Creators and Consumers Should Cut the Strings

Back in the Napster days, I had an assistant named Greg, who remains one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever been lucky enough to call a friend. I remember giving him a hard time one afternoon when I realized he was using the file sharing app to download music.  With a slightly self-aware grin he said to me, “Yeah, but you gotta stick it to The Man,” to which I replied, “Greg, if I can teach you anything, it’s that Mick Jagger is not The Man.”

Of course, many of us know the history of events that unfolded since that time, and I would certainly be among those who say that mistakes made by the recording industry were profoundly unhelpful in the process of migrating entertainment into the digital age.  But that doesn’t entirely explain or excuse the dysfunction which still blinds “file sharers” to the fact that the people being harmed by piracy are indeed the artists and the skilled workers who support those artists.

I spent nearly 20 years providing freelance, creative services in the often bizarre and obfuscating lingo of corporate communications, which is to say I’ve listened to a lot of bullshit.  And when it comes to the various ways people talk about digital copyright infringement, the amount of bullshit is of Augean proportions.  First clue:  when corporate agents describe something that’s really very simple in terms that make it sound visionary, you’re wading knee-deep into it. Thankfully, independent musician David Lowery has brought a bulldozer to the party called The Trichordist.

Lowery of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, co-founded this artists’ rights blog, which has a solid track record for getting to the point.  For instance, this week, the site posted a list of 50 major advertisers who have ads appearing on websites whose sole enterprise is unlicensed access to entertainment media (i.e. “dedicated to infringement”).  Aside from the fact that it’s just plain surreal to see Tom Waits “sponsored” by an ad for WeightWatchers, it takes about half a caffeinated brain cell to recognize that the entire business model is what we normally call wrong.  I know this is a word that makes many digital age millennials uncomfortable, but that’s just too bad because this is big boy school, and Professor Lowery is saying something very serious, but also very easy to understand. This is about large, American corporations supporting and legitimizing the exploitation of American workers.

I’ll say it again without equivocation. These sites are in the business of exploiting workers. Period. Don’t let’s get distracted by the fact that copies of files don’t cost anything to produce or distribute or that you think WMG is evil or you don’t like the RIAA.  That’s all that bullshit again, and it has nothing to do with the way in which these sites generate revenue. All that “free” media represent hours or years or even decades of labor, either by one person or by hundreds of people. This labor is very often done for compensation that is paid incrementally after the work is complete -- sometimes years after in the case of, say, a screenwriter whose residuals over a decade might represent a portion of her income. 

Fortunately, The Trichordist has bulldozed past the moral ambiguity of the user, the self-serving and vague politics of the Web industry, and the functional roadblocks of the technologists right to the money that goes into the pockets of the exploiters. It’s AT&T, it’s Ford, it’s American Express, it’s CitiBank, and so on. This is a B2B problem. Money from American businesses is supporting offshore, illegal operations that exploit American workers in other businesses.  It really doesn’t get more basic than that.  

I know my friend at The Cynical Musician would agree that exploiting labor without permission or compensation is what we call slavery, so if we buy fair-trade goods or think twice about who assembles our iPods, we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the backs if we’re also regular users of these sites. The techno-utopians will say, “There are always winners and losers through transformation.” That’s fine, I guess, but then let’s stop all the prattle about new models, shall we? There’s nothing new about theft or exploitation; they are as old as human history and they reek, whether the tools of the exploiters are guns, whips, or keyboards. Moreover, the end-game in this trend is a dilution of the value of the individual voice of the creator, who will (and we’ve already seen this happen) become more dependent on corporate patronage to make a living.  That means art whose primary purpose is to support a brand, which is a functional, if not a legal, limit on free speech.

I would challenge the defender of “file sharing” to read the list on The Trichordist site and convince himself that by downloading unlicensed media he’s “sticking it to The Man.” The truth is the ardent file sharer is a corporate puppet that has no idea which companies are pulling its strings.