* Issue #328 (Jun 11) | Essays
Responding to Kenneth Goldsmith’s epiphany on filesharing last month, Henry Cow founder and ReR label boss Chris Cutler counts the cost of free music to those who make and distribute it
“Epiphany No 4: As a result, just like you, I stopped buying music”
Kenneth Goldsmith, The Wire 327
And where’s the harm? Surely uploading is just an extension of sharing with friends, an effective and commercially subversive way to promulgate the music you like? But friends are strangers now; a friend is anyone with a broadband connection. Search engines and P2P sites have turned the entire wired world into friends. And that changes things. You want the latest hit without paying; a bootleg of that Singapore show; some album that went missing in 1960 and was never re-pressed? No problem, a couple of clicks will get it because someone somewhere will have put it on a website and someone else will track it down for you. Of course that’s great. What kind of argument can you have with free?
Well, there’s always the second law of thermodynamics. Free always comes at a price. I don’t mean inconvenience to major record companies – though they’ve been doing all the shouting so far – but the likely and predictable repercussions for the music itself. What does free really mean outside of the purely personal effect of ‘I can get it without paying’ – a claim any mugger could make without scoring many argument points? What are the social, cultural and moral costs, the consequences? Sometimes it’s not only our attention span that has evaporated down to bug durations, but our future-directed thinking altogether. Certainly, as access has expanded, empathetic horizons have narrowed. We all apparently want better health, better education, better pension and social security provision, better transport networks, more police and safer streets – and lower taxes. We want to be paid for the work we do but, if possible, not pay for the work other people do; eat the seed corn now and let the future take care of itself. It’s a model inherited from politicians and careless corporations. So I’m afraid, in my book, the ‘all music should be free’ argument is just an infinitesimal fleck in the onward progress of this idiot wave.
Making a recording is not cost-free or work-free; it’s expensive. And those costs can only be recovered through sales. No sales, or sales so low that costs are not recouped, mean artists are forced either to cut the costs next time (with inevitable negative consequences for quality) or not to record so much – or at all. Along with a lot of dross, good music is lost this way, especially at the margins, where the most innovative work is already barely paying its way. In my own field, I know how many musical projects never leave the notebook because of problems with the pocket book.
In a healthy and plural culture, independent funding for independent artists remains the main guarantee of innovative work. And that means the ability, somehow, for musicians to earn a living from what they do. Which is why festivals, performance spaces and independent record companies are so essential: they hold the line. Without concerts or records the equation runs: No income = day job = less art + more compromise.
Think of it as an ecological issue, a question of diversity for the sake of diversity. Forget the good guys/bad guys story, it’s just a question of whether we want a static, monocultural, factory farm environment or a diverse, plural, interconnected and evolving one. If the latter, we have to start thinking beyond immediate personal convenience.
Where is honour? We pay the plumber, the electrician, the VAT inspector; we pay the service provider and the telephone company, so why so careless of the musician and the struggling label? If you plant a garden and bring its fruits to term – and your friends dig it up in the night to feed themselves, perhaps praising you for your industry – and then sit back in the expectation of another year of gardening to sustain them through the following year, would you continue to dig and delve? Do vegetables really want to be free?
Perhaps Epiphany No 7 should be: Actions have consequences...
Read the entire post HERE.