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The Free Music Mirage

Putting an End to a Persistent Illusion

Steadily, over the course of the last 10 years, the idea that recorded music "has" to be free has been transformed from a radical stance taken by those adept enough to navigate the geeky interfaces of file-sharing sites to a standard online rallying cry.

The tables have in fact been turned so entirely that anyone who dares now to suggest that people should still pay for recorded music can expect derision.

Along the way, many musicians themselves have acquiesced to the situation. Gamely, they've been willing to go along, willing to say, "Well, okay, if music has to be free, I'll figure something out, I'll get by."

But what if it's all been a figment of some overactive imaginations? What if recorded music does not in fact have to be free?

Looked at from the outside, free music is an odd conclusion to come to. To begin with, the idea originated in violation of intellectual property rights. However imperfect and in need of adjustment over time it may be, intellectual property is still a vital cultural concept. One can argue that certain aspects of intellectual property law are out of whack–such as the ridiculous copyright extensions that have been granted in recent months–without concluding that there should be no intellectual property rights at all, or that musicians in particular should be giving their music away for no cost, all the time.

the ridiculous copyright extensions that have been granted in recent months

And there is also the matter of human decency. Even if you think you have good intentions, taking something for free that was not intended to be given out for free is not nice or fair. To turn around and distribute this same something to thousands of other people for free is, well, really not nice.

But of course the matter of music-sharing isn't quite so black and white. Also looked at from the outside, it should be clear that the taking and sharing of music online happens along a nuanced spectrum, including everyone from the aficionado sharing out-of-print music on a blog with fifty readers to someone who just loves a new song so much she wants to share it with a few friends to the kid stoked by ripping brand new mass-market CDs on the day of their release (or earlier) and putting them on the P2P networks.

A worthy discussion of all this might have been launched in the early '00s that accounted for the different kinds of sharing that was actually happening.

major record labels from the get-go have brooked no nuance

This discussion never much occurred, of course, in large part because the major record labels from the get-go have brooked no nuance, aiming to fight every instance of online file sharing, no matter the context.

It may be no coincidence that those arguing that music must be free have likewise been little interested in grey areas. Perhaps this arose as a counter-reaction to the mainstream music industry's onslaught, perhaps it's just that the free music adherents, like all good zealots, veer naturally towards extremism.

In any case, between vociferous calls to artists to stop even trying to sell actual music (they should be selling "experiences" instead; or, maybe, t-shirts) and gleeful anticipation of our imminent, cloud-based future–in which any one musician's specific songs or albums are worth fractions of pennies at best or are entirely ad-supported, and no one has to sell anything resembling either a physical product or a digital file–the free music crowd is all but ready to declare victory.

just because a lot of people believe something does not make it true

But just because a lot of people believe something does not make it true, or right, or good. And because conversations on the internet tend to be dominated by the loudest and most self-promoting voices, it's all too easy for the true and right and good to be pushed aside.

And, bless their hearts, the free music folks have been nothing if not loud and self-promoting, convinced that they alone have a grip on reality. "Get used to it!" they explain. "Stop living in the past!" they clarify. One can all but feel their hands on one's collar, ready to yank us out of our humdrum, 20th-century-fixated lives.

But here's a news flash: it may be the free music cheerleaders who are stuck in the past.

They're the ones who are attached to the old-fashioned idea that monetary value depends on something having a three-dimensional presence.

As far as I can see, the truly future-oriented music visionary will be one with a plan that involves an industry economy that can and does attach genuine monetary value to digital entities.

Please understand that in arguing that music does not "have to be free," I am nevertheless not: a) a stooge for the major record labels; b) a believer that all music must on the other hand be paid for; c) convinced that great numbers of people will necessarily pay money for MP3 downloads per se as the future unfolds.

as yet unanticipated options may arise

I understand that the technology will continue to evolve, that people may generally go in the direction of paying for access rather than ownership, and that as yet unanticipated options may arise. And I absolutely believe that there have been and will continue to be great benefits to loosening up our ideas of how and why music is distributed and paid for.

But make no mistake. Anyone who looks at the crazy, fluid, work-in-progress that is the 21st-century music scene to date and claims that the future requires all recorded music to be free both to own and to listen to is seeing things. It's a mirage. The rest of us should shake our heads, rub our eyes, and keep walking–we have an actual future to get to.

Going to Extremes
One reason the free music camp has gained credibility is because they are so resolutely opposed to an enemy already mistrusted and disliked. Few people stick up for the big record companies, for good reason. They have navigated the digital scene very badly, because–basically–they navigate badly in any arena in which fair practices must be maintained. They have consistently stood in the way of rightful progress.

But–this is the part you don't tend to hear–so have the free music proponents.

If the historical model for music revenue distribution was exploitative–which it most certainly was–then let's use this opportunity to change it. To insist that the new answer is that all recorded music must now be free is just as absurd and extremist a response to 21st-century realities as was the record companies' suing of their customers. The latter was a sort of fascist fever dream, while the former is little more than adolescent fantasy.

