Look. Listen. I seem to remember John Lennon saying, Once you write a song, it belongs to everyone.” But maybe I don’t remember that at all; in fact, it may have just been a dream, and (like so much of the human experience) it has become real to me because I want it to be so. But what of it? Whether he said it or I simply dreamed it, I hold to it.
Now, all this dreaming got me to thinking about art, commerce, and the notion of ‘free’ vs. ‘stolen’ music, and—while drinking raw bourbon and listening to a bunch of vinyl records that I paid for—I figured that I might as well produce some ideas, in addition to a hangover. So, in no particular order of importance, here are some premises on which I base my position that ripping music without paying is acceptable.
1. Art and commerce are separate in substance and nature.
2. The recorded song is an advertisement for the live performance.
3. Music and the communication of ideas through music are the property of all.
4. There is a fundamental difference between ‘stealing’ a song and ‘stealing’ the profits from a song.
Okay. Now that I’ve laid down those rails (albeit crudely, but leave me alone: I have many songs and drinks to enjoy before I sleep), let’s ride them.
1. Art is artifice: the crafting or invention of expression. Commerce is trade: the exchange of a good/service for another good/service. When art is traded for, say 99 cents on iTunes, the action is no longer pure art but instead, commerce. I believe in “art for art’s sake.” However hackneyed, it rings true to me. If someone truly wants to be an artist, she should craft, invent, express. If she wants to be a merchant, she should trade. While the two careers may converge, ultimately, once the trading begins, the art, I think, loses something of its deepest value and the relentless capitalization (exploitation) of art ultimately robs us of its greatest virtues. As W.B. Yeats wrote, “What need you, being come to sense,/But fumble in a greasy till/And add the halfpence to the pence/And prayer to shivering prayer, until/You have dried the marrow from the bone?”
2. If the concept of pure art is too abstract, impractical, or unrealistic, consider the purpose of the recorded song. Once upon a time, people tuned in to a DJ, or even a VJ (yes, I know…I am old and my skin is cold—Jim Morrison) and heard a song…If they liked it, they might buy an album, but more importantly (I think), decide to go to the show. To me, the song is ultimately the advertisement for the performance. I don’t pay for flyers advertising visual art shows or theatre events, or trailers advertising films, and I don’t pay for songs either.
3. The communication of any art requires an audience, and communication, interpretation, and (I suspect) satisfaction of the artist’s desires, which are not possible without an audience. Further, no one can claim the means of communication employed in a song—rhythm, melody, language, sound—as solely hers. They are universal, shared, human. Sure, some people may be more inventive, more skilled, and more advanced in their usage, but ultimately this belongs to no one. Accordingly, the song that is performed publically is no longer the property of any single individual.
4. If I download a song, record a bootleg—hell, jam my tape recorder against my radio and make a mixed cassette—I am not depriving anyone of property. The song continues to exist and remain in the possession of its ‘owner’ and continues to be accessible to other consumers. Now, if I take that song and sell it, then I am stealing some property: the money that someone is willing to exchange for the song. I think this is the significant differentiator between downloading/copying a song and stealing.
I know, I know. The average musician will tell me this is drunken bullshit because they have to feed their families and their art. Well, guess what? If a bunch of people listen to your music, whether they pay for it or not, you have made, not only art, but a difference, which is a reward in and of itself. And if you have produced a great commodity, then the money will come, whether you collect you’re 45 cent cut from iTunes or not. But most of all, contrary to what some people would have us believe, there is more to music than buying, selling, and owning it…
And apparently, John Lennon thought so too, because he did say, “Music is everybody’s possession. It’s only publishers who think that people own it.”