The Free Culture VS Digital Distribution Debate: On The Benefits of Ignorance

AKA AVOIDING THE EPIC DISTRACTIONS OF INDUSTRY

Part of my job is to keep an eye on what music commentators are arguing about. I have students to consider, many of whom hope to make music a career of some sort.

And I’m interested, this is my field.

I like trying to work out where I sit with things.

Last week, the internet blew up (again) about Free Culture ™ and digital music piracy. This is briefly what happened: musician and music business lecturer David Lowery over at Trichordist took a 21 year old NPR intern to task for her blog post about music consumption. In her post, the intern essentially claimed to be part of a generation of music fans that doesn’t buy MP3s.

Lowery thought this was an outrage and dismantled what was an otherwise flippant post from what – I imagine – is a young writer in progress. Rippling out from these two posts are dozens and dozens of further blog posts (for and against) and a tsunami of comments, many impassioned and long and invested.

Everyone has an opinion on music and the internet.

As expected, a lot of musicians got angry. Musicians love getting angry on the internet. From the 500+ posts on Lowery’s original article:

I tear up thinking how the bands that moved me to be who who I am and do what I do can no longer give me that joy because of the sad state of the FREE MUSIC GENERATION. 

I’m not trying to earn a living with my music, but it still frustrates me that friends & family won’t throw down $5 for an EP or something… this is my heart! My self! This is important to me!

It’s like being strangulated by someone who loves you.

Yet I think there is a much bigger and better question for musicians posed by all this:

Should you really care that much about all this?

We live in a problematic world for musicians but it is rich and energised one too. It is a business culture in which my friends and I can release music cheaply, easily and widely. Web 2.0 is no communal utopia (at all) but the occasional musician is one of the true winners in this phase. We’ve almost always surrendered our time and labour freely, or very, very cheaply. Now we just get more listeners and better promotional tools and cheaper distribution and increased convenience as part of the ‘exchange.’

So when I see so much energy invested in these The Future of Music™ debates I get confused.

What future business do most musicians hope to conduct?

For the great majority of musicians, there is no future business because there is no present one, nor the planning towards one. Music is a hobby or the (often) misguided daydream of a career as a full-time professional musician. Sure, hobbyist and emergent bands involve revenues and expenses but so does comic collecting, football tipping and wine-tasting. That does not make your music a business. And while I absolutely advocate the use of business tools in hobbyist music (do your taxes already), you can take from the ideologies of business without buying into the idea that you have a micro-career on your hands.

You probably don’t.

If you even have to ask, you’d don’t.

So in the last week, I read so many commenters and as I read them I got the feeling that these debates are seen as an affront to their dreams and aspirations not their realities. No one likes to have their dreams hemmed in. No one. But I just can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a better way to approach this stuff for musicians. And then, I wonder other things…

I wonder this: I essentially get paid to read all this crap. But I wonder why most musicians don’t just completely ignore it.

Who cares if people don’t buy albums or songs any more!

You probably have a day job. If you don’t like it, get a new day job. Strive for that. Instead of worrying about the future of music retail, try striving for a job that makes your night gig easier or meets some other metric you desire: more cash, flexible hours, nicer people, more freedom.

Who cares if people don’t go to concerts any more!

You probably don’t play too many ‘concerts’, you play shows. To your friends. For your friends. Instead of worrying about the future of live concert industry and the recent downturn in merch sales, strive to make your next local show more fun. And go to sleep knowing that people have always played music to each other and this will always happen.

Who cares if society devalues what you do!

Do you have no stoicism in you at all? Forget about ‘society’ and ‘generations’. If you’re doing it right (i.e. giving back), your community values you. Your friends value you. Your band values you. Music is not for cowards. If you need more than these immediate and available human gifts, you don’t need music. You need a therapist. Or a career. Or a loving partner. Music can solve all those problems, but I’m struggling to think of a less efficient way to do so. Music is great for meeting people, yes, but pottery classes are probably a more efficient cure for neurosis and unemployment.

I care deeply about artists rights but…

I don’t like to see anyone exploited without their explicit permission. But despite what Mike Watt says, music is not like pushing a mop around. It’s not a sociological end point that people can’t escape from. We live in an era where you can change careers, you can transfer skills, you can retrain, go back to school (part-time) and prosper. Most of the people playing music in the world are middle-class too. It’s almost never too late when you’re middle class. And if it is then you chose to stay late, against all rational thinking. I don’t want to de-romanticise musicians completely (again) but know this:

NO ONE IS TRAPPED IN MUSIC

Grow up.

I look at the chronic casualties of music piracy and so on and I feel a tremendous amount of empathy for them (and of course we share some sort of cultural DNA) but I refuse to live in a bubble. Capitalism and the world of business is unfair, annoying, chaotic and mean. My academic career could whisked away in the future as well. No career is a bedrock of stability any more.

So you always have to keep looking around you, whatever you do. Musician or otherwise.

For musicians: you can still live your dreams, you just can’t live inside them all the time. That’s a whole-of-life lesson.

