I Me Mine

(Originally published in Elmore Magazine)

It was somewhere between the birth of Napster and credit default swaps– when the rest of our understanding of how markets work went out the pop-up window– that a generation of kids got used to the idea that music was free.

It’s one of the more irritating characteristics of today’s Entitlement culture, and symptomatic of a larger cultural meme that demands immediate attention, and perhaps a beating or two.

The digital medium’s instant gratification shares some blame for music feeling less valuable today; the easier something is attained, the less it’s appreciated.  It’s why you don’t put-out on the first date.  But the days of scarcity caused by the physical demands of producing and distributing a record are nearly history, as is the tactile experience of acquiring an album at a record store.

There was no wait like the one between the purchase of an album and getting it back home to play.  The act of tearing off the plastic, shaking the vinyl from the sleeve and onto the spindle, and respectfully setting down the needle, made the anticipation that much more tangible.

There was the ritualistic examination of the album cover and liner notes, and the mandate of physical care: the felt-dust remover, the chronological vs. alphabetized cataloguing systems, keeping them from the sun for fear of warping.

All irrelevant with today’s one-click download.

Desiring the facile is a trait of The Entitled.  It’s the reason their first attempt at acquiring music is rarely the proper one.  Let me nab it from a friend, or via whichever surviving (illicit) file-sharing networks, or even off the street for a fraction of the cost.  Either way, one attitude prevails: you’re a sucker if you paid full price.

The mind set has become so prevalent that you’re more apt to hear The Entitled boast about what they haven’t paid for than what they have.

Digitalization is indeed part of the problem, but it puts the onus on technology rather than the individual.  Theft is a human choice.  And humans need to be held accountable, and whenever possible, slapped around.

Whoever coined the terms ripped and burned, is first in line for a backhand.   Let us propose a linguistic edict whereby “from the artist’s soul” must follow all “rip” sentences and “away the artist’s ability to keep making music” following those with “burn”.  This way, fans will at least hear the consequences of their nonchalance.  Hey, I ripped the new Wilco from the artist’s soul today!

The oddest phenomenon of all is, not all music fans are oblivious.  All too frequently you hear, “I know I should pay, but…” or “I’ll buy it eventually.”  But more often than not it’s to bilge the surface guilt.  Talk is cheap, and acquisition without remuneration cheaper.  But as we’ve recently witnessed in financial markets, someone has to pay something at some point, or the system craps out.

It’s especially disconcerting when the trend happens in music.  There are fans out there that feel closer to their favorite band than they do certain family members, but compensating them once for the right to experience their creativity in perpetuity is avoided at all costs.  Resented even. Why pay when you can get it for free? It’s a no-brainer only for the brainless and we must force them to hear the answer.  There won’t be anything left to steal. (Discloser: I stole music too when I was a kid, but not by clicking a button in the safety of my own home.  I stole records, 12 inches in size, and I had to be really creative to get that big ass mofo outta there, in the back of a shirt, in between two bags, one inside the other, or simply sliding the bitch past the paycheck chic at the counter when she was making change.)

It took a wave of copyright infringement lawsuits to let people know their behavior was in fact illegal.  The cases were the ultimate in comic irony.  Sony Music filing claims against college students for pirating, while Sony Electronics cranked out cd burners by the warehouse-load, and marketed them to very same metric at discount prices.  Though it’s doubtful it would’ve changed the prevailing ethos, Sony should have sued themselves.

I’ve tried to explain it to my younger friends.  A band asks $10 to $15 for an album, cd, download, et al.  You can’t get two cocktails in Manhattan for that unless it’s between 4 and 7pm, but one friend who’s been a Radiohead fan since Pablo Honey, and claims that if it weren’t for them he’d lose his mind, still hasn’t paid a nickel for their latest, which remains in heavy rotation on his iPod.

The reason, I’ve deduced, is that he was given the option not to pay.  When you think about the cost for one moment, it becomes even more outrageous.  Ten dollars for an experience he can invest in for the rest of his life, if he so chooses.

He’ll drop $60 on a Cabernet/Syrah blend he and his date-of-the-week will turn to urine in an hour, but a fistful of dollars for the band he depends on when she doesn’t call him back the next day cause she has a better offer, never crosses his mind.  Willie Nelson may have sung it best, You Always Hurt The One You Love.

Though final “unit “sales for In Rainbows are still a source of contention, early reports claimed that somewhere around 62 percent paid nothing at all (the first people to the site).  I know some of them personally.  They bought Radiohead’s previous albums the day they came out.  They “love” the band.  But getting something for nothing was far too tempting.  We want the world and we want it now, without paying.  It’s why our country has a debt in the trillions.

I tried to explain it to another young friend, this time in Kantian terms.  First I explained who Kant was, then I unpacked the Musicological Imperative: if you take In Ranibows without contributing anything—and if everyone else does the same—Radiohead will cease to exist. “They’re already rich,” was the rebuttal.  I clinched a fist, and took a breath.  This is a friend I reminded myself, albeit a young one.  “In this case, yes.”  I answered.  “And better the artists than the suits.  But in general, the artist must be compensated, or the ability to make art becomes impossible.”

