The music industry is in the news again as Ed Sheeran is declared the most illegally downloaded artist in the UK (although one-up for the Scottish border town of Galashiels who apparently downloaded more Smiths tracks than anything else…). It reflects a massive culture shift that sees us expecting to get everything for free. For the music industry (as for many others), this is a Big Problem. The British Recorded Music Industry reckons that some 7.3 million people are engaged in unlawful file-sharing and that, since 2007, the cumulative cost to music companies has been £1.2bn.
A fascinating storm erupted around this issue in the social media world when a 20-year old intern at a music company wrote a blog in which she ‘admitted’ that she had 11,000 songs in her music library and yet has only ever bought 15 CDs in her life. Most of her music didn’t actually come from illegal downloading but from sources like Spotify. In a telling paragraph she wrote, ‘As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.’
The storm grew bigger as a response to her blog was written by David Lowery, a teacher at the University of Georgia, who lectures on the economics of the music industry. Within two days half a million people read his ‘letter to Emily White’. In it, he discussed what he saw as the many fallacies that lie behind the ‘free culture’ argument.
What intrigues me is that the whole debate about the mess that our music system is currently in revolves around the question, ‘where does responsibility lie?’. Are musicians the ones to pay for their desire to play music? Should music companies pay them properly? If so, where do they get the money from to do that? What responsibility does the consumer have? Should they pay for the pleasure of listening to music or not?
In his response, Lowery wrote this,
Fairness for musicians is a problem that requires each of us to individually look at our own actions, values and choices and try to anticipate the consequences of our choices. I would suggest to you that, like so many other policies in our society, it is up to us individually to put pressure on our governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly when it comes to artists’ rights. Not the other way around. We cannot wait for these entities to act in the myriad little transactions that make up an ethical life.
What struck me as I read through his letter was that, change a few of the words and this debate could have been written equally about the mess that our world is currently in. Who will take responsibility?
As ‘consumers’ it is easy to say, ‘it’s the big businesses and the governments who are the tyrants and they need to make it easy for me to live a more ethical life’. Is thinking about the consequences that our actions will have simply too much to expect of a public that is accustomed to judging things by convenience? Can we hope that people will attempt to live lives that are mindful of other people and species around the world when everything around teaches us to focus predominantly on ourselves? Will anybody be bothered ‘to put pressure on governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly’ when it comes to global issues of justice, peace and ecology? Just who is prepared to take responsibility?