NYT: Exploring the Right to Share, Mix and Burn

This article from today’s New York Times….

Exploring the Right to Share, Mix and Burn

By DAVID CARR

The tickets for the event Thursday sold out in five minutes on the Internet, and on the evening itself the lines stretched down the block. The reverent young fans might as well have been holding cellphones aloft as totems of their fealty.

Then again, this was the New York Public Library, a place of very high ceilings and even higher cultural aspirations, so the rock concert vibe created some dissonance. Inside, things became clearer as two high priests of very different tribes came together to address the question of “Who Owns Culture?” – a discussion of digital file-sharing sponsored by Wired magazine, part of a library series called “Live From the NYPL.”

Both Jeff Tweedy, the leader of the fervently followed rock band Wilco, and Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor who has opposed criminalizing file sharing, seemed to agree that just about anybody who owns a modem also owns – or at least has every right to download – culture products.

“I don’t think anybody should make any money on music,” Mr. Tweedy said at one point, only half joking. “Maybe we would pay audiences.”

It is a curious sight when a rock star appears before his flock and suggests they take his work without paying for it, and even encourages them to. Mr. Tweedy, who has never been much for rock convention, became a convert to Internet peer-to-peer sharing of music files in 2001, after his band was dropped from its label on the cusp of a tour. Initially, the news left Wilco at the sum end of the standard rock equation: no record/no tour, no tour/no money, no money/no band. But Mr. Tweedy released “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” for streaming on the band’s Web site, and fans responded in droves. Wilco then took on the expenses of its tour as a band.

The resulting concerts were a huge success: Mr. Tweedy remembered watching in wonder as fans sang along with music that did not exist in CD form. Then something really funny happened. Nonesuch Records decided to release the actual plastic artifact in 2002. And where the band’s previous album, “Summerteeth,” sold 20,000 in its first week according to SoundScan, “Yankee” sold 57,000 copies in its first week and went on to sell more than 500,000. Downloading, at least for Wilco, created rather than diminished the appetite for the corporeal version of the work.

Both Mr. Tweedy and Mr. Lessig used their talk to say that the Web, in an age where conglomerated FM radio has squeezed out virtually all possibility of hearing anything worthy and new, is where fans are best exposed to music they might want to buy. And during the presentation (which was streamed live on Wilco’s Web site), Mr. Lessig added that the decision to outlaw downloading would have a profoundly inhibiting effect on the creation of culture. He said that in every instance, from the player piano to radio to VCR’s to cable, the law had landed on the side of the alleged “pirates,” allowing for the copying or broadcasting of cultural works for private consumption. Thus far, both the music industry and the film industry has succeeded in making it illegal for consumers to download their products .

Mr. Lessig said that “the freedom to remix, not just words, but culture” was critical in the development of unforeseen works of art. He pointed to “The Grey Album,” produced by the D.J. Danger Mouse, a remix of the Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay-Z’s “Black Album” that resulted in a wholly new and unexpected piece of music.

“What does it say about our democracy when ordinary behavior is deemed criminal?” he asked. Mr. Lessig and the moderator, Steven Johnson, a contributing editor at Wired, made much of the fact that the discussion was taking place in a library, where much of the Western cultural canon is available free.

Mr. Tweedy has little sympathy for artists who complain about downloading. “To me, the only people who are complaining are people who are so rich they never deserve to be paid again,” he said.

Mr. Lessig, one of the philosopher kings of Internet law, and Mr. Tweedy, the crown prince of indie music, traded places more than a few times during the presentation, with Mr. Lessig, who has argued copyright cases before the United States Supreme Court, enthusiastic about the artistic possibilities the Web engenders, and Mr. Tweedy making sapient pronouncements on the theoretical underpinnings of ownership.

“Once you create something, it doesn’t exist in the consciousness of the creator,” Mr. Tweedy said, telling the audience that they had an investment in a song just by the act of listening. Later, at a dinner at Lever House, Mr. Tweedy suggested that downloading was an act of rightful “civil disobedience.”

All of it – high and low culture, Supreme Court rulings and mashed-up video clips ridiculing the president – was eagerly lapped up by the audience, which included musicians like David Byrne and D.J. Spooky, along with a throng of fans who would show up to hear Mr. Tweedy read from a digital phone directory.

Afterward, Alex Sherwin, a 36-year-old graphic designer, said, “It would have been better with a guitar, but I still enjoyed hearing what he had to say.” Mr. Sherwin said his favorite CD was a live Jeff Tweedy performance in Chicago, one that had been recorded and distributed with the artist’s happy assent.

