Sunday, February 7, 2010


I suspect it's way too late, but it's reassuring to finally see some serious questions being asked by non-corporate music people about file-sharing. I've often thought about bringing this issue up as it's something I feel strongly about and find the attitudes of fellow music fans on this subject to be puzzling and immensely disappointing.

I haven't addressed it before because I find the pro-file-sharing camp to be incoherent and illogical. Reading the comments to this typically asinine Matthew Yglesias post*, I found this absurdly misleading (or perhaps 'willfully naive,' but I doubt it) article in the UK Times that purports to prove--with shiny graphs!--that musicians are faring better in the new system and only rapacious middleman labels are feeling the deserved pinch. Luckily some actual musicians post responses in the comments pointing out that lumping in, say, the Rolling Stones' annual windfall of concert money with what some indie band makes on a Monday night gig distorts the picture way past the point of universal applicability.

*I'm not an economist, but is Yglesias really suggesting that music should be free because (he claims) distribution costs are zero? He cannot possibly be that stupid, right?

Chris Ruen asks most of the questions I also have about what he aptly terms "freeloading." The people so anxious to dismantle copyright entirely and, more perniciously, defend file-sharing to any lengths always make me wonder: Why does the end of capitalism have to begin with music? When Eric Harvey writes in his "The Social History of the MP3" on Pitchfork that "there is nothing inherent or natural about paying for music, and the circulation of mp3s through unsanctioned networks reaffirms music as a social process driven by passion, not market logic or copyright," does he stop to compose a mental list of commodities that inherently demand to be part of a market system? Is it "natural" to pay for a book? For food? Why does Verizon deserve hundreds of dollars of my money every year, but the people who make music I love (and that could include not only the musicians, but anyone involved with the recording and even those who paid for the recording to happen) should settle for being appreciated?

Suddenly declaring that music--or "information" as the pro-file-sharers see it in their sterile view, pretty much making my point for me--should be completely free is a massive overreaction to corporate tyranny. And again, all this rage against The Labels makes me wonder: were music conglomerates (not to mention the independents, record stores, etc.) really the corporations that most needed to be brought to their knees? Disney repeatedly manipulating copyright legislation to ensure their characters not entering the public domain is despicable and troubling, but why not redirect that outrage towards, for example, KBR? Given that Disney's control of this issue hasn't been set back one bit, one might almost be moved to wonder whether "fighting copyright" is a rhetorical fig leaf for people just wanting music for free.

Ruen's point that "file-sharing" is in no way an act of genuine sharing is also damning. Harvey's quasi-mystical take--to be fair: in contrast to its introduction, the whole piece is more balanced and informative, especially with regards to the epic mishandling of events by the RIAA and their lawyers--crosses the line into pure fantasy when he writes "in the same way that Facebook visually represents 'having friends,' the mp3s coursing through file-sharing networks quantify the online social life of music by charting its path." I suppose he might be right in that my having a Facebook page only distantly connects to my having people in my life I consider friends, but that's obviously not the reading he's going for.

This kind of techno-utopianism feels like a relic of the silly hyperbole that characterized the late 1990s new economy/internet bubble. But just as the bursting of that bubble eventually resolved itself into Web 2.0 and our increasingly online lives, techno-utopianism has been so completely folded into the fabric of the internet in 2010 that anyone casting a critical eye on any of the deeply ugly, antisocial features of the Web is usually immediately dismissed as a crank, an elitist, or a neo-Luddite. As near as it is to my own heart, the damage done to the value we place on music is in some ways a relatively minor casualty of the ascendancy of the Web.

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