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
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?