Friday, July 10, 2009

Is File-Sharing Immoral?

I saw a really interesting and amazingly civil discussion online about the question: "Is illegally sharing music immoral?"

The link is here:

After reading the thread I got excited about posting a comment, but my comment got super-long, so I've decided to put it here on my blogs. Several responses to the thread compared putting songs on file-sharing networks to borrowing a book from a friend or a library, and I kept thinking that this was a misleading comparison. So, that's where I launched my reply:

I don't see how anyone can honestly equate one person lending a single copy of a book to his or her friend with another person helping thousands upon thousands of strangers to make free copies of a music CD. Do you really see no difference? The difference is obvious: the book in the first example is never magically turned into thousands of copies of the same book. You can only read a book so fast, and so lending it to friends is a naturally slow and limited process. Whereas once a digital copy of a song is available, the number of copies expands exponentially. We all know that the advent of near-perfect copying has really changed the nature of sharing a work of art. I guess the problem is that it's all happened so fast that there aren't yet any generally agreed-upon standards of behavior.

The labels have brought a lot of this trouble upon themselves and us musicians by digging in their heels throughout the 90s when a creative approach to pricing and selling digital copies might have still been possible. By about 2001, when Napster was shut down, the horse was already out of the barn, and file-sharing was turned into a kind of "stick it to the man" act of bravery.

But the artists did benefit from their record sales in the past, because they got advances from record labels willing to risk the investment on possible profits later. Sure, very few artists saw royalties after these advances, but the advances were one significant way that musicicans were paid for their work. I know, because I got cash advances on even the Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic songs and albums that didn't sell. Nowadays those advances are rare and very small, and all but the very top bands and singers are seeing their incomes fall dramatically every year.

That's okay, nobody promised us we'd get rich or even make a living, but it seems self-serving for file-sharers to argue that copying and enjoying our work without paying somehow benefits us musicians.

I can see pretty clearly how it benefits the person who gets the free album, though...

Because music is fun! It brings joy and peace and inspiration to tired, discouraged and sad people! It makes lonely people feel less alone in their troubles, it gives angry people an outlet for their rage, it makes it easy to dance at parties and fall in love! These things are worth paying a little for!

I fly a lot in my work as a songwriter, and I bring my acoustic guitar on the planes with me. If I check it in as baggage, it will eventually come off the plane broken. I have learned this over and over again to my dismay. So I get on the airplane early, bring the guitar into the cabin with me and put it in an overhead bin.

On crowded flights, other passengers will see my guitar occupying two spaces in the overhead bin and complain to the flight crew. "Hey! There's a guitar here! That should go down in the hold! I can't fit my rollaboard into the overhead bin!" And sometimes the crew will then make me check the guitar into the baggage hold. And then, every 20 or so times the guitar comes back out of the plane broken.

I never make a scene at moments like this, but what I would like to say is: "This guitar has given lots and lots of people joy, and if it is broken, I'll have to spend a bunch of money to buy another one so that it can give lots of people joy! Your rollaboard is just a bag full of toiletries and clean underwear; it is only going to give you and maybe one other person joy! That's why my guitar deserves the extra spaces in the overhead bin and your rollaboard will just have to go down in the hold!" I wish I had the chutzpah to say this, but I don't. Especially because I think no one will understand what I'm saying.

Now, these outraged business travelers, who are just trying to save themselves 20 minutes of waiting for their own checked bag by stashing everything into a rollaboard, aren't intentionally trying to break my guitar. If the crew told them they could have the overhead space but the crew would have to break my guitar in two right then and there, I'm sure at least most of these passengers (not all) would say, "Oh, never mind, I'll check my rollaboard. You can leave the guitar in the overhead bin." In fact, I'd say that if they knowingly chose to have my guitar broken, it would be an immoral act; a small one, but definitely immoral.

And that's what people do in a tiny way by making our songs available to any old stranger on a file-sharing site. These file-sharings are very small acts, but they hurt the musicians a little each time. And I think people actually understand this, despite all the disingenuous arguments that file-sharing is good for musicians. I mean, give me a break, the site is called "Pirate Bay"! Everyone knows that pirates were sailors who robbed other ships!

