(File) Sharing and the Arts

We are used to hearing “sharing” equated with “stealing” thanks to ongoing entertainment industry efforts to make it harder to share intellectual property online. What’s at stake from this perspective are the three Cs of controlcareers and cash. These stakeholders have a point – if it’s true that people stop buying when they can download for free, then there is less money going into the coffers of the industry and the people who create the cultural materials we enjoy, and there are fewer jobs for the many people involved in their creation, distribution and sales. But that’s a big “if.” The data are pretty clear about control - audiences do have more power over distribution than ever before, though the entertainment industries remain exceedingly centralized. It is also clear that careers in some industry sectors are being lost, although one hears little about how those losses compare to the gain of new careers created through hundreds of online businesses such as Netflix and Spotify. The data are less clear on cash. It’s hard to draw an evidence-based line of direct causality between file sharing and revenue. There are several studies showing that at least in music filesharers buy more than those who do not fileshare.

But I’d like to set that whole conversation aside for the moment and consider another issue at stake in sharing. What if the right rhetorical frame for discussing sharing is not theft, but life? Consider this quote from an interview I conducted with Stephen Mason,bass player of the Grammy-award winning band Jars of Clay, who began their career in the 1990s before filesharing took off and who would seem to be amongst those with the most to lose if sharing is theft:

“Artists are alive when they create.  And people that consume art are alive when they receive it and they pass it on and they share it.”

He went on, drawing on Lewis Hyde’s argument in The Gift that for gifts to retain their social value, they must continue to circulate:

“I have to trust in the gift economy idea, because honestly at the end of the day I would rather be surrounded by people that I know and love that are creative and that are moving and changing cultural currents. And to isolate myself in the conversation of infringement basically puts the art -  it puts us in the corner that’s not as interactive and that’s not as alive. There’s not as much life in it and that’s the risk. There’s always going to be that risk. But I've been encouraged that there’s survival. There’s survival in the heart of that instead of the opposite.” 

What if Mason is right? What if sharing is about art, artists and those who love art being at their most alive? What if the real risk is the loss of vitality in pursuit of shutting down infringement? How might things look if we took seriously the claim that the survival of the arts lies in trust instead of law? 


(photo of Mason: Creative Commons licensed by Ian Muttoo on Flickr) 


These conversations always remind me of the days when ownership of stereo housing a dual-cassette deck was key to being not just a participant but a contributor to the small subculture cliques that congealed at lunchtime in grade school cafeterias. For many of us, purchasing the music we enjoyed was not an option. We relied on our small community to share any good finds they had come across - mixed-tape samplers were traded and, if there were any bands that we wanted to further explore, we could ask for the cassette or hand over a blank (maybe the album was on vinyl). 

Point being, sharing these artifacts expanded the exposure of musicians that we would never have heard otherwise. It's laughable that Metallica would sue Napster when it could easily be argued that, if not for filesharing (albeit in cassette form), they would never have found the level of success they enjoyed. 

This is confirmed in the opening paragraph of this morning's post on The Quietus where Lee Ranaldo, guitarist for the singularity that was Sonic Youth, is quoted describing this period from the musician's perspective: 

"Well, first of all, let's not forget it was pre-internet. Whatever 'underground' network of musicians there was came about by meeting folks face to face at gigs, or via snail mail postcards or zines. The USA seemed even larger then and it was mysterious how connections were being made. That said, the scene was quite tightly knit, those of us working in music then - everyone seemed to meet and get to know everyone else, and everyone was kinda rooting for each other to succeed, which meant artistically, as there was really no money to be made. It was all a matter of keeping the band going so there was the opportunity to do more work. There was only the slightest fledgling 'indie record' scene then, but certainly what bands did get vinyl released had a kind of calling card to go places and get a little bit known."

On a side, I often wonder if internet filesharing has stripped today's lunch table music communities of the serendipity, the "thrill of the hunt," and the resonance that music has when a friend hands you a tape/CD/thumb drive and says "I thought you might dig this."

Sharing has come up again and again for me lately, and I’ll start by saying that I WANT to believe in the power of art. Having been repeatedly exposed to Amanda Palmer’s TED talk (“Don't make people pay for music, says Amanda Palmer: Let them.”) on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., at least part of me wants to cheer for the call for a supportive and nurturing relationship between artist and fan. Here, moving the conversation from theft to life, I feel myself aching to endorse the same sort of move.

And yet I’m uneasy about trusting, because as much as I am sure of the power of individuals to do the right thing, I am equally certain that forces within capitalism (perhaps the biggest “c” of all) displace and distort the will of individuals time and time again. Does the digital change something about commodities and the circulation of power? Is the digital realm capable of promoting (and sustaining) some new kind of social currency that trumps the almighty dollar? I really hope so . . . 

Apologies,I am writing this on my phone in between airports. Good post! Anything that makes me wanna reply on the run ;-) . This is a vital issue for me since as I am working on a book where portions of it argue that gift economies are being experimented with as a way to generate the social obligations of community. Indeed, it seems to have become a key aspect to any "1,000 true fan" experiment. The issue begins to really kick in as an instrument in generating obligations, a moment where fandom steps into questions of "play-bor". Since the item we are talking about is essentially a pre-paradigmatic experiment we need to keep in mind both it's efficacy, intent and the conditions for its success. Palmer has spent more than a decade building trust through direct contact: most musicians haven't done this and many more have no desire to do do. Also, as one of the commentators above points out sharing has always been key to generating value in the experience economy that is the music industry. We need to rethink what happened i the past to understand how sharing is structurally and economically different today.

Too often, the policies put into place to protect intellectual property ignore the cultural contexts of social activity, and thus the ways in which content gains and maintains social capital. That issue of circulation and movement is extremely important to the vitality of art, and to much more, as well. Interestingly, there is nothing especially new about that--at least at a high level. It's just that the mechanics have evolved with cultural and technological shifts.

I have a huge interest in researching and designing for the circulation and movement of content that you mention. To me, the future of the web is less about designing and developing social networks and more about fostering participatory activity by designing content as social objects. 

Thank you for posting this, Dr. Baym! 

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