Thursday, July 26, 2007

Don't Download that Song?

One of the things that makes a vibrant culture possible is allowing certain people to make a living creating things. I've long criticized the major record labels, for example, because they just don't pay their artists very much money. The fellow we know whose band appears on MTV frequently is still broke (last time I heard) after years of touring and appearing on MTV because of his band's contract.

So I have very mixed feelings about illegally downloading music. On the one hand, it's hard to feel bad for Britney Spears or Time Warner for losing sixteen bucks here or there. As far as crimes go, it isn't a terrible one, and most libraries loan CDs now anyway. And isn't it pretty corrupt to sell a compact disk for sixteen dollars in the first place, or charge 12 bucks to see a movie for that matter?

On the other hand, focusing on Britney Spears or Time Warner is stacking the deck a bit, isn't it? Here a smaller band called The Books, who release their own albums, talk about how illegal downloads affect them: "We feel the need to dispel any notions that we are financially sitting pretty because of the acclaim our music has enjoyed. It's true, we've released a couple of records and we're grateful to all of the writers who have taken the time to write about them, but unfortunately our record sales do not reflect this. Our work, although deeply satisfying to us, has left us both on the brink of financial collapse since we began, so we are asking you: Please, do not steal our music thinking that we can afford it. We barely get by, and aren't able to afford basic things like health insurance, let alone raising a family, etc."

It seems like illegal downloading could be terrible for music. I assume that many people will download anything they can- free always being a good price- and so the smaller labels will fold and the smaller bands will go broke. Not to mention the fact that the larger labels will find it more viable to release the next Jay-Z album and maybe turn some profit, but not to record the next band like Sonic Youth whose legal sales won't cover the recording costs.

And it's probably the same for movies. Eli Roth's film Hostel 2 flopped this summer, and he incurred the wrath of the blogosphere by blaming the film's failure on the fact that a copy of the film showed up on the net for free before it premiered in theatres. A number of bloggers called him a crybaby, but why shouldn't artists make money for their art? It beats most of the things that people make money doing.

One of the books I read today was Andrew Keen's polemic The Cult of the Amateur (for free in the library!) and he perhaps sheds a few too many tears for the major media companies. But one of the things that he discusses in the book is how, as record sales drop, it's becoming less and less likely that the labels will be willing or able to invest the time and money it would take to produce another Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Why spend thousands of dollars and a year to record something that most people will just steal?

One of the promises of the Internet is that it will make it easier for us to discover the next Bob Dylan. But my question is- isn't it just as likely that the online swap meet will force the next Bob Dylan to get another job?

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