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19 June 2012 @ 10:28 am
Online Piracy:  Believe It Or Not, I Have An Opinion  

Aimee Mann and Michael Penn (both of them musicians I cherish and respect) are posting to twitter a lot right now about online music piracy.  There's a lot of hurt inherent in the situations they're presenting.  And it's true:  the theft of their work is wrong, it hurts them as artists, tours frequently lose money, it's hard to get through to the audience that this is genuinely a problem... and the producers are NOT helping.

Unfortunately, acknowledging all of this solves nothing.  You can say, "STOP STEALING FROM ME!" all day long, but if you've got a house full of gold and no way to lock the door, moral standing isn't going to help you.

Commerce is insanely complicated, but it's also, at the heart, really simple:  if people want something badly enough, they'll pay for it.  If the price is set too high, they'll protest.  If there's an easy way to get it without paying, they'll do so.  Ethics are useless when it comes to money.  You merely have what people will do, and what people won't do.

There was a cataclysm across the majority of forms of mainstream art once digital versions of music, visual art, and video became easy to create, transport, and locate.  Suddenly, the ratio of cost to produce vs. cost to acquire went way off skew.  We haven't found a way to correct for that, yet.

Once upon a time, it was actually difficult to get ahold of the works of your favorite artists.  Once upon a time, you drove across town to the CD store because they had just gotten in the shipment of the latest offering by your favorite band... once upon a time, you went to the concert BECAUSE that was the only place you could get one of those out-of-print copies of the eponymous album.  Once upon a time, you went to a movie rental place because that was the only way to see the movie again; long before that, you went to the theater to see a film because otherwise there was no way to see it at all.  Once upon a time, long, loooooong ago, books were hoarded and treasured by the wealthy and libraries were considered treasure troves of absolutely priceless worth, because paper was so expensive and because copying books by hand was difficult, painstaking work that required the rare, educated man with spare time to do.

Once upon a time, publishers and studios and album labels existed for a very, very good reason:  to get the product to the customer.

They were on everybody's side.  Sure, they grabbed up as much profit as they could, and plenty of artists were screwed, but the fact was, the big art industries existed in order to find good (or at least salable) art and to distribute it to those who were willing to pay for it.

This is a fantastic and workable profit model.

But ever since the digital revolution, the profit model of music and film producers in particular has been based almost entirely upon something utterly paradoxical:  restricting the availability of popular art from the consumers.  You can no longer make money by pushing the product out.  You can only make money by hoarding it and parceling it out to those who pay.

It's not a resilient or logical profit model, and it's not working.  At all.  Calling the consumers thieves misses the point:  people simply do not pay for something if they don't have to.  Individuals might, but mass populations don't.  (Ever.)

Music and film is now so amazingly easy to come by that the purveyors are all but unnecessary.  We've cut out the middle man.  The middle man is still screaming and kicking and trying desperately to hang on, and there are many good reasons why he's not dead yet, but he's most certainly not doing too well.

Very few things have adjusted to make up for this.

Take tours, for instance:  tours may very well be a thing of the past.  It requires a lot of capital to put one together, and while you're on tour, most artists aren't producing new product.  Tours are about exposure and marketing.  Well, exposure and marketing these days are as easy as sending an email with a condensed mp3 file to a friend and saying, "You've gotta hear this band!"  It's not as effective or impressive, but it's enough to suck the steam out of a great big marketing engine and leave behind a top-heavy, fund-sucking beast.  Tours no longer pay for themselves in future sales.

iTunes:  great notion, bro!  I'm pretty sure it won't last for too much longer, though.  The next step after iTunes is already somewhat obvious:  not an online music store, but an online music database that does nothing but search for your favorite bands and compile links to their albums that the artists themselves post online.  The only middle man left, the way things are headed, will be the data processor.  Artists will cut and sell their own product.  We're not there yet, but that's where we're going.

If only that meant good news for the artists.

You just can't open wide the floodgates of information and restrict it at the same time.  Physical media (books, CDs, DVDs) have natural restrictions put upon them by their material presence.  Digital art has no such restriction.  The faster and more capable the internet becomes, the less restrictive it is to throw information around, until it's all but frictionless and infinite.  Internet custom is responding to this in ways that range from understandable to hilarious:  the majority of websites have huge portions devoted to nothing more than security, and probably 75% of the code on the web focuses on restricting content from viewers.

