member of a first generation Indie Rock band I am now legally obligated to issue this order: kids, lawn, vacate.

You are doing it wrong.

Author Scott Turow agrees on behalf of authors. “Soviet-style repression is not necessary to diminish authors’ output and influence,” he says in a recent op-ed “The Slow Death of the American Author.’ “Just devalue their copyrights.”

Let me echo them both (and recommend again you re-read and digest Lowery’s Open Letter if you too have a dog in this fight): The looters and intellectual communists do have it wrong.

Let artists choose how or whether their work is protected.  Let them manage their careers as they see fit.  Let writers and advocacy organisation choose whether to make their work freely available if they wish (to promote the change in the world about which their writings advocate), or not to if they don’t.

Let them choose.

After all, that’s freedom. And it’s their work.

* * * *

* AFP = Amanda Fucking Palmer

**  Lowery points out how musicians’ incomes have collapsed in aggregate over the last 12 years:

  • Recorded music revenue is down 64% since 1999.
  • Per capita spending on music is 47% lower than it was in 1973!!
  • The number of professional musicians has fallen 25% since 2000.
  • Of the 75,000 albums released in 2010 only 2,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. Only 1,000 sold more than 10,000 copies. Without going into details, 10,000 albums is about the point where independent artists begin to go into the black on professional album production, marketing and promotion.


  1. The kids' thieving of the music is rewarded by more frequent concert tours by artists forced to tour because of music theft.

  2. Great article!


  3. Henry Rollins has something to say about this, perhaps a follow up article? His view is that artists saying fuck you to everyone is the way to go. I get the impression that he would take a dim view of someone shooting themselves in the heart over a fall in income.

  4. not only copyright issue
    Well it doesn't look as if this "how to create a link in a comments section works. The book I'm referring to is 2007 so a bit dated now. Comment is about not much money from recordings these days not mainly caused by freeloaders/ downloaders. Author argues the reverse

  5. Oh the link worked if click on the blue "not only .."

  6. What does this say about the tape swapping culture of the 70s?

    Or burnt mix CD's which are given to friends

    The difference between internet based downloads and the latter is that the domain in which the act occurs has been gloabalised on such a scale that we are now able to quantify and trace and prosecute such occurrences.

    Whether specific artists can noticeably quantify the effects of such downloads is another issue


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.