I've wanted to write about this for a while now, but I never thought I had enough worth saying. But here goes.
I'm a pretty serious music fan. As long as I can remember, music has had an unmatched power in my life to move me in transcendent ways. I don't think a day has ever gone by when I haven't at some point hummed a melody, whether from a popular piece of music or my own improvisation. As a child, I used to create my own little songs, frequently nothing more than percussive rhythms composed of oral clicks and pops.
I took up the banjo at age 17. Well, not quite the banjo, per say - I never figured out how to tune it properly. I simply used it as a stringed instrument, something with which to experiment. I fell in love with its possibilities. I began to record small arrangements on a tape deck, which I would then play back as I recorded a new "track" on a different tape deck, repeating the process again until the original recording had deteriorated beyond recognition. One of my most inspirational memories was when at one point in a particular recording a streetcar rang its bell outside in just the right spot. The song might now be lost to history, but here's a different example of my work from that era:
I've since gone on to further develop my songwriting, eventually completing a number of complete, although unpublished albums. Music - both its production and appreciation - remains central to my life.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, I regularly attended performances by reggae artists who made sure our appreciative town was on their tour schedule. Marijuana was central to the experience. And it was a beautiful thing. For hours we would dance, reveling in the joy of the rhythm, swaying to the bass. I remember on one occasion being drawn to a stack of bass amps that towered like a wall over my head, closing my eyes and feeling the deep, low wavelengths reverberate through me.
With the advent of internet file-sharing, the boundaries of musical discovery have disappeared. Anything you can possibly think of is out there for you to find, and probably download for "free". Of course, the issue of legality arises. Well, in most cases downloading "free" music is clearly illegal. But the moral issue is a bit more tricky. As with any form of digital media, the act of reproduction does no physical damage to the original work. Yet in terms of whether the increased availability of a near-perfect copy limits the original owner's ownership, and thus his ability to exploit its value, the question is open.
No one seems to have a very good answer for where the line is between outright stealing, where harm is actually done to the original owner, and sharing, where value is only added. An argument for the former would be that compensation is limited by those who get for free what they otherwise could only have paid for. An argument for the latter would be that the music may not have been bought, or listened to otherwise. Many independent artists, their work traditionally lacking the institutional marketing muscle to expose themselves to the public in the first place, have argued that by their music being shared, value is added in terms of building public awareness.I think every case is surely different. There are so many variables to the question, and so many pieces we would never be able to know about the pathways to particular artist's compensation.
But maybe a simpler way to look about this is to focus less on individual products, and on our role as consumers in society. Because, if we are to look at the morality of our purchases, could we not then look at our own purchasing power, and our own compensation? What rights do we possess as citizens to enjoy the fruits of society's labors at large? Do I really deserve the condition of the street I live on? Does my contribution to society qualify my enjoyment of its public parks, schools and police? These are public goods paid for by taxation, a system itself designed - in principle - to fairly reflect individual obligation.
A fascinating piece to this conversation is the existence of public libraries. We have a very long tradition of accepting the notion that it is perfectly fair one to borrow books without paying for them. In recent decades, this notion has broadened to include music, magazines and DVDs. The only limitation has been on the number of physical copies a particular branch is able to acquire. And even here, there has historically been inequality among neighborhoods with regards to the selection and general quality of library branches. Yet the library itself rests in no small part on the notion that as a purveyor of ideas, it is a pillar of democracy to spread information to all citizens - both for knowledge but also pure enjoyment. To imagine a world without public libraries is almost impossibly bleak.
I have read many books at a library instead of purchasing them. But I have also read many that I would not have purchased. And what price to put on such an experience? How much wiser am I because of it? How much am I able now able to contribute as a citizen?
In the past 10 years, I have downloaded countless gigabytes of music. Was I stealing, or was I sharing? I've never been able to spend very much on music. As I mentioned previously, I have almost always purchased music used. In many cases, there is simply no compensation being distributed back to the original creator. The compensation is mainly being passed back and forth between previous owners, the shop owner basically collecting a transaction fee. One could argue, I think, that to the extent that a market in used music exist, it drives down the prices of new music. Ought that be called stealing?
In the video game market, there has always existed a robust used market. However, that may be changing as platforms head towards a digital distribution model. Rumors are that the next systems will do away with portable media entirely. You can't sell a used file. In many ways, getting rid of the used market for media would represent a huge win for content creators. Aside from removing the middle man, they would no longer face competition from used versions of their product, from which they derive no profit. And should ebooks become the norm (if you don't like their inflexible, "inorganic" feel now, just imagine someday turning pages that feel just like paper and ink, yet are in fact display conduits for digital ink), what will happen to libraries?
The physical location will be unnecessary, as all content will exist online. Will it still be free? Digital content exists today at many libraries, however the selection is quite limited by publishers.
Again, I suggest we return to the concept of ourselves as consumers in society, and specifically to our role as nodes in a larger web of labor transactions. It might clear away much of the muddle if we simply look at the sum totality of our individual contribution, and determine to what extent we ought to contribute. A good example of this model is that of listener-supporter radio. I have determined - in my own, highly unscientific way - that I want to pay about $10 a month to my local NPR station. For that price, I can use them as little or as much as I want. Couldn't we apply this model to our media consumption in general?
I have taken a similar tack with regard to my music purchases. Despite all of the music I have downloaded without paying anyone, I have continued to purchase $10-15 of music monthly. It became convenient to do this through eMusic, as all of the artists I enjoyed could be found there at bargain prices. Yet, I recently realized that I wasn't actually getting anything from them that I couldn't get for free via torrents, and that my main concern was really to support the artists. Because I've always enjoyed listening to vinyl, what I could do instead was spend my money on a record each month, and then continue to download whatever I felt like. I am buying no more or less than I always would have, I am supporting artists, and I am able to completely engage in the process of music appreciation.
Maybe $10-15 isn't the best remuneration for the relative value I am taking from my music consumption. Yet whatever I am not paying music artists, I am paying the grocer, or the monthly check I send to the United way. What is fair for any of us to contribute to society? Isn't that ultimately the real question? How do I spend my free time? Am I smiling enough to passers by? Am I giving enough attention to my daughters? Am I being a supportive husband to my wife? Am I doing my job the best I know how? All of these things are transactions, whether or not someone has developed a way to monetize them. If I fail to be gracious enough to the cashier at Target, am I stealing?
In a way, maybe I am. I have been designed by society to give the love that I have gotten. At least, that is what I believe. I believe in a society in which everyone gives as much as they can to the human project, to a cultural evolution we have been embarking on now for hundreds of thousands of years. Predestined or not, I can only do my best to make as much sense of it as I can and align my integrity with the result.
That is the final transaction, the only one that really matters.