For instance, you may need to start thinking about whether or not you actually are an occasional musician. Brutal huh. But part of succeeding at anything is knowing what you’re trying to achieve.

And if you are an occasional music, you should be very careful how invested you get in dreams of revenue, audience, celebrity and justice because they can distract you. Worse still, they can depress you and discourage you.

Don’t let that happen. Be protective.

For the occasional musician your business = having a nice time and not letting that nice time rampage through the rest of your otherwise ordinary life. That’s the past, present and future of music business for you. And it has it’s own challenges and romances and successes and failures that need tending to.

Addendum:

Free Culture is ‘is a social movement that promotes the freedom to distribute and modify creative works in the form of free content by using the Internet and other forms of media.‘ In the interests of full disclosure I’m actually against it. There is essentially no such thing as free music. It does not exist. Consumer/listener, supplier/musician and prosumer hybrid, it all costs money. The listener buys access. The musician buys equipment and studio time and forfeits the opportunity to use their time more profitably elsewhere. So it’s hard for me to get on board with a movement that is fundamentally flawed from the outset.

But I download music. And I think ‘Free’ is a valid price for music in 2012 (and I use it myself). And I think it is pure unadulterated madness to pine for some idyllic return to the days of artists earning professional incomes from recorded music sales.

So measure what I say here in light of this.

Further Reading:

Hey Dude From Cracker, I’m Sorry, I Stole Music Like These Damned Kids When I Was A Kid – Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison on the fallacy of music piracy as generational.

David Kusek, author of The Future of Music wades in‘Lowery didn’t just touch a nerve this week, he may have single-handedly crushed years of post-physical, ridiculous digital utopianism.’ I like Kusek. But isn’t that book one of the main drivers behind years of  that very same ‘ridiculous digital utopianism’? No biggie. I don’t like my early publications either.

EDIT: Too good not to include here: ‘Is Stealing Music Really The Problem?‘ by Jay Frank.

FIELD NOTES:

(AKA More thinking on past topics)

Musicians and Critics: This piece from last week ended up getting picked up by The Vine so it reached a broader audience than expected. Anyway, as happens once you start looking for examples, they’re suddenly everywhere. Just the other night I stumbled across a perfect summary of this strategy in Robert Greene’s sinister and thoughtful ‘The 48 Laws of Power’. It’s right there on page 300: ‘Law 36: Disdain Things You Cannot Have: Ignoring Them Is The Best Revenge.’ Wherein ‘By acknowledging a petty problem you give it existence and credibility. The more attention you pay an enemy, the stronger you make him; and a small mistake is often made worse and more visible when you try to fix it.’ Threaded through all the alpha machismo is the same grain of truth I was getting at. It’s not your hurt feelings or differing opinion that is irrational or wrong-headed, it’s the acknowledgment and making visible your weakness that works against you. You’re essentially drawing attention to something you want to hide.

Kickstarter And Story: I’ve been thinking about this some more. Don’t all entrepreneurs no matter what field they’re in ultimately win out. They try and fail, try and fail and then eventually they find a footing somewhere, somehow. So in this piece I think I missed a super important part: Amanda Palmer was always going to win because she’s got more hustle than most. She’s not so much a character in this super enticing story but someone who saw, from very early on, the potential of the story and a way to slot herself into it.

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9 thoughts on “The Free Culture VS Digital Distribution Debate: On The Benefits of Ignorance

    • Good to hear Dave. Are you rebirthing one of your old bands? PS: I kind of love how you traded in your passion of playing in scrappy pop bands for riding bikes there for a while. I thought it was a good example of the fact that ‘musicians’ are not always these super-driven, locked-in-forever people. Sometimes they’re just, ‘Nah, I prefer riding bikes this year.’

      • no – just doing a solo record. just joke songs really! I only ever did rock n roll as a hobby, and to entertain people and to get that ONE random person after the show who came up to you of their own volition and say they liked it. That only happened once btw – but my whole rock n roll career was instantly validated!
        And yeah – there’s so much more to life than rock n roll. Did you read the Good Weekend story about Doc Gleeson and the Angels? Harrowing in many senses, but a very compelling story. http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/music/the-demons-in-the-angel-20120625-20xp1.html

    • I have mixed feelings about Greene. But that’s usually a good sign. I find the whole thing a bit evil but then…I also think he’s right a lot of the time and I love all the stories and quotes and so on. It’s super readable. And yeah, I guess being a Greene denier is a textbook use of the book, hahaha. As he writes, the person claiming not game the world for power is usually suss.

  1. Multi-congrats on a riveting blog, how often does that happen?
    Thoughts:
    Disassociate music from income / self esteem – check!
    Get a therapist / career / loving partner – check again!
    ‘..music is not like pushing a mop around’ – er, it can be if you’re a poorly renumerated / barely lauded musician.
    By the tone of this article, such an entity shouldn’t exist, merely those whose life story is blighted by skewed authorial intent.
    So, back to semantics again; when is a musician an actual musician?
    When she does music, I’m sure we can agree, but then occasional musician = dilettante, no? Albeit a functional and well-adjusted one.
    What IS the occasional musician trying to achieve? A question I ask myself fairly often.
    Do you never feel depressed or discouraged by a disconnect between your imagined outcomes and the reality you face?
    Isn’t that disconnect (and the ego driving the original dream) what pushes the imagined entrepreneur of your ‘Kickstarter’ note to get back up again in the face of (apparently) silly odds?
    Is your economic rationalism limiting your own career as a musician?

