Book Review: Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity
Nonfiction. Softcover. 264 pages. Chris Ruen
Aside from one or two of our more irreverent reviews, few TMT pieces have sparked the kind of fierce debate — both behind the scenes here and on the internet at large — as former TMT contributor Chris Ruen’s 2009 feature, “The Myth of DIY: Towards a Common Ethic of Piracy.” Along with its companion piece, “Fuck Love, Let’s Make Dystopia,” the article called into question the premise that the read availability of free content on the internet is an unambiguously good thing, and in the process, it hit a lot of indie music fans where it hurt the most: their conscience.
Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity provides Ruen with a larger canvass upon which to develop the ideas that he’s sketched out in his shorter works, namely that the act of illegally downloading unlicensed digital content (or “freeloading”) has dire consequences, not just on artists, labels, and the surrounding industry apparatus, but for the future of our cultural development. While Ruen assembles an impressive arsenal of support for his position, the entire crux of his argument lays in a simple premise: that an artist has the exclusive right to “distribute works in a manner as s/he chooses” and are entitled to “extend that right… to any legal business partner.” It’s a statement so self-evident that it shouldn’t even need to be defended; however, given the historical context surrounding the freeloading debate, it becomes much easier to see how we, as a society, have lost sight of this.
Ruen spends the first portion of the book providing such a context, demonstrating how advancements in technology and the recording industry’s often misguided reactions to it helped to shape attitudes towards freeloading in the aughts, which Ruen dubs the “Decade of Dysfunction.” The laundry list of the RIAA’s misdeeds will be familiar to readers old enough to have paid $20 for a CD at Sam Goody: the decades of price gouging and artist exploitation; the organization’s stranglehold on MTV, commercial radio, and outlet stores; the shuttering of Napster; the brutal filesharing lawsuits leveled against individual downloaders (including one for $2,000 against a 12-year old girl living in a New York housing project). It’s no wonder that major record labels have earned such disdain from people under the age of 40. By the end of the aughts, they’d done everything short of strangling a basket of kittens to earn their villainous reputation.
While the allure of free content and antipathy towards the corporate entities that provide it formed the bedrock of our current filesharing habits, there were those who saw freeloading as more than just an expediency towards acquiring new films or music, but as a crucial step across the threshold to some techno-utopian future in which information flowed as freely as air or water. Ruen gives a great deal of attention to copyleftist lawyer Lawrence Lessig and blogger/science fiction author Cory Doctorow, who hold that any attempt to restrict the illicit transmission of unlicensed material is futile, if not actually immoral. According to Ruen, these digital determinists provided militant freeloaders (such as the founders of Sweden’s Pirate Bay) with an intellectual basis for their consumption habits; after all, if “Information wants to be free” (according to the selectively-quoted statement by Stewart Brand), then isn’t it the content industry’s responsibility to adapt to the changing social and technological landscape?
These historical grievances and utopian aspirations, however, are often only a pretext or thin justification for our freeloading behaviors. The fact is that we download content illegally because it’s convenient and because our actions don’t seem to carry any immediate negative consequences. Ruen draws on Marshall McLuhan’s reading of the myth of Echo and Narcissus to explore the internet’s numbing effects on our moral centers, the way that we can “lose ourselves” in our own digital avatars and “selective realities.” Ruen argues that we have slid into a “narcotic acceptance” of freeloading, and he devotes the second portion of the book to interviews with independent label owners, event organizers, record store owners, and musicians from both indie and major label backgrounds in an effort to put a human face on the abstract moral issues at stake.
The middle passage of the book is at once the most engaging and the most vexing segment. The lengthy, often colorful statements from his subjects provide valuable insight, but their testimony begins to feel a little repetitive by the end. Still, the attentive reader will likely be surprised by how far the indie music community is from reaching a consensus about the nature of the problem and how to move forward. Opinions diverge on the subject of album leaks (a crushing blow to artists like Andy Falkous and Craig Finn, but a “vital part of the ecosystem” to Secretly Canadian label-head Chris Swanson) and the changing role of major labels (whom Matt Wishnow, owner of the digital record store Insound, considers significantly humbled by recent industry trends, but whom Yeasayer’s Ira Wolf Tuton still regards with contempt and suspicion). Testimony also disagrees widely regarding how significant of a role album sales and touring currently play in generating income for an artist and what a more favorable balance would look like.
The commonalities between their testimonies remain significant, however, and provide some key takeaways:
01. Labels, PR firms, and promoters are still essential components for helping artists achieve recognition and long-term success, even in the world of social media and viral marketing.
02. The loss of revenue from album sales is driving more artists to seek corporate sponsorship and patronage, often without the stigma that used to be associated with “selling out” (although it’s worth pointing out that opinions vary widely about whether this is a good thing).
