I had an unnerving experience while reading Caitlin Moran’s Times column today about the internet and free culture – namely, I thought she was wrong. Now, obviously, Caitlin Moran isn’t allowed to be wrong about things. It upsets the natural order; it’s like the world has been thrown off its axis. Up is down, black is white, cats are marrying dogs, Toploader were a good band. And so on.
The thrust of the article is the pretty widespread belief that the internet has, in effect, deranged us: it’s led us to expect everything for free, to the point where we refuse to pay for the art and the journalism we used to pay for; and that by letting ourselves become freeloaders, we’re screwing ourselves and our future, because the only people who’ll be left doing art and journalism will be those from wealthy enough backgrounds that they don’t need to worry about being paid. Because, as she says,
…there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s no such thing as a free internet. I liked the old system we used to have – where, if you wanted something, you paid for it.
Now: I am a huge, huge fan of people who create things earning a living from it. I am also a huge, huge fan of giving my money to people who create things I like, or to the corporations that enable them to create – as evidenced by the fact that I’ve spent most of today trying to do just that, even though ITUNES IS A COMPLETE DICK that keeps moaning on about “unkown errors” when ALL I WANT TO DO IS WATCH THE AVENGERS. If I’d pirated it, I’d be on the post-credits sequence by now, but I won’t do that because I believe Joss Whedon deserves nice things in his life. And, crucially, I’m not alone in this – the claim that the internet is busily laying waste the creative industries doesn’t really hold true.
In the article, Caitlin says that “the music industry has shrunk 40 per cent since 1999″, which is something of a zombie statistic. As far as I can tell, it’s traced back to a mis-labeled chart from a report by analysts Bain & Co (Mitt Romney’s old stomping ground). Actually, that’s not the global music industry turnover – it’s the US recorded music industry turnover (as the corrected report now makes clear). Yes, revenues from recorded music alone have declined by about that much, in the US and the UK alike, albeit from a historically unnatural peak – but the music industry as a whole is actually doing pretty bloody well. The industry has only collapsed if you only look at one single form of revenue stream, for the large record companies that were traditionally the gatekeepers for the whole music industry, but aren’t any more.
The idea that, because of the internet, people just want stuff for free and won’t pay for it is simply wrong; as Mike Masnick’s The Sky Is Rising study points out, US household expenditure on entertainment grew by 15% as a proportion of income between 2000 and 2008. The number of actual transactions in the recorded music industry has almost doubled since 2000. People are buying cheaper recorded music, certainly, but it’s hardly evidence that the population has developed a sudden allergy to the act of paying. Despite piracy, the film industry is growing – worldwide box office rose from $26billion in 2006 to $32billion in 2010. Despite piracy, the games industry is exploding – the amount we’ve spent on gaming around the world has more than tripled in the past decade . We haven’t turned into a society of cheapskates – we’re sluicing our money at an ever-increasing rate towards creators.
That’s not to suggest everything’s peachy. Some particular businesses and business models (often based on a historically temporary and somewhat artificial scarcity) have been screwed hard by the newly negligible costs of replicating and transmitting information, and that’s been traumatic for large numbers of people affected by it. But blaming it on people becoming “freeloaders” is not just over-simplifying the issue, it’s untrue and unfair.
The idea that the internet is a big, confusing magnet messing with our moral compass also comes up when she discusses punishing pirates – but again, I’m not sure it’s a fair charge:
When the Government proposed prosecuting illegal downloading, and punishing it with internet disconnection, a lobbying group called FAC (Featured Artists Coalition) campaigned against it – “It would reduce the civil liberties of every one of us in the country.”
But how? How is not having access to the internet, because you have committed a crime there, any different to not having access to, say, a library, because you committed a crime there? The internet isn’t a necessity. It’s wholly thrilling and brilliant and useful – most of the time, I’d rather spend an afternoon there than, say, Bath – but it’s not a right to be able to use it.
Because, for pedantic starters, it isn’t a crime. Because the internet is increasingly central not just to where we have fun, but to where we do all the tedious, necessary bits of our lives – it’s where we work, we bank, we pay our bills, we stay informed. It’s where we live. Because the level of intrusion and surveillance of everybody’s private actions in order to detect supposed pirates, and the knock-on effect for other individuals and businesses, was out of proportion to the problem. Because the standard of proof, and the quality of evidence, involved in “convicting” people for it would not have met any of the standards we demand for just punishment to be served. Because this was an actual policy, not a metaphor, and policy-by-metaphor is a terrible idea. Those who opposed it, by-and-large, weren’t objecting to the metaphor; they were objecting to the actual details of what it meant in the real world, because those are the bits that actually cause harm.
A lot of the article echoes something that Moran said during her book launch at the Bloomsbury Theatre a week or so ago, about her support for The Times’ paywall – helpfully transcribed by my friend Kat. Now, personally, I’m happy to pay The Times a fair amount every month to scramble over their wall, and I have done from the start (after all, that’s how I read the article in the first place). I’m also glad that different news organisations are experimenting with different approaches to not going massively bankrupt. Try ALL the business models!
Moreover, I’m a journalist, and I very much like getting paid for being a journalist. But the thing is, I’ve never once worked for an organisation that actually charged for its journalism – and yet they still paid me, and they still made money (well, mostly). The news industry’s problems are far more complex than “people stopped paying” and “going free online was a bad idea”, and there’s no simple connection between whether you charge for online content and whether you pay your journalists properly. Much like the discussion of the music industry, it seems to elevate a particular business model to the level of a moral absolute – not simply that it’s wrong to take things for free, but it’s also wrong to give things away for free, even if that’s part of your plan to make money.
And it’s that underlying idea – that not charging for some stuff devalues everything – that brings me back to the part of the article which most niggled away at me. Not so much because it’s factually wrong, but because it seems to express an attitude towards culture that makes me feel itchy:
We think that, as soon as something is on the internet, it turns into something else – that it’s not quite real. Things, somehow, don’t count on the internet.
Take, for instance, a song. When is a song not a song? When it’s on the internet. If a song is on a CD, or vinyl, in a shop, we would not hesitate for a moment to pay for it. Put the selfsame song on the internet, though, and millions of people would be steadfast in their conviction that you can simply take it without paying. It’s still exactly the same song you’d pay for on vinyl – written by the same people, who spent the same hours and same money recording it – but press a button, and it’s yours.
I sort of see the point, but it’s a deeply weird way of expressing it: the idea that things are only things if you have paid for them. It yokes together economic value and cultural value and objecthood and claims that they’re all one and the same thing. More importantly, as an example of how the internet makes us lose our minds and act in uniquely strange and immoral ways, it’s completely off target, because there’s nothing unusual or new about the internet in this respect. We’ve always had songs that we haven’t paid for, and we’ve never thought of them as un-songs because of it. The folk song passed down the generations from mother to daughter: not a song? The nagging chorus drifting over from a neighbour’s radio: not a song? The pissed-up pub closing time singalong of a chart hit from back in the day: not a song? The tune in my head that reminds me of that night when I first met that person: not a song? The things people danced to in fields in the early 90s, because someone had turned up with a soundsystem and someone else had turned up with loads of drugs: you know, I’m pretty sure they were songs. The world is full of songs; they’re in the air, all around us, inside us, and I bloody well am steadfast in my conviction that I can simply take them without paying. Because not everything is a transaction, and a world where everything is turned into a transaction is a smaller and greyer and more bitter world than we deserve.