There's a twisted logic to what's happening to the big music labels and film studios:  they're actually following the direction of the market, though not toward profit, but toward survival.  They are becoming guards, rather than merchants.  The MPAA and RIAA have all but transformed themselves into the bull mastiffs of the internet:  they're no longer about providing art, but about insuring it against theft.  They may actually survive in that capacity, because those who create information will probably continue to try to restrict it, and they'll need dogs to guard the stockpile.  But the past days of the big producers having anything whatsoever to do with art will be over.

Once upon a time, before there were publishers or labels or producers, artists were minstrels.  You created because you had to, you got what pay you could, you hoped for the luck of private patronage, you knew that you were likely to starve.  The wealthy artist was a rare creature indeed.  The steadily-working artist was a fantasy creature; you either worked for a king, or sang on the side of the street for tossed coins.  In later centuries:  you lived with other artists, or you lived off of an inheritance, or with family, or with friends.

It's a pretty disgusting mark on the current media industries that the advent of big production didn't really change that circumstance for most artists, but anyway... the fact is, the only way artists have ever achieved any level of comfort was through patronage or investment, and that was always provided by those with some special interest ("I like what I see, I think you should do more of it").  Private patrons were always a more honest system:  at least they were paying for the art itself, rather than some future profit.  The art was the end, and patrons lost money, but gained social standing and were able to attach themselves to the names of the immortal.

That's what a really good artist sells:  art, and immortality.

If artists want their listeners, watchers, and readers, to pay, then they need to make the stakes clear to said consumers:  "If you don't pay us, you don't get a new album.  If you don't pay us, you don't get a tour.  If you don't support us, you don't get another book."  Period.  Not because you have to blackmail people -- it's not blackmail, it's commerce.  The simple fact is as-stated.  What the artist does requires money.  If the artist has reached the point where they are popular enough that people are seeking out ways to download their work for free, then the artist has reached the point where they can say, "You want more?  Pay up."

You could put the names of your investors on your album covers by way of sharing your fame -- people will pay for this, not just to feel famous, but to feel virtuous, and there's how you can benefit by moral standing.  Not stealing a CD is one thing; being publicly heralded as someone who supports an artist you love?  That's something people will respond to.

I'd hand Pascal Arbez-Nicolas a $20 right now if I knew I'd get a new Vitalic album in six months.  He might still not be able to turn it out, but the marketing model would at least make sense:  I'd be giving him money for something I didn't have, that I wanted, that only he could provide.

By George, that's an act of commerce!

It doesn't always work that way in the world of art, of course.  And music producers know this, because that's essentially what they currently do:  they invest in an artist, and demand product in return, putting on the pressure and hoping for a good outcome.  Private patrons of old worked the same way.  Pay for art before it comes out:  that's the only way to pay an artist, because once it's out, you can't take it back.  And there's no guarantee on quality, there is only your faith and knowledge of the talent you've invested in.

It's not the world's best way to produce art, but it's the world's only way to make it a paid profession.

And the profit won't be as much.  There is, however, an outside chance that the consumer might actually be paying money directly to the artists... now the biggest danger would be that the gigantic media watchdogs of the MPAA/RIAA would in effect become the mafia, requiring protection money from all artists before they can sell product.  They're already more than halfway there.  The good news is, it's a hell of a lot harder to iron-fist the entire internet than it is to shepherd the Las Vegas hotel industry, and artists are famously hard to cow and control.

When your consumers become your investors, you run the risk of them tearing you up for not producing on a schedule, but then, consumers already act that way toward artists, so why not get them to pay for the privilege?

Kickstarter is doing this.  More artists need to get on the wagon.

And I strongly suspect that even with this, high-profit art will soon be extinct.  It was always based upon a fairly artificial marketing structure.  We're all going to lose something, here... albums won't be as professionally produced, films will lose the billion-dollar effects budgets, quality may suffer.  Consumers won't be happy at being asked to pay for something that costs money (oops).  Artists' lives won't become any easier, that's certain.

The one nice thing in all of this is the fact that now, if you want to create art and share it with the world, you can send it out into the internet and the world may actually have a chance to listen.  Formerly, it was the street corner or nothing.

That's an incentive to be an artist in this day and age, if nothing else.
 
 
 
Theo Fenraventheofenraven on June 19th, 2012 03:37 pm (UTC)
Good post.

I write (as you know). My ebooks get released and are out there, available for purchase. They're also being pirated. I've already found a few sites that list my titles for free download.

It's discouraging, to say the least. I spend all that time creating something I think is wonderful, and someone else gives it away for free.

If I never made any money on my titles, would I continue writing? Yup. Creative people are cursed that way. They keep creating, even as they slowly starve to death and their clothes turn to rags and fall off. But it would be a damn sight more pleasant if I actually received something for my efforts.
Wiseacreewin on June 19th, 2012 03:41 pm (UTC)
Troof.

