12.13.2007

I Steal Music.

I steal music.

Kinda startling, huh? Possibly not... There are kids out there with that exact phrase written on t-shirts or hats. But for the most part, there’s a great amount of capitulation and justification coming from the general populace where music theft is concerned. “I just want to check out the CD, if I like it, I’ll go buy it...” No you won’t. You’ll do precisely what I (and almost everyone else) will do - you’ll put it on your music player, enjoy the hell out of it, and go on with life... Then go on to post about how you buy your music in the comments of websites and feel pretty good about taking the moral high ground.

At least I’m being honest. I steal music, and I’m not at all sorry about it.

The truth is, I’ve been a music thief for, oh, about 23 years now - ever since I got my first ever RCA cassette recorder for Christmas and a clock radio for my birthday. I’d record music off the radio and make my own mixtapes (to this day, I can’t hear “Rock me Amadeus” by Falco without hearing Power 99.7’s DJ yelling how great the song is right before it ends). No money changed hands for that music - I heard it, I wanted it, and I took it. No ifs, ands or buts.

I stole those songs much in the same way that I’ve stolen pears off of a tree at a park or muskadines off the vine in my grandfather’s neighbor’s back yard. I didn’t pay for those fruits - I wanted them, I took them, and I didn’t blink even once.

Now we, the generally law-abiding citizens of the world, would look at this situation and - for the most part - we’d say “Well, yes, technically that’s stealing - BUT...” and we’d follow it up with any number of justifications. Regardless, we’d all pretty much agree that if the owner of the property decided to press charges against me for plucking a fruit from a tree and eating it, that person would be legally right, but morally, they’d be an asshole.

That’s because we all innately understand the difference between laws and morals.

In high school, I started earning a little bit of money with after school and summer jobs, and I’d spend it on music whenever possible. I’d easily spend an entire week’s pay on CD’s and LP’s, acquiring music by what everyone would agree are legitimate means. But the twist is that I was in the vast minority of my friends, in the fact that I worked and had a few coins to spend on music, where they did not.

But I wanted to share these amazing discoveries I made in the record shops around Little Five Points and East Atlanta - so, I copied out mixtapes and handed them over. I loaned out CDs and let my friends listen as long as they wanted. I aided and I abetted. And what’s worse... I allowed friends to do the same for me. I borrowed records and tapes and CDs and became a fan of all sorts of bands, and I never actually traded dollars / hours of my life to have the privilege of doing so.

And every single time Helmet or The Rollins Band or Primus came to town, I had no fewer than 10 kids going with me to the show... Two of which actually legally owned the records. Hell, I spent 35 dollars to go and see No Doubt in 1996, one of the biggest mistakes of a concert I’ve ever attended - but nonetheless, I went, because the albums that had been shared with me enticed me to attend. All of us kids begged and borrowed to afford tickets to these shows, shirts and ballcaps from the merch stands... And to think, we were turned on to these bands because we were thieves, every single one of us.

I’m an adult now, and technology has advanced to the point where a song can be transferred across a broadband connection in somewhere under a minute (some connections faster, some slower, but nonetheless - it’s quicker than going to the store). I can explore vast catalogs of music in the blink of an eye, determining without spending a single dime the difference between fluff and fulfillment.

I don’t have to spend $9.95 on the new Puscifer record to determine that, while I admire and respect Maynard James Keenan’s other projects (Tool and A Perfect Circle), this one is utter dreck. I don’t have to buy a $7.00 CD-5 with four remixes of a single I don’t like to get the one Pearl Jam song I’ve been told about, but can’t hear on the radio. And to do it, I have to steal. I have to acquire the media without paying for it.

And so I do. And I don’t bat an eye when I do it.

Why?

Because it’s only theft in the eyes of an archaic law established to protect an industry built on enticing you to trade hours of your life (represented by dollars) to acquire the “artistic” visions in someone else’s head.

But here’s the thing - I’m not alone. In fact, I’m not even a representative minority - I’m a member of a growing majority of internet users who have learned that they have the ability to sample or own a song without spending money on it. And the behavior will not change - It’s only going to become more prevalent, because regardless of how badly lawmakers and profiteers want it to be wrong, it’s not. It’s a path to fulfillment that cannot be closed.

Just a few years ago, there was a choice to be made, and it was “be a law-abiding member of society and buy our record, or be a filthy criminal and steal it.” These days, however, the choice is no longer that of the user - it’s of the artist. It’s “keep whining about how things are, now, in the present and be impotent to change it” or “deal with it, adapt, and advance.”

I have a theory, and it’s not a very popular one with most artists I meet. The theory goes like this: The true artist - the person who has not only the ability, but the COMPULSION to create, will create regardless of what they are paid to do so. Now, this might not hit you hard, or even at all. But for creators who have earned a few bucks from their art, this is a HUGE issue - they hate this theory and they find it contemptible that I even pose it. But I do, because I feel that the true artist finds fulfillment in watching and feeling their audience respond to the creation, not in how much they’re paid for it.

Now, don’t get me wrong - I like getting paid for my books. I like getting paid when I design something for someone. I like getting paid for the work I do. But the honest truth is that if no one hired me to make a website, I’d make one anyway... Not for them, but for myself. And I’d put it out for public consumption, because what good is a performance without an audience?

My book is available for free on Google Books. This is not an accident - everything I’ve written to this date is available free of charge to anyone who wants to read it. I do have pay versions of my book available, because it costs money to print ink on paper and ship it to people. And I enjoy a tiny profit for each copy sold, which enables me to free up that amount of time to write more. But I’m not motivated by that profit - I’m motivated by the comments and reactions and responses I get from the work.

A painter paints a work - how do you charge for views? Well, you lock it behind closed doors at a gallery or museum... But then, when people visit and they look and they share that experience with someone else, how do you gauge the “damage” that has been done by the sharing of that experience? What if they took a picture with their cameraphone and sent it to a friend - is that some sort of violation? And if so, why? Isn’t the entire point of creating a work and sharing it outward to get more people interested in experiencing it?

The concept of copyright, if you boil it down to its pure essence, is the legal protection afforded a creator to own and control the works they create.

The modern use (and, in my opinion, abuse) of copyright is ensuring that the consumption of ideas which have been released from the cages of creators’ minds is controlled in a way that, honestly, is impossible to control. It’s not unlike releasing a hungry tiger in a zoo and instructing them to only eat the people you point at - once it’s free, it’s free, and all the laws in the world won’t stop it from going where it’s going to go... It’s just going to make it “illegal” for it to do so, which for all intents and purposes, is simply a tenet for punishing those who do what you don’t want them to do. It doesn’t stop a person from performing an act, it simply builds a case for whapping them on the nose with a cane when they do it.

Ultimately, laws are reflections of the will of the people. The vast majority of us believe that killing a person without just cause is wrong - so there are laws to reflect that moral stance in our society. And we all agree that if I purchase a lawn mower and leave it in my yard, and someone comes along and takes it, that’s theft. But there’s a huge difference if I build a sculpture in my front yard and people walk by and look upon it without paying some sort of tribute.

Art is concept. Concepts cannot be stolen, only shared. It’s really that simple - and if you consider yourself an artist, and this fact has not dawned upon you, you need to reflect upon the nature of your creation and your motives for creating it, because what you’re creating with your talent is not art - it’s product.