Cul­tural cost: the gen­er­a­tion that chooses not to pay for the arts

A gen­er­a­tional shift in pay­ing (or not pay­ing) for the arts has wide-reach­ing ram­i­fi­ca­tions for cul­ture, writes Jonathan Dean

The Weekend Australian - Review - - INSIDE - The Sun­day Times Cul­ture Mag­a­zine

Acou­ple of years ago, some­one wrote on a stu­dent web­site: “Hey rel­e­vant or­gan­i­sa­tions read­ing this. I down­load shit­loads of il­le­gal mu­sic and movies. Please trace my IP ad­dress and ar­rest me.” Provoca­tive it may have been, but the writer knew noth­ing would hap­pen. And while it may have been only one per­son, make no mis­take: th­ese are the words of a brazen, law-break­ing gen­er­a­tion. The idea of pay­ing for the arts is ut­terly alien to many of them. It’s be­come so com­mon, even peo­ple who work in the arts world them­selves do it, un­der­min­ing their own fi­nan­cial fu­ture. It’s so shrugged at th­ese days that when episodes of the new Game of Thrones were leaked on­line, com­menters on one news­pa­per web­site were openly telling each other where they could find them.

In a fast-mov­ing story with few he­roes, var­i­ous vil­lains and a change­able cast of brands — Nap­ster, LimeWire, Net­flix, Pirate Bay, Spo­tify — one thing is con­stant: no­body wants to cough up for mu­sic, film or tele­vi­sion shows. Ac­tu­ally, it’s worse than that. Af­ter 15 years of ever faster in­ter­net speeds of­fer­ing the lat­est in pop cul­ture, an en­tire gen­er­a­tion sim­ply doesn’t think it should have to pay for en­ter­tain­ment — and it isn’t even about own­er­ship any more.

Take mu­sic, for ex­am­ple. (Most peo­ple do.) As stream­ing be­comes the way that most un­der-35s lis­ten, la­bels are forced to ex­plain to any­one born af­ter 1980 that, well, peo­ple used to pay for this stuff. Please can we at least have $9.99 a month?

The lat­est devel­op­ment in­volves the big­gest stars. “The chal­lenge is to get ev­ery­one to re­spect mu­sic again, to recog­nise its value,” rap­per Jay Z said last month, speak­ing along­side Kanye West and Madonna. They — and oth­ers, in­clud­ing Chris Martin via Skype — were there to flog Ti­dal, a ri­val to Spo­tify that charges $12 a month in Australia for its “loss­less high fidelity” sound. It was a nar­cis­sis­tic and naive launch — how es­sen­tial is sound qual­ity to teenagers creak­ing out chart pop from mo­bile phones on the bus? — but Jay Z, the owner of Ti­dal, was at least mak­ing a good point, al­beit badly. When the young peo­ple who lis­ten to mu­sic most don’t pay for it, ev­ery­one suf­fers. It’s a prob­lem.

Chris, 34, works for a state-owned com­pany. We meet in a pub (and pay for our drinks): he has, how­ever, barely paid for the arts since 1999, when, in his first year at uni­ver­sity, he dis­cov­ered il­le­gal down­load­ing. “Though it wasn’t de­scribed as ‘il­le­gal’ at that point,” he points out. “It was ‘free’.” First, via a mo­dem, it was songs, tak­ing an hour each to down­load, but soon he leapt into the ram­pant shar­ing of TV and film. En­tire se­ries of Friends in min­utes, at the click of a mouse. The lat­est Ma­trix with­out hav­ing to leave his bed. He has seen all of Game of Thrones this way. You know it’s il­le­gal, right? “Yeah.” Does it bother you? “No.”

He is, he says, a “small fish”, as if a lit­tle bit of pinch­ing is fine. Oth­ers, such as the com­plaint that big dis­trib­u­tors didn’t pro­vide al­ter­na­tives to file-shar­ing quickly enough, are at­tempts to shift the blame. Yet when he talks about in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, his ar­gu­ment strength­ens.