I don't think there's ever been a time, for more than a paltry, tiny number of artists, where the wage was equal to the man-hours spent on the project. If there's any way to change that, I can't think of it... but I do think that project advances are a better bet than royalties.
Theo Fenraventheofenraven on June 19th, 2012 03:48 pm (UTC)
I've never gotten an advance, so I have no idea how much they might be. I doubt it's enough to pay your way until you finish the next book, though.

I know one publisher who offers advances for book-length manuscripts, but I wonder if this is based on being a proven seller. If your first two novels were duds, maybe they don't offer. It's getting harder and harder to break out of a very crowded pack and make a name for one's self.

I keep advertising for a patron of the arts, but so far, I've had no takers. ;/

Edited at 2012-06-19 03:49 pm (UTC)
Wiseacreewin on June 19th, 2012 03:49 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm still tracking that down myself... HEEEEEEEEERE PATRON PATRON PATRON...
A. Askewanivad on June 19th, 2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
I'd actually be really flattered if my work got popular enough that people wanted to pirate it. Admittedly I'm not (yet) a working writer, so finances from there aren't an issue, and I'm too used to the fandom model of writing fic for free and having payment be in the form of good critical reviews. The more people read my stuff, the happier I am, even if they don't pay a cent for it. I'd take a nice review over money, actually.
I write because I have stories I want to share with as many people as I can; that's the end goal, which piracy helps hasten, and any money I may get is a side bonus.

It's possible this may change slightly in future if I get published, especially in actual hardcopy books; I'd like people to pay for hardcopies. Somehow I don't extend this sentiment to ebooks, which I'd be glad to distribute for free. It feels different, somehow. I read Harry Potter 7 first as a free digital download because the bookstores were swamped, but I was more than happy to pay for the physical book when I could, and I've never touched the e-book since.

But yeah - I'm coming from a different perspective, since I'm hoping for a steady income from a regular day job, with writing on the side, so I have less to lose than you might. It would be great if my writing career took off and made me rich, but I'd be satisfied just knowing people are reading.
Wiseacreewin on June 19th, 2012 04:07 pm (UTC)
And this is the attitude of almost all just-starting-out artists. "CAN ANYBODY HEAR ME???"

But scraping together a living at making art is so difficult and arbitrary and unfair and souring that it becomes understandable... by the time a paid artist manages it, they'll probably be fierce about it. That aspect of the writing industry is fascinating and scary. Essays/responses written by mainstream authors about allegations of copyright violation in fanfiction were overwhelmingly defensive and even outright vicious... something happened to cause that attitude.

As an artist who has a hard time holding down a day job, I really should be fiercer about the concept of earning a living at art, but I can't help it... trying to convert art into money REALLY scares me. ;)
A. Askewanivad on June 19th, 2012 04:24 pm (UTC)
heh, yeah, I get that.

Back when I was actively throwing manuscripts at publishers and being ecstatic when one got accepted, I was pretty upset about only getting paid like $20 for my efforts after all that trouble. Part of that led to me also selling myself out - I'd edit my stories to match whatever the editors wanted, even if they went against my own creative vision, cutting out lines I particularly cherished, and so on, in case they changed their minds about publishing me.

And I didn't want that to be my future - where I got money from writing, but not for writing the things I wanted to write. I wanted to enjoy writing for the pure joy of it; never for a potential paycheck. I realised that trying to turn writing into a career would ironically be antithetical to that, and make writing into a chore that was necessary for my survival, rather than a hobby that has so far been largely filled with happy, peaceful memories of escapism. I don't ever want to lose that.

Ideally, I'd like the art world to be like the fandom model but with more monetary donations: people creating art because they want to; good art (usually) getting popular on the basis of merit and the creator's efforts, rather than through meeting the narrow tastes of gatekeeping publishers; artists doing commissions for people willing to pay for what they request; people doing art in exchange for other art... and so on.
Wiseacreewin on June 19th, 2012 04:26 pm (UTC)
I'm open to the notion of a fic commune.

Just sayin'.
A. Askew: journeyanivad on June 19th, 2012 04:33 pm (UTC)
i have thought this exact thing so. many. times.
A. Askewanivad on June 19th, 2012 03:43 pm (UTC)
this is a good post.
I like this post.
Wiseacreewin on June 19th, 2012 03:45 pm (UTC)


:D
A. Askewanivad on June 19th, 2012 03:55 pm (UTC)
XD
that first person should have written 'FIRST'. :D