The Freeloading Generation: Are we loving our music to death?

Will “digital natives” learn to respect the rights of the artists they love? US Author of Freeloading CHRIS RUEN asks whether music fans can ever get over their desire for free music. Photo by TOD SEELIE.

Greetings, Australian music obsessives. I come from Brooklyn. And, I suspect, like many of you I spent my formative years amassing a hoard of free music from websites that take the notion of copyright – that artists have a right to decide how their work is distributed and who is allowed to profit from it – with a smaller than average grain of salt.

Like many of you, I “freeloaded” (free downloading/streaming of unlicensed creative works) most of my music within a post-Napster world; one in which my generation of “digital natives” were told that the age of paying for music was over and it wasn’t worth worrying too much about the consequences. Much of this sentiment came from my native United States, where academic Lawrence Lessig and WIRED Magazine editor Chris Anderson made such a case, that digital piracy was merely a reflection of how younger generations “understood culture.” They said my generation, and those to follow, would not pay for content and could not understand the principles of copyright enough to respect the rights of creators, or be expected to.

The Canadian blogger Cory Doctorow also excused my generation of freeloaders, saying that copying free music was merely a matter of using computers as they were designed. “Making bits harder to copy is like making water that’s less wet,” Doctorow said, parroting the words of digital security expert Bruce Schneier. So went the “you can’t fight technology” argument in favor of freeloading: this wasn’t a matter of creators’ rights or fans’ responsibilities; just inhuman bits and copies, answering to the logic of technology alone.

“I saw that freeloading was no victimless act, nor was it simply a matter of beating up on bloated corporate media entities.”

For years I assumed that such voices were generally correct, that freeloading wasn’t a social problem, so much as a generational shift. But my attitude changed while living in Brooklyn. As a fan, observing music culture from a distance, I’d assumed that bands like TV On The Radio, Yeasayer and The Hold Steady – bands that received piles of press and toured constantly – were making decent amounts of money from their music and touring. But when I met members of these bands, and later interviewed them about their experiences for my book, Freeloading, I realised they still struggled to pay their rent long after having been deemed “successful.”

Suddenly I saw that freeloading was no victimless act, nor was it simply a matter of beating up on bloated corporate media entities (also a dumb argument for pirating content). Freeloading was a matter of considering the right of independent musicians (most of whom are rather broke) to be treated fairly for their work, and then dismissively shooing it away in order to justify one’s own desire for instant gratification. There is no higher purpose behind freeloading. It is a potent combination of laziness and selfishness, concealed under a thin superficial haze of digital idealism and anti-corporate bitterness.

After I realised what freeloading was really all about, how it essentially denied basic rights to musicians whose work I loved, I still had questions about my generation of “digital natives” and those younger than me. Were they at all sympathetic to the idea that the status quo – a general acceptance of freeloading and reluctance to do anything about it – was in fact a negative movement and should be countered? Were the voices correct, the ones who said mass piracy was here to stay?

To find out, I wrote on the topic for the music webzine Tiny Mix Tapes, confronting readers on their actions; telling the serial freeloader who claims to love music that “on some level you, not Metallica, are the asshole.” As expected, a few nasty emails about how I was a “whiney Brooklyn hipster” found their way to my inbox, but over time such messages were overwhelmed by positive responses.

“I have to realise,” one teenager wrote, “that I could have bought more and supported more of my favorite artists, but due to the convenience and free-ness of the internet, simply didn’t. As someone who tries to support independent businesses over the Wal-Marts and Starbucks that cost less and are easier to find, this hipster ‘share-the-music’ ideology really just comes down to being a load of hypocritical bullshit. So, thanks for

the article, it was a big wake-up call, and I’ll definitely show it to a few friends.”

“Thank you for writing this,” another said. “I started downloading music this year and quickly realised that it was irresponsible. My policy now is to only pirate music that is out of print or music by dead people. I’m not sure whether the latter is sensible or not.”

The letters stood in such sharp contrast to assumptions of teenage pirates: these digital natives who could never conceive of an analog, paid-for past long enough to alter their consumption habits. While such assumptions were presented by experts like Lawrence Lessig, Chris Anderson and Cory Doctorow as proof that they alone were the unsentimental realists in the room, the idea that youths were lost to the idea of payment was, I then realised, alarmingly condescending.

This zombie-like teenage army was incapable of paying for content, supposedly, because they’d never been properly programmed. They could not be educated. Appeals to common sense or morality were above their limited capacities. As a result, because file sharing was the way they fundamentally “understood culture”, digital natives couldn’t be bothered to take responsibility for their actions. The mess in music was the responsibility of the government, corporate record labels, supposedly rich artists – anyone but people actually doing the downloading.

“It is a potent combination of laziness and selfishness, concealed under a thin superficial haze of digital idealism and anti-corporate bitterness.”

But in reality these file sharers were not “understanding culture” by way of piracy, they were anxious and confused about it. Rather than throwing their hands up in the air in surrender to their irrational desires for more, they matched their anxiety with honest self-awareness. People desired confidence in their choices-wanted to do the right thing-but the digital content debates had left them feeling stranded to work these vexing issues out on their own.

Was I encountering a silent majority of freeloaders, who download free music and movies because it’s easy, but understand they aren’t naturally entitled to the fruits of other peoples’ labour?

When the UK law firm Wiggin surveyed active internet users in 2011, only four percent of respondents strongly disagreed with the statement, “It is important to protect the creative industries from piracy.” Even when Wiggin restricted the question to confessed freeloaders, half of them agreed that it was important to fight piracy.

Just like that of the United States, the Australian music industry has experienced growth in just two out of the last 10 years. Not all of this decline can simply be blamed on freeloading – certainly there are other factors – but it’s time for a critical mass of fans of creative culture, young and old, to recognise that by accepting freeloading they are essentially loving their music to death. The digital piracy problem started with music fans, and perhaps music fans remain as the only ones who can lead us out from the standoff between internet freedom zealots and the creative industries.

Are you entitled to free content, even when it means trampling on the rights of creators (most of whom are not at all wealthy) who are trying to make a living from their work? Do sites like The Pirate Bay or the dearly departed Megaupload, which make money off of the unlicensed work of artists from advertising or subscription revenues, have any legitimate right to exist?

Answering those questions, discussing the issues they raise, and then finding solutions will be crucial to determining whether this generation will take the reins of the internet revolution to usher in a new age of enlightenment, or passively consent to what freeloading represents: an age of lazy entitlement. The choice is yours.

Chris Ruen is the author of Freeloading: how our insatiable appetite for free content starves creativity. $27.95, published this March by Scribe.