He spent hun­dreds of dol­lars on VHS tapes that “rot­ted away”, yet he had paid for their con­tent and “when you’ve grown up with a film, you feel you own the con­tent in­side you”. But, surely, il­le­gal down­loads of ti­tles you had al­ready paid for form a tiny por­tion of your stash? “Yes, but it be­comes like an ad­dic­tion. You’ve jus­ti­fied the bit you al­ready owned, but you have the means to do it more — and it’s im­mensely easy. I don’t think any­thing could have stopped it. The abil­ity … to record on a VCR or off the ra­dio, or make a mix­tape con­fused peo­ple. We’ve been do­ing that since we were five, so it was a small step to il­le­gal down­load­ing.”

As indie stal­wart Da­mon Krukowski ob­serves, 1000 vinyl sin­gles in 1988 earned the same money as 13 mil­lion streams of the same song in 2012. Spo­tify may have 60 mil­lion ac­tive monthly users, but only 15 mil­lion of them pay any­thing. Few sub­scribers bother to pirate any more, but they don’t buy costly al­bums ei­ther.

Back in 1997, I walked into my lo­cal store and bought the CD of OK Com­puter by Ra­dio­head. It is the best $25 I have spent, pro­vid­ing me with teenage angst and en­cour­age­ment, not to men­tion a broad­en­ing of my so­cial and po­lit­i­cal out­look. You don’t get that from throw­ing the equiv­a­lent coins at four beers and a pack of chips. And yet, even back then, be­fore we had ac­cess to free mu­sic, peo­ple com­plained about the price. Now mu­sic has be­come es­sen­tially worth­less, those who rely on it for a living need to fig­ure out what to do.

Michael Spear­man is the drum­mer in the Bri­tish Mer­cury-nom­i­nated band Ev­ery­thing Ev­ery­thing. He is so in love with his pro­fes­sion that he vis­ited a cym­bal fac­tory while on hol­i­day in Istanbul. His band’s third al­bum, Get to Heaven, comes out next month and he is grate­ful, happy, but con­cerned for his in­dus­try. Back in the 90s, be­ing an art-rock mu­si­cian like Spear­man was more se­cure. Money from sales led to la­bels al­low­ing bands to take more risks. Now, though, he says, “con­ser­vatism is creep­ing in” as la­bels seek the mid­dle ground.

“The arts in gen­eral aren’t seen as very se­ri­ous,” Spear­man says. “And it’s not very rock ’n’ roll to say, ‘ Can you not break the law, please?’ Which was part of the prob­lem. It was never taken se­ri­ously, and there’s a worry now that there’s a gen­er­a­tion that thinks, well, I can stream it for noth­ing or I can down­load it for noth­ing and I don’t feel bad about that.

“It feels like piracy is a fore­gone con­clu­sion and there’s no go­ing back to mak­ing money from records. The is­sue is, do peo­ple think it’s wrong? At the mo­ment, peo­ple don’t think it’s wrong.”

Back to Ti­dal, and an in­ter­view Jay Z gave be­fore launch sug­gest­ing his brain isn’t en­tirely fix­ated on his wal­let. “Some­one like me,” he said, “I can go on tour. But what about peo­ple work­ing on the record, not just the artists?” He’s talk­ing pro­duc­ers, song­writ­ers, stu­dio own­ers: those whom, Spear­man says, “money doesn’t trickle to, be­cause money isn’t there”. Ti­dal’s fees would help them, as do Spo­tify’s, plus sums from the iTunes stream­ing ser­vice, Beats, com­ing soon. All amounts not earned in the hey­day of dodgy file-shar­ing.

When asked what the big­gest is­sue fac­ing the busi­ness is to­day, Ge­off Tay­lor, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Bri­tish Phono­graphic In­dus­try, bluntly replies: “Free mu­sic.” It’s the re­sult of a “bold de­ci­sion” to make all of it avail­able. First, of course, he means the il­le­gal sites, but then he men­tions the “legal sites of­fer­ing mu­sic for free sup­ported by ad­ver­tis­ing, which are build­ing huge busi­nesses, but cur­rently pay­ing very lit­tle money back to the mu­sic in­dus­try”. Mi­grat­ing fans to sub­scrip­tion ser­vices is key, as “free stream­ing is not yet gen­er­at­ing enough in­come to of­fer a sus­tain­able fu­ture”.

