Saturday, August 1, 2009

It's a Hustle and a Game and a Gift

A reader pasted this quote as a comment on my recent post about file-sharing.

"When someone downloads a piece of music, it's just data until the listener puts that music back together with their own ears, their mind, their subjective experience. How they perceive your work changes your work. Treating your audience like thieves is absurd. Anyone who chooses to listen to our music becomes a collaborator. People who look at music as commerce don't understand that. They are talking about pieces of plastic they want to sell, packages of intellectual property. I'm not interested in selling pieces of plastic. I'm grateful that I've sold enough to have a house, take care of my kids and live decently. But that's a gift, not an entitlement. I don't want potential fans to be blocked because the choice to check out our music becomes a financial decision for them." – Jeff Tweedy

First of all, I find it beautiful that this comment was copy/pasted from another source; using someone else's words to express our own thoughts is an interesting aspect of this whole discussion. I do it all the time.

Second, I totally agree with the Tweedy quote. Music is not about selling pieces of plastic, it's about sparking a connection between people, and about giving the listener joy. When you give people joy, there's a good chance they will reward you somehow. But the exchange doesn't work as well when the artist treats their work as a product for sale, and demands a reward from the recipient.

Still, I can't help noting that Wilco gives us an awful lot of ways to buy pieces of plastic with their recordings on them! So even if Jeff Tweedy isn't interested in selling us pieces of plastic, someone in the band is, and makes them available to us to buy if we like. (I just bought "Wilco (The Album)" and I love it.) Maybe Jeff means that he's not primarily interested in selling pieces of plastic, that selling pieces of plastic is not an end, but a means of getting his music into the ears of his audience. And that downloads, paid or unpaid, are also ways to do that. If that's what he means, I'm completely in agreement.

I read an amazing book recently, called "2666", by Roberto Bolano. In one passage, Bolano describes the attitude of one of his characters, a novelist, towards his own work. The passage struck me as one of the best descriptions of what it's like to be an artist that I've ever read, especially the odd and interesting relationship between art and the commerce of art. Archimboldi, the character, writes in the day; his main job is at night, as a bouncer (or doorman) at a bar.

"Archimboldi's writing, the process of creation or the daily routine in which this process peacefully unfolded, gathered strength and something that for lack of a better word might be called confidence. This 'confidence' didn't signify the end of doubt, of course, much less that the writer believed his work had some value, because Archimboldi had a view of literature (though the word 'view' is too grand) as something divided into three compartments, each connected only tenuously to the others; in the first were the books he read and reread and considered magnificent and sometimes monstrous, like the fiction of Doblin, who was still one of his favorite authors, or Kafkas' compplete works. In the second compartment were the books of the epigones and authors he called the Horde, whom he essentially saw as his enemies. In the third compartment were his own books and his plans for future books, which he saw as a game and also a business, a game insofar as he derived pleasure from writing, a pleasure similar to that of the detective on the heels of the killer, and a business insofar as the publication of his books helped to augment, however modestly, his doorman's pay."

Making art is very little like experiencing art; I agree. And I think many artists would agree with Bolano that an artist's life is partly a hustle and partly a deeply interesting and satisfying game to play just for the joy of it.

One thing almost every artist will tell you is that making art is very time-consuming; having a full-time job is pretty much death for many artists' work, since the job leaves so little time for making art. Thus the hustle; if only to buy time in which to make art, artists often try very hard to make their art pay. We look at every paid piece of work as a way to buy the time to do more work.


narnim said...

Oh Dan...I can always count on you for some "pie in the sky" view of music and business. You live up on the hill with all your gold bullion and gold-plated bidet! And diamond encrusted cutlery. I've see the car you drive. I think I even rode in it! Little pieces of plastic indeed! The Gift is the Hustle! (Stop Making Sense)

How much is that new Wilco Box Set with 3D DVD(glasses not included) and life sized fold-out diorama of the band with the optional/miniature Jay Bennett figurine?

The Outback is truly the chariot of kings.

I am sending 3 cents in the mail tomorrow for the pleasure of reading your blog-thing.

Hope you and yours are well.


Mike said...

I've seen this debate more than a few times, and I can't help but fall on the "piracy is wrong" side, despite not being a musician or artist of any kids (at least in any sort of commercial capacity). Frankly, I'd probably stand to gain more by believing that pirating music is totally ok.

However, I just can't see any possible justification for a listener believing that they should have the right to decide whether or not a musician gets compensated for their work. I think the Tweedy quote is astute, if misguided. I think it would be a lot more powerful a statement if Wilco were actively making their music available for people who can't buy it. It seems disingenuous to say "I want you to have this for free" but then to not give it away for free.

And ultimately, I think that's what it should come down to. I agree with the sentiment that a lot of artists are helped more by file-sharing than they are hurt by it. But me saying, "I'm going to download your music because it'll be good for you," seems just as ridiculous as Tweedy essentially saying "You can have it for free, just not from us."

Making music available for free has costs and benefits, and ultimately it should we up to the musician, not the consumer, to do that cost/benefit analysis and decide which will be more beneficial to them. "Trust me, it's good for you," is just a cop-out used by people who would otherwise feel guiltier about what essentially amounts to theft.

Kevin said...

