[Ethicophilia] Mp3 Blogging and Mixes: A Request For Your Thoughts
Recent events and a continuing uncertainty/curiosity have prompted me to do another talky post (the bulk of which I’ll hide behind the “more…” link). I’m my own worst editor, so my aplogies in advance. But I would really appreciate your participation in creating a discussion on the ethicality of mix-blogging, mp3-blogging, OOP-Only-versus-All-Music-Shared, the relationship between artists and listeners, and “who still pays for music”. If you’re in a hurry, I’ll post a couple polls here first, and you can certainly leave it at that. But if you have a minute, read on and then share your thoughts—even if they’re just “you’re a worrywort, get over yourself”. My thanks, either way. (Polls, questions, and something like an essay after the “more…” link.)
[An ethical premise. . .]
From the beginning, what made me feel good about doing a music-download blog (and previously the ‘1981’ box set) was my sense that true music lovers understand that in order for good music to continue to be made, we have to financially support the artists who make it, the labels that propagate it, and the shops that disseminate it. I’m not an expert, or even knowledgeable, about Creative Commons, Fair Use, Open Source, creative control, etc. Instead, I’ve operated on a gut-level feeling that downloading music “illegally” is not inherently equatable to downloading it unethically. A singles-oriented, intentionally ephemeral pop-music world (not passing judgement on such, or proclaiming false-consciousness on anyone—it serves a needed role) probably does suffer from downloading (as in “why buy what I won’t even like in a month when it’s not hot—I can get for free now, then delete it). That’s a risk of mass-marketing that was always there, (Oh no, radio! Oh no, cassette recorders!) waiting for the technology to catch up.
But it is my gut feeling and my hope (not sure if I can say “my belief”) that the sort of music I’m posting here, much of which could be called “niche” or “of limited commercial potential” in the first place, appeals to people who are seekers. And seekers will tend to seek something a little more permanent than an mp3 and a full hard drive. We’re the answer to the question “who still buys CDs (or earlier, LPs)?”. We’re the ones responsible for the plethora of reissue labels and the few remaining independent shops. I’m not saying this is because we’re moralists—it’s probably as much that we’re materialists. we need the artifact, whether for a sense of security (that’s me) or the joy-of-the-hunt fetishism (the grizly weirdos I love to see crate-digging). And so I ventured forth basically confident that I was not a pirate; but rather that I was a pusher, a promoter, likely to foment ethical capitalist exchanges by turning people on to stuff they would simply have to own.
The results of an earlier poll on this subject were reassuring. Better than 60% of the small readership I had at the time (not that it’s immense now) stated they either had already purchased new-to-them music after being introduced to it here, or that they intended to do so. Only around 20% stated they had no intention of doing so, I can only guess either because they already had most of it or they didn’t much like what they heard; or maybe there really are people who like the sort of deep-geek stuff Musicophilia promotes who’ve quit buying music. That 20% was enough to reopen doubt.
[Oh shit. . .]
And then a few days ago, I was approached by a label-owner and musician responsible for a number of tracks I’ve used in mixes. He was polite and friendly, but he humorously but pointedly questioned how I had obtained the rights to use his music—of course knowing I hadn’t, that no small-fry money-free operation like this has that ability. After the initial legalistic jolt of fear (which quickly subsided, as it is my tendency to trust independent art-related professionals not to jump that gun) I wrote him back trying to defend what I was doing with the feelings I explained above. I hoped he would understand, maybe even agree, with what I said; I didn’t feel in danger, legally. But nevertheless while awaiting his response, I started to experience a creeping ethical doubt.
It made me question—do I really have a leg to stand on, or is it possible I delude myself (and by association, all of us here) into feeling good about something inherently bad? A lot of blogs post only out-of-print music, which while still not legal, is probably the easist ethical stance (and arguably the greatest social service). But I post some non-out-of-print music; in fact I do so intentionally because that’s what people can reasonably acquire. But we all know nobody is going to track down everything they hear from this or any blog—some artists whose music is featured may never see a single dime from our “promotion” of them. (Though—does that mean they’ve lost any dimes as a result? And does that quibble matter?) Ultimately—does that make what I’m doing piracy? Does that make you all (and me, at other mix-blogs) thieves? Or is there a common-sense, if not legal, defense of this activity: is this sort of thing a material net positive for the livlihoods of artist, label and shop?
[The cultural consideration. . .]
We more often debate the effects of mp3-blogs and music message boards and the internet and purchase-free-downloading in cultural terms. It’s a relevant conversation. Almost everyone of my 30-ish generation enjoys in some way the freedom of access the internet has created; and maybe we slip into forgetting sometimes that doesn’t make everything free. But I don’t think we yet take that access for granted—we remember, if from a small town like me, the concurrent frustration and thrill of seeking music outside of what could be found at the mall. Maybe we don’t trust mp3s, much as we’ve come around to their convenience. We still buy music—I think. Right? Is it different for older people, who spent all of their formative seeker-years in the old way? Is it different for younger people, who have matured in an ether of free-for-all file-sharing, such that a question of the ethicality would seem non-sequitur?
I personally love what the internet has done, as someone who didn’t have the money/connections/location at no fault of my own to fully live my passion—but I understand some of us think the “democratisation” of access has lost us something, that scarcity bred a deeper appreciation, a more meaningful relationship with what we could find, or in our geek hearts, that the internet has devalued our coolness and credibility for “knowing” something like a secret (the last of which I say good riddance to). But none of that seems to me to mitigate the bottom line of whether we’re stealing food from somebody’s mouth or not.
[Off the hook. Or am I. . .]
As for the owner/artist who wrote to me—one I personally happen to admire—he seems to have been feeling this blog out on a personal level, well aware that full in-print albums are being disseminated on other blogs (though even that might be ethically defensible?). That’s as it should be, it seems to me: intent is an ethically mitigating factor, at least on this scale of “distribution”. He said he was cool with it, after my response, and OKed the continuing inclusion of his music in my mixes. I was relieved, and thought maybe I’d been worrying about nothing. And maybe it’s simply “no big deal,” in which case I apologise to the few who’ve read this far. But—I’m not sure, it still feels like a question worth grapling with.
[So the questions I ask you. . .]
At this point, I cop out. I put the question to you. Is it inherently unethical (and we choose to do it anyway) to distribute or download music in any form the rights to which we do not own? Or does the fact that it may create sales that would not otherwise have happened; and that listens that don’t result in sales probably didn’t deter a sale, they just didn’t cause one; make it an ethically tenable activity? Or is it a pro-ethical activity, from some sort of grassroots political slant, liberating people from the effects of traditional marketeering and creating bonds of trust, which has an enobling effect on any subsequent commercial transactions? And maybe cracking the legality nut open—do you have hopes that this sort of promotion may become strictly legal?
If you answered the polls, I thank you. And if you’re reading this, you’re a brave and determined soul. But I’m going to hit you up for more: I’d really like to see discussion happen at Musicophilia. And maybe it’s narcicism or ethical justifying, but I think it’d be cool to hear examples of particular music you found and purchases you’ve then made at this or other blogs. At this point I think there are maybe a couple hundred people who read this blog now and again, and I’d like to know you better, and to see you know each other, as someone who wants to believe “the internet is dislocating, individualising, anti-social” as hype. The interactions I’ve had with people from around the world through my piracy-or-promotional-activity has been reaffirming about the essential kindness of people (or at least record geeks). So don’t be shy, please. I really do consider you my comrades. Thank you.