Getting Your Kicks for Free

In the latest installment of People Shouting About Things Online, this blog post on NPR last week caused quite the hullabaloo (so much so, in fact, that I posted about this on my Facebook too. I’m not recycling material, I am integrating my social media. It’s different). The gist: an intern at NPR admitted that in her entire life, she has bought maybe 15 CDs, yet her MP3 collection reaches nearly 11,000. She doesn’t miss liner notes. She borrows, downloads, rips and takes. To paraphrase, she wants what she wants when she wants it, and then takes it.

Holy moly, was there a backlash. NPR even wrote a defense/explanation of Ms. White after the initial comment blow-out. One of the most visible examples is this response from musician David Lowery, which at its peak challenges to Emily to repay all the money she took from downloading. Quite a chunk of change.  The comments on all these posts  are a combination of vitriolic ad hominem attacks (apparently, if you are a young woman going to a decent college who scored an internship at NPR, you better not have an opinion on anything ever, because your life is clearly too charmed) and lamentations on the state of the artist’s life today.

I have to say, I’m surprised at the negative reaction — for two reasons.

One, I am in Emily’s exact shoes, and I thought a lot of us were. I torrent most of my music. I don’t pay for cable. I rarely go see movies. I pirate all my software. Freely downloading my digital media has been normalized for years now.  I hate speaking generationally (when I hear the word Millennial my blood pressure spikes) , but people my age grew up in the price-gouging ’90s, where CD prices shot up to nearly $20 a pop, and the resentment toward record labels grew and grew. Most people I know are chronic and unapologetic downloaders.  I am inclined to think that at least some of these posters clutching their hipster pearls and crying “please, won’t somebody think of the VINYL” are lying to themselves.

Old school iPod

Proof that I have no money: my total brick of an iPod. Doubles as melee weapon/German teaching device.

The second reason is, as another artist, I just don’t get it. I’m not  a working musician, though I know plenty, so it’s hard for me to comment on that particular lifestyle. However, I am attempting to be a working writer. The question of how artists can and should be compensated for their work is as old as artistry itself, and the Internet obviously makes that even more complicated. The Internet has enabled people like Ms. White and myself to download all the media we could ever want like it’s nobody’s business.

But it is somebody’s business, or attempt at one. The other day, my partner asked me a hypothetical: if/when I get my first novel published, would I rather legitimately sell a thousand or so copies, or have one hundred thousand people read it for free?

I chose the latter option without a moment’s thought. Partially, because of my own downloading habits; I’m trying to practice what I preach. However, I’ve been fairly comfortable for a long time with the idea that if I want to be a writer-quote-unquote, I better have something else in my wheelhouse: teaching, publishing, maybe a career entirely unrelated.  I don’t ever expect to sell so many books that “writer” will be my only occupation. It’s become a pipe dream for me, the idea of getting paid for my work in any substantial way.

Maybe it’s generational. Having come of professional age during this recession, that I might someday get paid anything to be a writer has been enough of a laugh. Getting paid enough to live on? Absolutely no way. A lot of us know it too. You put any group of writers together, you’re going to get tons of wisecracks about writers living in cardbox boxes, working three jobs to pay the rent, being the muffin man, etc.  I’ve also come of age during the Internet boom, so it’s been no great adjustment on my part to understand the change effected on the artistic world. Who knows why I’m such a ready (but dispassionate) foot soldier in the free culture movement?  The point is, information and therefore media in any healthy society should be free. Now we have a system that enables it to be really and truly free. From that angle, I can’t help but get behind it.


  • I too have been ‘stealing’ music for so long it’s hard watching an explosion over a young person admitting to what nearly everyone else her age is doing is in some ways deeply funny. Has this not been going on for decades? Perhaps the generation gap is just that wide.

    What’s most distressing to me, though, is the assumption that the existence of music torrents means the end of financially viable art. I believe that’s what Emily’s critics believe, but this is because they cannot imagine an alternative to a business model in which music is made profitable by the sale of plastic disks. The moral outrage against downloading is basically a moral outrage at denying reality in order to support an outdated form of sales. Plutocrats trying to convince us that we have a moral obligation to their particular breed of capitalism do not have my sympathy.

