Do you know anybody who makes art? Can you place a value on their work? Do you?
I’ve thought about this a lot, usually in the context of media transformation — movies going from film to digital, with people preferring the “home theater” over the real thing; physical books (and their stores) disappearing; physical CDs (and their stores!) disappearing — and on it goes. I think of it as the virtualization of culture. “Progress” can’t be stopped, and how all of this will impact the future of entertainment culture is hard to pin down.
This week there was a cultural mini-firestorm of sorts that kicked off when NPR/All Songs Considered intern Emily White wrote a blog entry titled I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With. It was a pretty honest discussion of her generation’s relationship with the business side of the music industry. The line that really struck me was this:
But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums.
This set off a chain reaction across the Internet, beginning with David Lowery’s response published at The Trichordist. These two pieces seemed to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, with White admitting that music was not being paid for (though acknowledging that there was something wrong about this) while Lowery poked holes in various why-I-Don’t-Pay straw men before perhaps going off a logical cliff with the deaths of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous.
As the chat rooms, comments sections, and even the SomethingElse watercooler filled with both considered thought and invective, it seemed that we were getting a repeat of the great It-Should-Be-Free vs. Your-Downloads-Are-Killing-Me debate. It’s a discussion that needs to be had, if only for the fact that we learn a little more about ourselves each time.
The RIAA extreme do themselves a disservice, where every download is apparently sacred and comes with it thousands of dollars of opportunity cost. It’s a bogus argument that is both reductive and reactionary. Also, it ignores the fact that over the decades many fans expanded their musical horizons (and their record collections!) because they “stole” a piece of music. Example: I took a cassette tape of Rush’s All The World’s A Stage with me on summer vacation back in college. Because of that, I own most of their catalog on vinyl, all of it on CD, and have attended many, many shows. Am I supposed to feel bad because I didn’t pay for that tape I listened to hundreds of times? Screw that!
But at the other end of the argument — where everything should be free — there’s a similar breakdown. And economics aside, it’s where I’m most bothered. I understand that everybody in White’s age group is used to the convenience of the free download, but I know a lot of people on the creative end of things, and the idea that their work is worth nothing? I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong.
In all of this week’s ongoing discussion, this idea was kicked around that artists will stop making art if the money dries up. Given that the phenomenon of artists being paid much of anything for their art is, historically speaking, a relatively recent phenomenon, I kind of doubt that that will be the case. But I’m terribly bothered that people attach so little value to their work. I wish Emily White White and her peers would consider this, is all I’m saying.