Earlier this week, a friend pointed me towards a short essay from NPR’s All Songs Considered intern Emily White. I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With is a striking piece, though perhaps unintentionally. Emily, who describes herself as “an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ” whose “world is music-centric” admits to only buying fifteen CD’s in her entire life. More meaningfully, she doesn’t seem to recognize her trading MP3s and mix CDs with her peers as piracy. Emily’s attitude is representative of not just her generation, but every generation’s relationship to music, and all manner of media, in modern times. A couple years ago, my dear old dad, who I can assure you would never consciously steal anything, proudly showed me his new iPod that a co-worker of his had graciously loaded up with Top 40’s hits from the past sixty years. He, much like Emily, simply did not make the connection that this was a form of piracy.
I do not mean to demonize Emily. She seems like a good-intentioned young woman, and whether it was by courage or naiveté, her post is extremely poignant.
David Lowery, songwriter for the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker and outspoken activist for Artist’s rights in the digital age, wrote a lengthy and thoughtful response to Emily’s post that has gotten a lot of attention. David is passionate about the subject, and even though he carefully reigns himself in every few paragraphs, his riposte is highly emotional and borderline hostile at times.
I think a big part of this issue is actually a matter of user-experience. The real truth of the matter is that it’s not just Emily that “never owned any music to begin with”; none of us have ever really owned music. Sure, we can own a record or a compact-disc or an MP3, but these are only mediums. The real content, that stuff that flows out of speakers and radios and instruments, that stuff cannot be owned.
Herein lies the issue. Earlier formats were physical manifestations of music that you could hold in your hands and show off on your shelf. More importantly, they were often times the only way you could listen to a particular artist or song whenever you liked. They enabled a rewarding and positive experience and through that repeated experience became meaningful objects. Every scuffed record sleeve and cracked jewel case was representative of your unique relationship to the music. Nowadays however, there are a whole host of different ways to listen to a particular song on-demand, be it through a streaming service or simply through YouTube. An illegally obtained MP3 is completely indistinguishable from a legally purchased one. No matter how many times you listen to that digital file, it will never become meaningful to you in the same way that old forty-five did. It’s got no soul and it can be copied infinitely; it should come as no surprise that piracy is such a problem.
I agree unequivocally with David that we have to be responsible for our own actions, regardless of the relative convenience or inconvenience of doing the right thing. I also feel that people have to be responsible for their own health, regardless of the relative convenience or inconvenience of eating properly. To look at the increase in pirated music and draw the conclusion that my generation doesn’t care about artist rights is to look at rising obeisity rates and draw the conclusion that my generation would prefer to get diabetes and die young. Like it or not, people’s behavior is largely dictated by the systems in which they exist. This is why design is so critically important.
One section near the end of David’s response was particularly compelling to me:
Many in your generation are willing to pay a little extra to buy “fair trade” coffee that insures the workers that harvested the coffee were paid fairly. Many in your generation will pay a little more to buy clothing and shoes from manufacturers that certify they don’t use sweatshops. Many in your generation pressured Apple to examine working conditions at Foxconn in China. Your generation is largely responsible for the recent cultural changes that has given more equality to same sex couples. On nearly every count your generation is much more ethical and fair than my generation. Except for one thing. Artist rights.
I could not help but think of Kickstarter as I was reading this. Despite existing in a culture where musicians and other artists have a harder time than ever making a living selling their life’s work, Kickstarter expects to provide more funding to the Arts than the NEA in 2012. I strongly believe (and have mentioned before) that a critical part of Kickstarter’s success lies in their constructed culture of “backing”. In reality, buying an album has always been “backing” the band that recorded it, but that feeling was cheapened and lost when the reward for your support changed from a physical object to a digital file. Kickstarter has brought this warm and fuzzy feeling back to the surface through careful attenion to design and interaction, and now it seems like it would be easier for a band to get support from their fans before they record their next hit album instead of after.
There is a staggering opportunity in all of this. Reconsideration of the experience of buying and consuming music (and movies and television and video games and software) could change people’s behavior for the better, and in turn reinvigorate these faltering markets. Kickstarter has already shown that people are willing to support the things they love, they just need to be reminded of how powerful buying, or refusing to buy, a product can be.