Mike -- You're right, it would be disingenuous for Tweedy to say that he wants people to have something for free, but then not give it away for free. But he never says that -- and I don't think that a reading of the quote supports that statement. The closest he says is "I don't want potential fans to be blocked becaues the choice to check out our music becomes a financial decision for them." He expressly says that the ability to sell music and make a living as an artist is a gift. And he also says that he would not want to treat his fans as thieves. That is not the same as saying everybody should have music for free. In addition, the band does make a lot of content available for free at its website. Wilco has streamed all of its albums since at least Yankee Hotel Foxtrot at the website in advance of the release date knowing that there is a good chance that somebody would capture the stream and distribute. It seems like the approach that Wilco takes to it is the more you give your fans, the more you will get in return.

Randy said...

How selfish "listeners" are, in this debate, I believe. Listeners are "partners" in the experience and change it, therefore are entitled to hear it for free. Give me a break. We pay for everything else in this society, so why should you get your music for free? By that logic, theater performances would all be free and you would never pay to enter an art museum, etc. As someone who writes my own music but has never released any, I would damn sure expect to get paid for anyone who wants to own my music. If I choose (emphasis on "I") to release some free samples for people to hear, so be it. It is MY Choice. Selfish music listeners just want access to as much free music as they can get, and believe artists should just give this to us? PLEASE. What world are you living in. Since I was a kid, I have been gladly supporting live music and own at least 700 musical titles, most of which I've paid for over the year. I am happy to support art with my hard earned money and if more of those who feel entitled to get if for free would pay, more great art could see the light of day and people could quit those day jobs to support the ull time creation of art (as Dan so aptly puts). Keep up the good work Mr Wilson.

Cathy with a C said...


I went to the City Winery to see Rachael and re-discovered your music. And, during that rediscovery, I found your blog. Haven't commented before, but have forwarded some links to your postings to friends of mine in the music business (or trying to be in the music business.)

I watched an interview today with the college student who was fined over $500,000 for file-sharing. His defenses are ridiculous. He insists that musicians should be paid for their efforts, but he shouldn't have to pay them.

He was asked how file-sharing and re-distributing music was any different than going into a store and shoplifting a CD. His response was that to steal a CD takes thought, effort and pre-planning. It couldn't be compared to something you could do in seconds on a computer. When Napster was made illegal, he found other sites, because filesharing had become a habit and part of him.

When provided other quotes by artists, including Tweedy, who said that it should be their choice, when and if, to make their work available for free, he said that he got lots of emails from people telling him to keep up the fight against the big, bad RIAA.

Have to confess I have always considered copying CDs and albums, and even computer software, as stealing and have not participated.

The internet is changing not only how we communicate, but also how we discover music and new ideas. Through Rachel Fuller and Pete Townshend, I have made many friends on the internet - people that I have met in person and become friends in reality and not just the virtual world - but have been introduced to many different artists that I probably wouldn't have found on my own. I go to music festivals now, like SXSW and Austin City Limits, and now that my children are older, I go to many large concerts and smaller venues, like the City Winery.

But the internet also provides anonymity which allows some of the most hateful comments I have ever heard (read) and it allows the opportunity for large-volume thefts. It will take many years for our legal and human systems to adapt.

(By the way, I really enjoyed your graduation speech.)


TheMuskrat said...

Hi Dan! Jody from Calgary here...

A question, and a topic for conversation:

When "Free Life" came out, I went to every CD store in Calgary, and bought all 23 copies of the disc that I could find to give out as Christmas presents.

Since then, I've introduced many others to your music. However, the disc isn't available in Canadian CD stores anymore, and it isn't for sale on the Canadian iTunes. I'd love for these new fans to be "legit", but what are music lovers supposed to do when the artist's music isn't available for purchase through reasonable, legal means?

I use another of my favourite bands as an example. A-Ha are from Norway (and yes, they're still around). They don't have representation or distribution in North America, and that includes iTunes. So I have to find creative ways to get their new releases... which may include downloading tracks. I'd love to support the artists that are the soundtrack of my life, but they've got to at least meet me halfway!

Speaking of "Free Life", any chance we'll see new DW music in 2009? I'd give my left elbow for even a demo tune...


Anonymous said...

For TheMuskrat:

You can go to the band's site here to order music:

Or you can email them directly and share your dilemma.

Or or ebay, or Tower used to stock TONS of imports.

The internet is great. If you're creative, you can find several potential methods of reasonable, legal means.

TheMuskrat said...

I did. I bought the CD through the band's website. But for the remixes, I had a friend in the UK buy me a British iTunes card, then I made a UK account and bought it off iTunes that way. Creative and legal. But a hassle none-the-less.

Michael said...

One observation I'll add to the discussion is that, back when it was impossible to purchase music online but incredibly easy to download it illegally for free, I did a lot of the latter. Now that it's easy to purchase music online and more difficult to get it illegally for free, I'm happy to pay for it and obtain nearly all my music through iTunes, plus the occasional vinyl album or CD (I'm also no longer a broke high school student, admittedly.) My impression is that piracy has declined a lot as legal options have gotten better.

On the other hand, I do see some room for the book-lending model of music sharing. It's great to be able to send a free MP3 of an artist to a friend, knowing that might nudge them to buy their album. That, of course, is different than sending a track out to a million people through a Napster descendant.

People who download tens of thousands of songs for free, though? That just seems unfair to the artist. Out-of-print and live bootleg records excepted, I would say.