Call it Ďtradingí if you want, but I donít buy it
BY SAM PFEIFLE
FILE-TRADING. It sounds so innocuous ó laudable, actually. The activity of a happy online community, sharing in the joys of music, turning each other on to new and wonderful frontiers.
If file-traders werenít, by and large, such a bunch of greedy assholes, I might even say what theyíre doing is a good thing. Turning someone on to a new band, new sound, new hook is just about the coolest thing one person can do for another. People used to do it by inviting their friends to hear a recently purchased new album on their sweet-ass stereo system. People sat on couches and floors and drank beer and socialized.
Listening to music was an event. For some of us, it still is.
Now, people invite a million strangers to copy the good new song from their hard drives. Traders sit in front of their computers, pretend to work or study, and watch a line fill a bar on their screens. Then they listen to the song through their usually tinny computer speakers.
Thatís no way to listen to music. Even if they burn that song (all those songs) onto CDs, theyíre largely dealing with MP3s, which, by their nature, contain about one-fifth of the songís information. File-traders traffic in an inferior product. But they donít care.
Itís free. They got something they wanted for free, and thatís all that matters.
Unfortunately, most of these music "fans" are no more benevolent than the evil Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) with which they find themselves locking horns. Theyíre fat cats of the same breed, standing on the backs of hard-working musicians, enjoying the fruits of their labor without contributing an ounce of industry to the process.
Hey, you ever meet one of us wacky folk who actually write, make, and perform music? Musicians, songwriters, and performers. Remember us?
Well, you should think about us for a second every time you copy one of those files (songs), because youíre dipping your hand into our wallets and stealing from us every time you do it.
You are stealing.
You are thieves. Thatís why the musicís free. Why not just walk into your neighborhood music store (ha! like there are local music stores anymore, but thatís a different problem), and steal the CDs right off the shelves?
Oh, thatís right, youíre sharing with other like-minded benevolent lovers of music. Thatís much different from stealing a product from a store. I forgot. Except that the "sharing" metaphor doesnít really hold up here, does it? When you share, there is one item, and it is passed around, and then returned to the original owner. No one has a problem with that. People will want one of their own if they like it enough.
Here, however, infinite copies are made so that everyone can have his or her very own without paying for it. Thatís convenient, certainly. But it's also stealing ó from the original creator of the item. If everyone can just make copies from the original item for free, it soon becomes very difficult to sell that item.
Youíre not "trading." Thatís different. No, youíre not trading anything. Youíre hoarding, like greedy trolls gathering treasure in a meaningless heap. Little kids trade baseball cards (well, they used to, but thatís another problem), and, in the end, there is still a finite number of cards. Thatís where their value comes in. You can collect baseball cards and hope they'll increase in value as the rest of the cards are poorly cared for or thrown away by tidy parents.
Here, however, infinite copies are created. Thus, the item, or, in this case, the music, becomes valueless. Gone is the art of collecting. Gone, too, will be the profession of making music ó and soon.
How is a musician supposed to make a living plying a valueless item? You file-traders rail against the horrible system under which we live, where only business heads and corrupt tyrants make money and the simple folk canít make a living by doing what they love. But here you are, making it impossible for musicians to make money from their music.
As a musician, I say thanks. Cheers. Good for you. Youíre sticking it to the man with your free music. Youíre awesome.
But, file-traders, Iíve got a question for you. Can you make music? Do you provide hours of entertainment for other people? Or do you sit in your seven-by-11 dorm room, with a bong between your knees, double-clicking on that "Whatever" song and laughing till the smoke comes out your ears, thrilling in anotherís talent, but unwilling to give anything in exchange?
Just think about how music is being devalued. File-traders make the argument that they trade (read: steal) music only because CDs are so expensive. Really? Most CDs I buy are under $20, often just a crisp $9.99.