03. The self-righteous, utopian rhetoric surrounding freeloading is often a greater source of frustration for artists and labels than the act itself.
By taking our music for free, Ruen argues, we are surrendering our ‘voice’ in the marketplace and creating a void that corporate sponsors are more than happy to fill.
In the final section of the book, Ruen seizes upon these logical through-lines and fashions them into an argument against the “lazy rebellion” of digital determinism. Ruen scores some key points by challenging the received narrative surrounding the Napster lawsuit that paints a David and Goliath fable in which greedy, outmoded label execs sought to crush a scrappy young innovator working out of his or her college dorm. He attempts the same kind of demythologizing in his chapter devoted to the SOPA blackouts (which, you may recall, TMT also participated in on January 18, 2012) and casts significant doubt on the conceptualization of the event as a “grassroots movement” striking a blow against big content by exhaustively tracing the seeds of the protest back to a mysterious, 501(c)4-funded organization called Fight for the Future.
As Ruen demonstrates, there’s a lot of money to be made in “keeping the internet free.” Artists and record labels may not see a penny of profit from illegal downloads, but the same can’t be said for institutions like the Pirate Bay and Mediafire, nor even for Google, who profits from selling ad space to websites that infringe on copyright. And contrary to popular belief, the ready availability of free content on the web has not led to a world untainted by the corrupting influence of filthy lucre, but to increasing co-option of independent artists by wealthy corporations. By taking our music for free, Ruen argues, we are surrendering our “voice” in the marketplace and creating a void that corporate sponsors are more than happy to fill. It’s an unsettling thought, particularly when Ruen demonstrates how marketing companies turn artists and publications into extensions of their clients’ brands, as with Pitchfork’s partnership with FADER, a key mouthpiece for Cornerstone Media. (Also worth reading on this score is Tim Terhaar’s excellent piece on Muzak from 2011.)
Ruen implores readers to respect the rights of creators and to support legislation that will restrict the ability of sites like The Pirate Bay to profit from the work of creative individuals. Additionally, he calls for a strengthening of the public domain by returning to 50-year copyright terms and for labels to move towards more equitable 50/50 revenue splits with their artists. While at times his rhetoric can come off as rather strident, Ruen insists that his goal is “not to shame or guilt consumers into never freeloading again,” but to call into question the sense of entitlement that accompanies the act.
Naturally, any work on such a controversial topic will open itself up to a variety of criticisms. Ruen explicitly privileges “high-quality professional work” over the “amateur work” often found on the internet, a position that I imagine more than a few readers of TMT will find highly problematic. Furthermore, he places a lot of faith in the capitalist free market: in its ability to incentivize the creation of “great” art, in its democratizing power (“voting with your wallet”) and in its fairness towards participants (assuming that legislation can limit the deforming effects of websites that facilitate freeloading). None of these assumptions can be accepted as a given, though. Can we really say that there was more “good” music being made in the 1990s than there is today or 10 years from now? When a few extremely wealthy corporations exert their influence to control all the major outlets of communication and distribution (as was the case in the 90s), can the consumer really be said to have meaningful choice? Would the abolition of freeloading create a more level playing field for labels to compete and thrive, or would the majors wield their influence to the detriment of artists and independent labels?
There are also some angles that Ruen leaves unexplored. While he touches on freeloading in media such as eBooks, film, and newspapers, he does not mention software piracy at all. This seems significant, though, because the ability to freeload software like Pro Tools and Photoshop has significantly lowered some of the barriers to creating professional-quality releases for aspiring independent artists. And while Ruen supports the shutdown of cyberlockers like Mediafire, he glosses over the fact that many blogs that relied on such services were not primarily intended to circumvent creators rights, but to act as an archive for rare and out-of print releases (such as one of my favorite and now-defunct blogs, Punk Not Profit).
None of these objections, however, can discredit Ruen’s central argument. The bottom line is that music matters to us. It enriches our lives and moves us in ways impossible to quantify. If we derive meaning or sustenance or even simple pleasure from an artist’s work, then it’s only fair that we consume that work via channels that the artist has condoned and that we compensate those who have fronted the necessary expenses to bring that work to market. To do otherwise is a violation of the creators’ rights and an abdication of our responsibilities as fans to support the communities that nourish us. Labels like Touch and Go and Hydra Head were valuable components of the musical landscape that provided talented artists with a chance to reach an audience that might otherwise have been out of reach for them, and when they fold up, their absence leaves the world a slightly worse place.
Ruen takes a great leap of faith in Freeloading. He trusts that his readers, if given the proper information, will choose to act humanely and responsibly. The very riskiness of this move is what makes his book so compelling. We may not decide to stop freeloading altogether, but there is no way that we can go on pretending that it has no impact on the world around us.
[Photo: Mike Kutchman]