[16 April 2008]
Chuck Klosterman’s Esquire piece, ”Anyone Seen My $4.2 Billion?” is refreshingly free of intellectual artifice. Stealing music has been one of those causes that, because of its ubiquity, hasn’t really had to intelligently defend its practice. Klosterman’s bar fight prose handily cuts through the bullshit about stealing as a critique of capitalism or somehow an act of anti-corporate defiance. This is no small feat when the prevailing internet culture is to mob anyone who might suggest that using an artist’s intellectual property requires that you find some way to financially compensate them for its use. When Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog fame ridiculed album-sharing OiNK users for their perceived “right” to steal, his comment board became the wailing wall for self-righteous fulminating about business models and technologies, theories built entirely as moral veils.
Even if Klosterman is brave for cutting to the chase of “you steal because you can”, he doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of theorizing why exactly people do on the internet what they would abhor in a more obviously physical context. (i.e. people download who would probably not shoplift) He claims that people steal because of credit card debt, but seems at a loss to explain why DVD and video game sales have skyrocketed while CD sales drop through the floor. The most obvious answer seems to be that the opportunity cost of stealing movies and video games is still much higher than pilfering music files. It’s more time consuming and requires more technological saavy to steal a film. But it’s easy to perceive a world where all entertainment forms are merely stolen because of an internet culture that promotes the idea that everything technologically possible and personally beneficial is, by default, moral.
I’m more interested in how the very narrowly targeted decimation of intellectual property for a single set of producers (musicians) has affected music culture. Has downloading’s allegedly anti-corporate justification actually contributed to a far broader and deeper commercialization of formerly “indie” music. Judging by the omnipresence of the indie single in selling everything from steak to blood diamonds, it’s hard not to see some kind of connection. But there are subtler, more aesthetic effects that involve people erasing the resistance offered by something as passé as the album format. I find it unsettling that Idolator can mock the act of listening to an album and still pretend to be taken seriously as critics. I’m no stranger to downloading, though unlike Klosterman’s test case I still spend plenty of disposable income on music (mostly vinyl), but I have noticed that my exclusively downloading friends seem to have nothing but the most ephemeral and passing connection to the music they listen to. They seem frequently unable to remember tracks put on a mix that’s less than a week old. I fully support some of the positive developments brought about by MP3 bloggers, but the fever-dreamed utopianism seems to have nothing at its core but mob-rule assertions.