The new Gang Starr CD cost me $13.99. I got 19 tracks of indelible music, to which I can listen an infinite number of times, of impeccable sound quality, for $13.99. Just about the same price as a meal at the local Mexican joint. The cost of two margaritas. Maybe two really cheap bottles of wine.
Nineteen songs ó written, recorded, edited, mixed, and mastered over the course of a year or more, the first studio album in five years from DJ Premier and Guru, two of hip-hopís living legends ó arenít worth two bottles of cheap wine? Then youíre not a music fan. And youíre certainly not a musician.
If you were, youíd realize that thereís nothing easy or cheap about making music. Itís difficult. And though the recording industry is, indeed, fatally flawed, insisting on pushing a product that people increasingly donít want ó the album ó that doesnít mean the musicians they employ are suddenly worthless. That doesnít mean you should stick it to the recording industry by toppling it from the bottom up.
Weíll be left with only the schwag, as the industry increasingly takes fewer chances on small-run releases and increasingly kowtows to the Wal-Marts and Best Buys, who insist on 500,000-unit shipments or nothing.
The musicians will go increasingly independent ó and you think thatís good. Well, itís not. It sucks. Musicians arenít necessarily good at promoting, booking, designing, negotiating, and organizing. The most successful independent artists are really those who have the best business minds, not those who are the most creative or talented.
You really think you can make a living selling discs out of the back of your van?
Does the system by which we buy and sell music need to be revamped? Certainly. The recording industry needs to get back to the idea of selling singles and to make some allowances for the digital age. But is it good that this will probably happen because millions of casual music fans want Madonnaís latest single and donít want to have to purchase the whole album because theyíre worried about "filler"? No. It sucks.
God! Why isnít one good song worth $20?
"I can hear it for free on the radio," you say.
No, you canít. The radio pays songwriters through the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) for the privilege of playing the song; they pay for the songs by selling ads; and you pay for the ads by listening to brain-numbing jingles like 1-800-54-GIANT. Radio, already peddling more schlock than at any other time in its history, will get only worse as society decides that music is worth less and less.
"Iíll get sick of it," you say. "I can erase the song if I donít like it anymore."
Yeah, you might, but have we become so short-sighted and disposability-minded that it seems a horror to hold onto something for the sake of posterity? I got sick of Alphavilleís "Forever Young" sometime after I played it on my headphones in the library for the 5000th time during my sophomore year in high school, in 1989. About six months ago, I heard the song on some crappy car commercial. Wracked with nostalgia, I went deep into the late-í80s section of my CD binders, pulled out the disc, and played the song for myself, as loud as I could without blowing my speakers, and thought about how I hated that librarian who kept telling me I was playing the music in my headphones too loud.
Thatís not worth $20? I say itís invaluable.
I say I never have and never will "trade" music over the íNet. If Iím curious about a band, Iíll go to their Web site and check out their music. Iíll read music magazines. Iíll go to sites like Allmusic.com and Pitchforkmedia.com and see what other people think about the music Iím thinking of buying. Iíll continue to cultivate opinions about music reviewers.
Iíll buy CDs straight from the artists when I can, and support my local independent music-seller when I canít. I get a tangible thrill from buying a CD cold, with no idea what the music sounds like, just because I recognize a member of the band, or I overheard someone talking about it at a party.
Arenít I tempted by all the music thatís floating around out there on the Web? Of course I find the idea of it attractive. What music fan wouldnít want that vast storehouse available at his or her fingertips? But while I may initially find that attractive, the whole enterprise is ultimately morally repugnant.
Itís sad that the argument in support of file-trading has become high-minded and lofty, populated with liberal-sounding social activists talking about people rising up to defeat their corporate overlords.
Thatís bullshit. While itís unlikely anybody would ever bother to trade my music over the íNet, I will forever see the truth of the tag line with which a certain local rock band end all their correspondence: "Copying music kills indie artists."
Sam Pfeifle is the managing editor of the Portland Phoenix and lead guitarist for the Grassholes. He can be reached at spfeifle[a]phx.com