    • Hi Sam, wow…lots of questions. I can only really answer for myself but I’ll try and speak more generally where I think I can…

      Q: ‘..music is not like pushing a mop around’ – er, it can be if you’re a poorly renumerated / barely lauded musician. By the tone of this article, such an entity shouldn’t exist, merely those whose life story is blighted by skewed authorial intent.

      A: I’m not exactly sure I follow you here but the mop quip is from something Mike Watt often says, that his bass guitar is his mop. Watt is a hero of mine and he means it but I think music-making is often (emphasis on often, not always) a middle-class pursuit and most people I know playing in bands have other skills of some sort. Or they have an out of some description. I have one foot in sociology where we consider people who ARE very much trapped in certain scenarios like mopping floors for minimum wage and I think it’s a bit insult to these people to compare them to people who have chosen music.

      Q: So, back to semantics again; when is a musician an actual musician?

      A: What I’m interested in here is the idea that there is an actual musician. There’s professional musicians, amateur musicians, pro-am musicians and non-musicians (who still make sound, not unlike music) and former musicians and emergent musicians. Yet there’s barely any discussion of anyone except the professional. There’s hardly any instruction on what it means or what it’s like to be anything else. And this seems weird to me because most people I know through music aren’t professionals.

      Q: When she does music, I’m sure we can agree, but then occasional musician = dilettante, no? Albeit a functional and well-adjusted one.

      A: Dilettante is a loaded term and I’m not sure it works here. A dilettante is not committed (which works and doesn’t work) and not knowledgable (which definitely doesn’t work). Most hobbyists I know are committed and knowledgeable. They’re just committed to and knowledgable about a different type of practice/music, usually practice and music that does not have a market. That’s why they have jobs.

      Q: What IS the occasional musician trying to achieve? A question I ask myself fairly often.

      A: I think it’s a fairly open sandpit: a collection of music, a legacy, a leisure pursuit. It’s fair more open than what presents itself to the professional musician. The professional musician is trying to achieve a career in music, first and foremost. Beyond that, they’re interests no doubt are very similar to their hobbyist/occasional counterparts.

      Q: Do you never feel depressed or discouraged by a disconnect between your imagined outcomes and the reality you face?

      A: I don’t get depressed or discouraged but I have done in the past. And for no reason. The life of a hobbyist is great, especially in 2012. I used to wonder why I was happy with my lot. Did I lack ambition? Did I lack talent? Expertise? Maybe. But the more I started to analyse it with my work the more I saw that it seemed supremely rational to be satisfied with hobbyist music-making. It’s a good, comfortable life. It’s a rich creative life. It’s not without a future either.

      Q: Isn’t that disconnect (and the ego driving the original dream) what pushes the imagined entrepreneur of your ‘Kickstarter’ note to get back up again in the face of (apparently) silly odds?

      A: I think musicians could learn a lot (but not all) from the body of work coming together around entrepreneurship. I don’t think the business focus of entrepreneurship gels well with hobbyist music but the basic principles are relevant. The difference between an entrepreneur and a musician is the approach. The entrepreneur finds a market, tailors a product and product offering, finds funding and then ruthlessly attacks. The musician has a limited product line (all the music you can make) and works in an extremely social marketplace. Entrepreneurs dream of success, with a flexible set of qualifiers. Musicians dream of success with one sole qualifier: that they’re music is what succeeds. Band managers are entrepreneurs, for the most part.

      Q: Is your economic rationalism limiting your own career as a musician?

      A: Probably. This is a personal choice but after years and years of ignoring financial limitations (for the most part), I decided to work a bit more entrepreneurially in that I put some limits around my work so that it didn’t mug me and rampage through my personal life. Freed from the dream of a career, the creative aspects of my personally really had a nice time. I don’t think anyone who has heard my work could argue that this process has limited the creative scope of my work. I.e I got WAY freakier once I accepted these limitations. PS: This is a really great question and I probably need to think more about it.

  2. Ian – thanks so much for your considered reply.
    The fundamental message of becoming happier by keeping it real and exercising control over the bits one is able to makes much sense to me.
    Getting freakier by being less bogged down in the worldly aspects of music also sounds like a bonza outcome.
    I just think that the tension between where you are (reality) and where you want to be (dreams) may be the stuff that powers the creative machine. Particularly for many whose career may provide a means to feed oneself but little by way of adding value to one’s self-worth. I know, get another job but still..
    As an academic, are your ideas (in research form) not scrutinised / valued / refuted (but still considered) by a significant peer group? Wouldn’t this do much to fill in the void of not having your music recognised to the degree you may have previously desired?
    Regardless, I am really enjoying your writing and look forward to checking out your music. Where’s the best place to start?

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