But what if this — as Ra­dio­head’s Thom Yorke put it — is a “last des­per­ate fart of a dy­ing corpse”? What if some­thing dras­tic is needed, like en­forced re­tire­ment for pop stars at 50 in or­der to fun­nel bud­gets to new tal­ent? (If you want to counter that, name one es­sen­tial al­bum by some­one over that age.) The prob­lem for mu­sic is it went dig­i­tal dur­ing the so­cial net­work boom, when sites such as MyS­pace and Face­book of­fered their ser­vices free and fur­ther dis­tanced un­der-35s from the idea that any­thing on their phone or PC is owned, let alone mon­e­tised. Down­load­ing il­le­gal files was eth­i­cally no dif­fer­ent from go­ing into a shop and pinch­ing eggs, but then stream­ing ser­vices le­git­imised that free­ness of con­tent and now they are try­ing — as well they should — to find ways to pay back. Be­cause — back to the shop — even­tu­ally the money will run out and the farmer will stop in­vest­ing in free-range eggs to con­cen­trate on bat­tery chick­ens in­stead.

Solo singing stars such as Bri­ton James Bay epit­o­mise this. He is part of a pro­duc­tion line, backed by la­bels with song­writ­ing teams that churn out a hit a year for an­o­dyne artists. This mim­ics the way much of the movie in­dus­try now works. Stu­dios have moved to favour a blan­ket in­fan­til­i­sa­tion of their prod­uct: the ef- fects-laden su­per­hero genre is made to be a huge spec­ta­cle for 3-D and Imax screens and thus less ap­peal­ing pi­rated on a lap­top. Make a film big and brash enough and teenagers are more likely to make that trip to the heav­ily branded mul­ti­plex.

What a hor­ri­ble fu­ture. But Stephen Witt, the au­thor of How Mu­sic Got Free: What Hap­pens When an En­tire Gen­er­a­tion Com­mits the Same Crime?, is “bullish”. He says that at the mo­ment only 5 per cent of fans pay for stream­ing. If that grew to 25 per cent, it would be a “hell of a lot of money”. For that to hap­pen, two things must oc­cur. “One, you have to pro­vide func­tional sub­scrip­tion ser­vices,” he says. “Two, you have to vig­or­ously sup­press the peo­ple who make the pi­rated files. For copy­righted goods to have value, you have to crack down on boot­leg­gers. Money has value. Why? Be­cause we don’t per­mit coun­ter­feit­ers.”

The big­gest ob­sta­cle? Im­mi­nent bat­tles be­tween Spo­tify, Ti­dal, Beats and what­ever other new brand ap­pears.

“If you have a frag­mented sphere of ser­vices and each has a few dif­fer­ent artists, then that’s not good for con­sumers and you’ll see a re­turn to piracy,” Witt says. Tay­lor Swift, for in­stance, is on Ti­dal, but not Spo­tify.

What may hap­pen, he sug­gests, is what hap­pened to Net­flix.

A few years ago, to bring peo­ple to its site, it started to make orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming; it worked, with the award-win­ning House of Cards. But if sim­i­lar ex­clu­sives were cre­ated for com­pet­ing mu­sic sites, the big ques­tion is whether kids would be will­ing to pay to ac­cess, for ex­am­ple, a spe­cial Daft Punk remix on one, and a new track from Jay Z’s wife, Bey­once, on an­other. Last week, the Ti­dal app dropped out of the iTunes top 700 chart in the US.

Fi­nally, back to Chris, who hasn’t shelled out for mu­sic in a decade, has only ever bought one TV box set and last went to the cinema a year ago. He has a baby and I ask what, when she asks for her first al­bum, he will do.

“I wouldn’t advertise to her I’ve done th­ese things, so if she wants mu­sic, it would be legally.” But then it hits him. Within a decade phys­i­cal prod­uct will cease to ex­ist.

“I can’t imag­ine a kid re­quest­ing a stream­ing sub­scrip­tion for their birth­day,” he pon­ders. And he’s right.

The ques­tion, then, is how the hell a gen­er­a­tion of thieves keep the mu­sic (and TV and film) alive for those who should love it next.

SOME­ONE LIKE ME, I CAN GO ON TOUR. BUT WHAT ABOUT PEO­PLE WORK­ING ON THE RECORD, NOT JUST THE ARTISTS?

JAY Z

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