in Music

The First Amendment is not just for artists

So this young NPR intern named Emily White wrote a breathtakingly clueless defense of her choice to steal music rather than to pay for it, her ridiculous argument boiling down to it being more “convenient” to steal than to purchase. She apparently doesn’t see how her actions hurt the very artists she claims to admire.

Over at the Trichordist blog, musician David Lowery wrote a rebuttal to White. Lowery is the force behind the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. I’m a big fan. I own a number of Cracker CDs and even got Lowery’s autograph after Cracker swung by Raleigh for a show a few years ago. Some of my money wound up in Lowery’s pocket and I’m happy with that. He earned it.

Reading through his rebuttal, I was with Lowery’s admonishment of White – up until he veered off into an attack on what he calls the “Free Culture” movement. Lowery seems to hint that it’s not White’s fault she chose to steal, it’s the fault of the Creative Commons foundation:

These technological and commercial interests have largely exerted this pressure through the Free Culture movement, which is funded by a handful of large tech corporations and their foundations in the US, Canada, Europe and other countries.

What the corporate backed Free Culture movement is asking us to do is analogous to changing our morality and principles to allow the equivalent of looting. Say there is a neighborhood in your local big city. Let’s call it The ‘Net. In this neighborhood there are record stores. Because of some antiquated laws, The ‘Net was never assigned a police force. So in this neighborhood people simply loot all the products from the shelves of the record store. People know it’s wrong, but they do it because they know they will rarely be punished for doing so. What the commercial Free Culture movement (see the “hybrid economy”) is saying is that instead of putting a police force in this neighborhood we should simply change our values and morality to accept this behavior. We should change our morality and ethics to accept looting because it is simply possible to get away with it. And nothing says freedom like getting away with it, right?

Lowery seems to say that because an organization exists which provides artists more control over how his or her work is used, this is somehow bad for the artist? Lowery is attacking the same licensing that makes possible the world’s greatest encyclopedia ever, Wikipedia? What the fuck? It’s not the first time the site has taken cheap shots at Creative Commons, either, with an unsigned, disparaging post about Larry Lessig appearing in May.

I’m all for artists getting paid, I still buy music and encourage others to do the same, and I even understand Lowery’s anger at companies making money off of those searching for illegal filesharing sites. At the same time, artists are reaching more fans now than ever through the Internet, which would have never been possible without the same “Free Culture” movement Lowery demonizes. That same Internet has offered artists new opportunities. Artists get paid for every YouTube video which features their work, as well as every Pandora spin, every Spotify play, and every iTunes purchase. But most importantly, the same freedom of speech that makes it possible for Lowery and other artists to make a living also protects the rights of others to move unhindered around the Internet and, yes, even discuss illegal filesharing sites. As Noam Chomsky said, “If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

In short, conspiracy theories about Creative Commons are just plain looney. Creative Commons certainly is not to blame for rampant filesharing, and to learn of the misguided anger of an artist I once respected saddens me. It’s ill-advised comments like Lowery’s that make me want to stop listening to music altogether.