    But right now I’m listening to a brand-new album on Spotify, which is, annoying ads aside, even more convenient than a torrent. It’s not exactly an artist friendly service, but it is one of many steps taken to enable artists to earn money in ways that use current technology rather than run screaming from it. Artists are just so used to the old ways of doing business that they have a hard time understanding that ways to make money are fluid, and record sales are not a moral imperative hammered into stone tablets by the RIAA.

    • Melissa says:

      “The moral outrage against downloading is basically a moral outrage at denying reality in order to support an outdated form of sales.” This simply isn’t correct. As you hint at in the next paragraph, there is a system set up so that people can purchase music digitally and not deal with the “archaic” medium of physical discs- ITunes and all the other programs where music can be purchased digitally. Perhaps you didn’t mean it this way, but the implication of your last couple sentences is that artists are just dumb, and that since they’re dumb (ignoring all the other players involved in the pipeline of them creating art and eventually us having access to it) they don’t understand how to make money. I’m sure you’d agree it’s more complicated than that. As a writer, particularly a nonfiction one, you’re more likely than a fiction writer or poet to get paid for your short pieces– you could actualy make money from selling your short pieces to various magazines. If people are willing to pay for your work, then that’s your living, and that’s why these artists care. It’s how they make a living. Is there a huge gap between a giant international pop star complaining about music downloads and a little-known indie folk singer? Sure. But shouldn’t the system allow both of them a chance to support themselves with their work? I refuse to drool over Apple products like so many others, but at least Itunes provides a way for both of those artists to have their work available, and people can choose whose work to buy. If everything is free, the indie folk singer (who might even be more talented than international pop star) has no way to make a living. She’s working as a grocery store checker.

      Don’t get me wrong- I’m certainly not speaking from some pedestal where I think downloading things for free is empirically wrong. I have a fair amount of music, DVDs, and especially software programs that I got for free online. But just because we’ve grown up in an era where technology forced a change in the industry and there was a lot of confusion about how to adapt (by everyone within the industry and legal experts and others, not just the artists) doesn’t mean that we should just expect everything to be free.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:


    If/when you get your first novel published, would you rather legitimately sell a thousand or so copies, or have a thousand people read it for free?

    • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

      You got me there, Sam; the former is the one I jump too. But if I think about it, and ideas of a changing publishing landscape, and a changing media world, changing definitions of artist and artistry, and the way that ideas surface and snowball nowadays often unhelped by anybody except the consumers themselves — might there eventually be a situation where the latter option WOULD be the better one, for the artist?

      I guess maybe I’ll hedge then: I want people to buy my work AND then give it to all their friends/online friends/distant awkward family for free.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      And–in addition to your thousand or so readers not paying you anything–the only person making money off your work is the bottom-dwelling web parasite who sells ads and hosts pirated uploads. That or Google/Facebook/Amazon. Somebody’s making money, it’s just not artists or anyone who feels obliged to pay artists, however poorly (read: publishing companies or music labels).

      I’m with you on the cynicism/despair of ever getting paid for your work. But I’m not ready to just let the industry be driven by what seems to me a particularly smarmy variety of commerce. I like Andrew’s ideas above better: Pandora, Spotify, etc, seem better options, and more akin to our current literary environment, in some ways.

  • Amaris says:

    I don’t get the idea that people should work for free. Sure, ok, “free information,” I understand that desire. But the work involved in shaping it? Taking information and turning it into “media” or “content” or “Moonlight Sonata” or “The Dead”–that’s work, that’s not information.

    Consider this argument: Wouldn’t you also like land to be free? Isn’t land ownership kind of BS? The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and we’ve only been in “America” for 500 years; how can anyone own it? BUT just because you’d like land to be free doesn’t meaning that you can build a house somewhere and not pay the workers.

    • Laura says:

      But aside from squatting (which is illegal), there is no system in place that would allow you to own a house without paying for it, or to build a house without paying workers. Right now, we live in a world where we can get information/media content for free, where we are very much allowed to do that with minimal legal repercussions (although the powers that be are certainly trying). The system is allowing us to do it in a way that we are not allowed to steal other more tangible objects.