Radiohead should be compensated twice: once for the music, and once for innovating a system that dodged the insatiable jaws of corporate labels.  But the experiment goes right down the shitter without the participation of their fans.  It’s common sense to contribute to something you value.

Major labels have been jacking consumers for decades.  The advent of the compact disc cost a fraction to make and distribute but it didn’t lower the unit price.  Labels saw an opportunity to increase profits rather than pass them onto the artists.  Risk aversion may destroy art, but it’s the nature of a label to shoot for the broadest possible appeal.  It’s easier to make bling from one mega-hit that moves ten million units than one hundred lesser hits selling one hundred thousand.

Another retort followed. “In Rainbows only has a few good songs.”  A wave of sweat rippled through me.   One of the oddest perversions the internet has created is to allow music consumers who used to purchase whole albums to download one or two tracks.  Radiohead did not make that offer on their website.  In Rainbows was intended to be experienced as a whole.  There is an artistic trajectory to the album.

But The Entitled don’t want to experience art.  They want to negotiate with it.  A bizarre, almost Marxist use value has crept into the picture: the benefit to the consumer will be derived from its utility.  The exchange value will reflect that utility in the conditions of the market.

In short, it’s worth what you pay for it.  There is zero consideration in this nano-paced thought process that a song you didn’t love in a thirty-second clip on iTunes (through your compressed laptop speakers) just might—might— strike you differently years from now, when you’re in a different place in life.  How do you measure the value of an experience that hasn’t happened yet?  And why are we no longer able to trust the artist?

Imagine, for a moment, an iTunes for wine.  Let’s call it iTaste.  For 99 cents, you get a sip.  You can decide if you like it or not from that sip, hopefully, your palette is prepared for it, or you can read the label, realize the vineyard is in a rich soiled region, trust in the wine makers craft, and know it’s vintage will bring more pleasure than you could possibly experience in the truncated present.

As someone who grew up with EP’s and still plays them, I can attest to the brilliance of returning to an old album only to rediscover a track I’d overlooked cause I was thirteen years old and it didn’t rock hard enough.  Or the enlightened realization of how on certain albums the songs flow together like chapters in a book, creating a narrative greater than the sum of its parts.

That’s not how we listen to music any more.  And listeners are not the only ones affected by new technology.  Bands today are negligent if they don’t attempt to conceive at least one track that can be downloaded to a ring tone.  It’s an easier task than crafting a thematically cohesive album.

Either way, the last word is that all too frequently artists aren’t getting paid for the work their fans covet.  And musicians, maybe more than any other type of artist, partake in some serious manual labor.  Unlike an actor, painter or writer, a band’s first and biggest challenge is to stay together.

There is no group of creative souls more dedicated than musicians.  Most are willing to open a concert at their own expense just to get in front of people.  Most are on the road for months at a time, traveling by bus making maybe $2000 a night after expenses as a headline act.  It’s battle pay four nights a week: exotic at 21 years old, exhausted by 39.  But many push on, dining on spam and Velveeta, in hopes of giving the dream just one more year.  If anyone deserved the paltry sum they ask, it’s this crew.  I mean, do these dudes look rich?

I can’t help but wonder what a Mexican standoff would lead to.  If musicians could somehow implement a way of forced compensation, would The Entitled opt out on principal? “You’re gonna make me pay?  I’ll do without.”

So what if a generation of kids got used to getting free music.  They’ll get used to paying again, just like banks will get used to having actual collateral for the loans they issue.  It may not be as “fun”, but it beats the tits off of the alternative.

Making everything free and eliminating copyrights is a sure way to bankrupt the artistic market.  Someone has to pay.  If not the fan, then who?  Can you imagine music bundled together with corporate advertising, maybe even during the song, so as to guarantee exposure?  Or music videos imbedded with product placements?  It’s already happening, I assure you.  And there are even more Matrix-ian alternatives being conceived.

Philosophers Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer were prescient in their description of the Culture Industry.  The theory claimed that popular culture was manufacturing standardized entertainment to manipulate the hoi poloi (us!) into complacency; the easier it is to consume these popular pleasures, the more docile and content we all become.

Their admonition was that the products of mass-produced culture posed a direct threat to the higher arts by manufacturing false desires that could then be satisfied by the standardized products they were able to mass-produce. The consumer and the product became interchangeable.  The toxic side effect is an atrophied exposure to taste.

In a recent Q & A, Chrissie Hynde was asked about the current state of rock’n’roll.  She said that Rock used to be “a secret between the audience and the artist.”  Now, it’s turned into a sport.  Musicians are hitting gyms because image is more important than content.  Bands want the most exposure.

And listeners are conspicuously consuming the trend.  It’s not uncommon to hear two people boast about how many songs they’ve accumulated on their iPods.  “I’ve got 10,000.”   “Oh yeah?  I’ve got 12,000!”

How many did you pay for?  I ask in the fading, analogue background…

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