….has me excited right now. So excited I’m bursting and can’t seem to think straight. Jeff Tweedy and Lawrence Lessig were speakers at the New York Public Library for a discussion on the question of “Who Owns Culture?”, and there’s some prime quotes from Tweedy. One of my favourites:

“To me, the only people who are complaining are people who are so rich they never deserve to be paid again,”

There’s more. This is the article I’ve been waiting for the mainstream press to publish on the issue of file sharing, and for once someone is talking sense. I wrote an entry last year, shortly after the Junos, which sums up my opinion on the whole issue:

Artists at Juno’s on ‘theft’.

Nothing has changed in a year. My opinion is the same as it’s always been. Artists are empowered by the new avenues of distribution made possible by the advent of the Internet and peer-to-peer software, and fans of music are not criminals when they share music online. The only losers in this are the major labels – but it’s a grave they dug themselves. Any artist who actually thinks that a fan is actually “stealing” their music when they make a copy of a CD they love is either 1) brainwashed by their record company or 2) an idiot who can’t distinguish stealing from sharing.

Check out this stream from the The Current’s website. It’s an audio stream of the third part of the show, but if you forward it to 16:52 of the 28 minute clip, you’ll hear the sane, common sense view of Sarah McLac hlan first. From there it’s all downhill. Mediocre bands like Blue Rodeo and Barenaked Ladies, who should worry more about writing good material, would rather call their fans thieves. Jim Cuddy even blamed downloaders for a shortage of music industry employment! I have no patience for the kind of nonsense I hear coming out of the mouths of these artists. None.

More on this when I’m less excited and hopefully more coherent….

Sharing is not theft!

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2 thoughts on “NYT: Exploring the Right to Share, Mix and Burn

  1. That Tweedy quote is gold, and nails it, as per usual with him.

    You know, I might imagine a case against file sharing if it was shown to actually detract from the sales of real records. And by real I mean records by artists who actually give a shit, who make music because they love it and not because it clearly makes them money. Hyperbole? Sure, but there’s truth to it: the people most pissed off about this seem to be bad musicians that cough up the same ProTooled, plastic-injected hogswallop every few years and have it fed to the portion of the listening public that hasn’t figured out that commercial radio is ALL a scam, that Alan Freed was a martyr and now there’s nothing but payola (“The public don’t know any better, but so what? Who’s going to let them hear anything that’s not bought and paid for up front?” – Screeching Weasel, ‘Radioblast’). These people make music that isn’t just bad, it’s stretching the ability to actually be music. It’s not even music made in a room by people any more, it’s music inspired by human music and turned into something else through months of computer polish. It’s vapid.

    It seems to me like most musicians who matter broaden their fanbase through downloading and sharing (Neko Case went from being anti-Napster to very pro-sharing in a matter of only a few years when she figured this out), and it seems likely that real music fans that would by the records are still buying as they always did. What drop in sales exists has been in the purchase of single-driven major label shlock, the kind people bought only for the one or two singles that they were forcefed for a couple of months. And do those people need any more money?

    The opposition to sharing strikes me as led a lot of people who can’t see the forest for being fucking assholes– but when I was I ever going to buy a Metallica record, anyway?

    1. Looks like we pretty much agree on this issue, J.

      You know, I might imagine a case against file sharing if it was shown to actually detract from the sales of real records.

      The music industry have claimed that filesharing has cost them in lost sales, but have never been able to prove it. They’ve fudged there numbers to make their case, but there’s always someone who’s been able to prove them wrong.

      And then there’s the whole case of Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, which proved that if you make a great record and give it away, you can actually sell more records. So much for “theft”. I wonder what the guys in Blue Rodeo and Barenaked Ladies make of that? I’d love to ask them. The CBC didn’t.

      I couldn’t agree with you more on the kind of bands/artists who tend resent their fans sharing music. In the past, a band could put out a mediocre record with maybe 4 decent songs and it would still sell. Now, people can just download the songs they like and not bother buying the record. Yet in a way, people were doing this anyway back in the days when “home taping [was]killing music”. They used to stick that slogan on the sleeves of records back in the early 80s. The problem is still the same for the labels, it’s only the scale that’s changed.

      It seems to me like most musicians who matter broaden their fanbase through downloading and sharing (Neko Case went from being anti-Napster to very pro-sharing in a matter of only a few years when she figured this out), and it seems likely that real music fans that would by the records are still buying as they always did.

      I’ve noticed that people who tend to download music tend to buy more music. I’m not much of a music downloader, and I don’t purchase records very often. I buy records at shows if I really like the band. A friend of mine downloads music all the time, and spends a fair chunk of change buying records every year. When he finds something he thinks I’ll like, he burns me a copy and if I really like it, I buy the record.

      The opposition to sharing strikes me as led a lot of people who can’t see the forest for being fucking assholes– but when I was I ever going to buy a Metallica record, anyway?

      Like me – never!

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