If nothing else, this insistence on a free music future seems an inexplicable diversion of good energy. Why are people more willing to fight for free music than to fight for a talented musician's right to earn money from his or her handiwork? Why do people jump through hoops to invent alternative scenarios for musicians to make money, rather than fight to defend the value of music itself?

querulous children who don't want to be told they can't eat candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner

These are worthy questions, not often addressed. Defending their position, some free music adherents sound like querulous children who don't want to be told they can't eat candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many respond with belligerance to anyone suggesting there might perhaps be moral or legal or logistical problems with their grand idea.

Curiouser and Curiouser
Now I'll admit, something without physical substance is a curious circumstance for a material species such as ourselves. And this is after all the bedrock of the "music must be free" stance: that something that's just digital bits doesn't really have to cost anything.

But then here is the even more curious circumstance. If we were willing to pay for music in the past, when it was housed on a compact disc or a cassette tape or a vinyl LP, and we are not willing to pay for music now, when we can still hear it–more conveniently than ever, I should add–then the implication is clear, but startling: in the past, we were paying solely for the physical object and not a penny for the music itself.

the plastic and the packaging were not much on our minds as we plunked down our money

And yet of course that's wrong. Surely we were paying for the music–in fact, I'd say the plastic and the packaging were not much on our minds as we plunked down our money. And so–it seems quite clear in this context, yes?–if we were paying for the music back then, then we should still be paying for the music now. We should be paying for it, that is, with one notable change: the music should cost quite a bit less, because there are fewer material costs involved, and fewer distribution costs.

The bits argument is intellectual sleight of hand. We should dismiss it, and ask, instead: what is it about the internet that makes us think we should not and will not pay for music?

There is one camp that believes the answer to this question is a purely economic one–an argument most famously laid out by TechCrunch's Michael Arrington, who declared in 2007 that the price of music would "inevitably" fall to zero because the marginal production costs are zero. By this he meant that it costs nothing to produce an identical digital copy of any given song.

To his credit, Arrington encouraged discussion. He didn't shy from criticism, but dismissed most of it as "emotional." He argued from the position that economic theory was as immutable a truth as the law of gravity (which I feel compelled to point out it rather obviously isn't). He noted repeatedly that this isn't about fairness.

We live in a world of moral complexity, not of abstract economic theorizing

But in that case I have to say, with all due respect, that the argument is pointless. Fairness actually does matter, as the free market has always been properly constrained and guided by legal and cultural considerations. We live in a world of moral complexity, not of abstract economic theorizing. If you beg off the question of right and wrong then you have begged off having a voice in the matter worth listening to.

What, Me Worry?
Free music proponents who don't take refuge in hard-core economics like to employ two other prominent rationales to explain why the internet means music now has to be free. And if the economic theory rationalizers sidestep the right and wrong debate, the folks using the next rationale try to confront the morality issue head-on. This is the "I'm not doing anything wrong" rationale.

There are actually a few variations of this one, but the most common is the "I'm not doing anything wrong because nothing is actually stolen" argument.

This outgrowth of the "digital bits aren't real" concept overlooks the basic idea, mentioned earlier, that if you decide not to pay for something that the owner is otherwise asking a price for, and you take possession of this thing anyway, this is wrong. As soon as you start reverse-engineering a "What, Me Worry?" morality based on interpretation and semantics and loop holes, you've already skipped over the part about taking possession of something that is somebody else's without paying for it.

Digital files may be elusive physically but they are still very real

What's more, the entire premise is rooted in illogic. On the one hand, the "I'm not doing anything wrong" crew has argued that they should be able to take the digital music for free because it doesn't have any real value; on the other hand, they want the music enough to have it, which means–um–that is has value.

Because of course it does. Digital files may be elusive physically but they are still very real. To claim you're not stealing anything because the owner maintains the original file is nonsense. By a similar argument, one could say there's nothing wrong with hacking into your bank account and adding money to it because "nothing is being stolen."

Already Free? Um, No
The other interesting rationale for claiming that all music must be free is the "Music is already free" rationale. By this people mean that whether it was right or wrong no longer matters, everyone can get everything they want for free via file-sharing, why are we even discussing this any more, you idiots. (Or something like that.) Note that people using this argument are often kind of angry.

"Music is already free" is a rhetorical trick–the rationale of a wily debater who wants to frame the discussion past the point of argument. But it doesn't wash. The only way music is "already free" is if you're willing to take, for free, what the owners of that which you're taking are not offering for free. By the same assumption, one could say that everything currently in stores is already free to anyone willing to steal it.

And forgetting arguments over intellectual property rights for a moment, it should also be noted that music isn't "already free" because–minor detail–lots of people are still buying it.