I don't feel well-enough informed of the details of the case of the Minnesota Mom who has been fined more than a million dollars... that sounds truly terrifying, and I wonder just how many copies she would have had to give away to really add up to that amount of money. And it does seem typical of the tone-deaf way the music industry has dealt with this issue all along.

On the other hand, I wish the Minnesota Mom hadn't used as a late-breaking defense that "someone else" might have been signing onto her computer unbeknownst to her and sharing the songs. Hmmm. I think I liked the Robin Hood "stick it to the man" defense better.

As for creative commons licenses, this movement seems like a quibble, since holders of creative commons licenses are still trying to maintain control of how their work is used and copied. Why criticize copyright holders and yet still put restrictions on the use of your work? Why not put it out with no restrictions? If your song is good enough, a major corporation will steal it from you, release it, and make loads of money. Oh, but of course the sales would promote your tour. I hope touring is a big part of your new business model!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Dan Wilson in Athens

Click here to see the MAD TV Video Music Awards clip

I went to Greece two weeks ago to perform on the MAD TV Video Music Awards. It was really fun, performing with me were the backing band of the Greek singer Stavros Dadoush. Afterwards at the side of the stage, the vibes player, Vaggelis Paraskevaidis, played some hot jazz on the vibes before the stage crew shooshed us down to our dressing rooms.

My friends were amazed at the number of whirling, whooshing crane shots in the clip. Mike Doughty told me I was lucky the producers let me stand on the stage, as they could have fit an extra crane where I was standing. I say the slight feelings of motion sickness are worth the fun.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who is the Author and why isn't the drummer getting paid?

Been thinking about collaboration in my own musical world and other types of art, too. What is the relationship between the idea of a "sole author" and the real process of making art? Is the heroic solo author just a figurehead we need so that we can refer to the art and imagine that it comes from one body?

From the inside, I am more and more aware that any good piece of music I am involved with turns out to be a collaboration, even the stuff I once would have called "solo" work. Even if just one person writes a song, there still may be 6 musicians performing the song, a producer and two engineers recording the song, a mixer and a mastering engineer creating the final sound of the song, a kitchen cabinet of friends and spouse and peers telling the singer whether it's good enough to release, etc, etc. Pretty quickly, you're up to 12 specialists and at least a few trusted sets of ears afterwards.

And this is the case for almost all the music we think of as the work of a single artist - Bon Iver perhaps an exception to this, but he's the rare one.

But the thing I'm thinking of is that even in the visual art I go to see, the work is often a site-specific collaboration between artists and venue - an artist or two flies into town, looks at a room/park/building/atrium, gathers up some fabricators/engineers/collaborators, and when they leave town they leave behind them a cool piece of conversation fuel on tap for the public.

Even though these works are promoted to us as solo artworks, they're no less collaborative than the songs I get involved in.

So why do we still need the heroic solo author in the press materials and on the outside wall of the musuem? Is it just because a group photo is a mess? Is it because we need a figurehead just in order to talk about the art or music?

I am wondering whether our mental picture of how art and music are made are going to catch up to this reality or whether we'll always need that figurehead.

Last night I went out to a show - a friend of mine, Sara Watkins, came to Minneapolis, taught her songs to the band Romantica, and they played them together at the Ritz. I found it to be very inspiring and beautiful just as music, but even more than that I was fascinated by Romantica's willingness to let their "identity" as a band flex. They temporarily absorbed elements of Sara's vision and vice versa and the night was more exciting for it. I know this isn't a new practice, but it seems to be happening a lot among the musicians I know.

Here's another comment on the question of authorship: the biggest unacknowledged travesty in crediting and payment of royalties in music is that drummers are not paid royalties on the tracks they record. I think that most great rock songs boil down to being a great duet between the singer and the drummer. The feel that the drummer brings to the recording is almost the whole thing. But the way the payment is structured is that the singer gets royalties on sales of the recording, being the "artist." Drummers of the world, unite! It's time to get paid for your ideas, before that idea competely bites the dust.