People still buy CDs and people still buy digital downloads, in relatively large numbers, sometimes unexpectedly so (as with the Adele album). Yes, sales are way down from where they were at the height of the CD boom, but the reasons for this are many and varied–a good subject for another essay. But there is no solid evidence to suggest that all the people who no longer are buying albums are now simply accessing their music for free, just as it is specious to pretend that no one at all buys music anymore.

Another nagging way reality is at odds with the "already free" vision: musicians themselves still sell their music. And, as Glenn Peoples discussed in Billboard, there remain compelling reasons for them to do so.

And what about the fact that some people are still not using broadband? If you don't have broadband, you're not downloading music. Music is not free for these people.

And by the way, while precise information on this remains sketchy, common sense tells us that most people who are using broadband have no particular idea how to use the P2P networks, if only because the history of home technology has shown time and again that the average computer user has no interest in using anything even a little bit complicated.

Resuscitating Value
There is one final problem with the "music is already free" assumption; it is in fact a problem that compromises all arguments put forward by all free music zealots. And it is the indisputable fact that many music fans to this day enjoy buying songs and albums from musicians they like. Not t-shirts. Not special boxed sets of b-sides and remixes. Regular songs and albums.

many music fans to this day enjoy buying songs and albums from musicians they like

I am one of these fans. And I for one resent the the assumption made by the free music advocates that anyone who is into music wants nothing more than to have all the music they want for free.

I find this kind of insulting.

Why do they think it's somehow wrong or old-fashioned to want to pay musicians for their art? Is it old-fashioned to buy a painting from an artist you admire? Is it old-fashioned now, somehow, to spend money on anything that someone else created and produced?

Which leads us back to the fundamental question I asked earlier: what is it about the internet that makes us think we should not and will not pay for music? To put it another way: why have so many people been hellbent on using the existence of digital files as an excuse to undermine the idea that an individual piece of music by an individual artist has actual value?

All this talk about how music "must" be free is peculiar in the midst of a society that has hardly abandoned the concept of capitalism. The free music camp think they're somehow saving or reinventing the music industry when they're actually bringing some big shovels to the graveyard.

And hiding behind alternative revenue schemes doesn't work. All these roundabout ways that musicians might get paid–from merchandise sales to percentages of advertising on ad-supported music sites–have one thing in common, regardless of how much or how little money they generate: they all implicitly devalue the music.

No historical precedent exists to justify the idea that going digital means music must be free

Neither can we hide behind the forces of history. No historical precedent exists to justify the idea that going digital means music must be free. History is full of shifts from one type of product to another–ice cubes to refrigerators, horses to cars, film to digital photos. In all cases, the replacement product performs the old job in a new and better way, and people pay for it accordingly.

The one valid reason I can see why the blossoming of the internet as a music medium in the 21st century has provoked the idea that music must be free has nothing to do with history, nothing to do with intellectual property laws, and nothing to do with marginal production costs. It does, however, have something to do with economics–namely, the trusty, even homely theory of supply and demand.

As the internet has all but eliminated the barrier to entry for a musician to record and distribute his or her music, the market has been flooded, the drain pipes clogged beyond repair. With the supply of music all but infinite (or at least, to quote Dr. Seuss, "up in the zillions"), the price of music should, indeed, theoretically fall to all but zero.

if we can begin to delineate between the dabblers and the virtuosos

Unless…okay, it's a crazy idea, but…unless we somehow begin to work to distinguish quality from quantity. Sure, there's an unimaginable glut of music, but there has been and always will be a much (much) smaller supply of quality music. I have no exact idea how this could play out–maybe the subject of another essay–but if we can begin to delineate between the dabblers and the virtuosos, we might be able to establish why some music is actually worth paying for, while other music is entirely suited to free distribution.

There is plenty of precedent for this. Think about home-based artists who draw or paint or sculpt just because they love to, without any desire or need to be paid for it. Their existence, however, has never implied that nobody should be paid for those painting or drawing or sculpting.

We need tiers of musical activity. We cannot allow the existence of millions of songs that do not deserve an audience beyond friends and family to negate the idea that some songs are worthy of value in the marketplace. We need not to be telling musicians that they must work harder at mastering social media. They need to be working harder to master their craft, and need to remember that no one owes a musician a living.

But neither do we owe them a swift kick in the ass while we consciously and demeaningly deny all potential value from their chosen calling. If we can shake the sand from our eyes and look hard and fast at the horizon–if we can understand what's really there and what really isn't–we may recognize that it is up to us as well. As streaming sites continue to develop, it's easier than ever to use the internet to listen, so you can make an informed decision. Then you can do the truly revolutionary thing: buy the music that you like.

Because here's the new rule: if someone else made it and you really like it, it's not supposed to be free.

Jeremy Schlosberg curates the music recommendation blog fingertipsmusic.com and periodically writes fine essays on the miasma that is the post-Napster music industry.
Waveform Image by Salvatore Vuoni.

The above post has been edited from the original. The original, with further notes and citations by the author, can be read here.


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