      I would argue that end-content-wise, information IS media. Obviously the process getting there is different, but the end product is the same, and I do see parallels and possible consequences if we restrict access to media more — but that’s a slightly different topic. In either case, the end product IS fundamentally different from a house or something you buy in a store (which is another argument I see about free digital media, “you wouldn’t steal from a store” etc.), in that it is NOT always a tangible, visible object, or at least isn’t anymore with the digitization of everything. And our current society is likely to condemn stealing a house much more than stealing music because houses are big, they’re tangible, and they’re necessary to function in society. Most of the world doesn’t see art as a totally necessary function, so it becomes secondary. So people think artists don’t have to be paid. I’m exaggerating and clearly that sucks, but that’s the situation.

      Maybe the solution is figuring out some natural way to get artists paid for their process instead of their product, something like a bigger and more systematic version of artists’ grants, etc. I just don’t think this free media thing is going to go away if we restrict it, and I’m more interested in how it shapes our current consumption of media and art. If it’s going to be the case, I’m looking at it as a positive.

      (For what it’s worth, I do think land ownership is BS. But I’m probably more anarchist than I would like to admit!)

      • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

        But if I go to see a lawyer or a doctor, I’m pretty much looking for information — a kind of abstraction. What I buy from them is intangible — the service they provide, their knowledge. Why should I have to pay them? Shouldn’t their services be free? Or — they can charge me, and I can pay them for what they’ve provided me if I feel like it.

        • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

          Point well made.

          If you COULD get diagnoses or lawyer-ly advice for free, would you? If somebody offered me services/information for free, versus paying for it (everything from pro bono work to WebMD), I think I would take that first. My own financial situation obviously plays into that, but I THINK we aim for the free, than the cheaper, than the full price — if we ever get there.

          Again, I’m interested in accessibility. Digital media IS accessible for free with the system we currently have. Doctors’ visits and legal services are often not. Houses are often not. So how do we put these all on the same plane? How do we make digital information and digital art carry the same “weight” as these tangible objects and clearly profitable services?

  • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

    Also — I know I don’t have to point this out, but I want to anyway — I am loving this discussion. It’s so rhetorically sound AND philosophically interesting. Guys, I could talk about this stuff all day.

  • Pete Sheehy says:

    And here is the whiplash to the backlash, for your consideration…

    As it specifically pertains to the music, I think this guy makes much better points than Lowery, and he doesn’t try to blame the suicides of his two mentally ill friends on their downloading free music, which was when I stopped reading Lowry’s despicable rant.

    No one wants to give their work away from free, but a lot of this is like complaining about any type of technology – it’s not going back to the way it was, so let’s try to figure out a way to live with it. In music, I think the upside of this is eventually people will get tired of sitting at home in front of their screens listening to free music, they will eventually decide they need to go out and see live music, music they can’t hear for free on the internet. This means local stuff, which could lead to more vibrant local “scenes.”

    Literature is different, it takes so much longer to digest a book than a song or a CD, and besides, used bookstores are kinda serving the same function, though of course most of those used books were paid for at one time and proceeds presumably went to the author.

    • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

      That was a great read, thanks for pointing it out. Way to go, Dave-Allen-of-Gang-of-Four. He is too cool for me.

  • Pete Sheehy says:

    And musicians can make some money by touring and selling swag, but when’s the last time you saw a t-shirt with an author’s face or name on it (wouldn’t that be a funny aspect to a book tour?) and other than people like David Sedaris, who pays to hear/see an author read? This could force authors to try to become more perform-y, which would undoubtably be awful for many of them.

    • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

      Right, and that’s what interests me so much about the free culture/digital media era. I feel like authors have had to deal with the concept of “not being paid for their art” for a very, very, VERY long time, never having gone under quite the same commodification of their art as musicians have — not to the same degree. Maybe further discussion among all these art forms would foster the “solution,” to whatever problem it really is we’re trying to solve (to be honest, I’m still not sure).

  • Pete Sheehy says:

    Corporate control and commodification of our culture is what we’re talking about. It’s getting to the point where only proven cash cow bands will sign major label deals because bands will be able to produce and promote their products themselves and at least have a chance to make some money.
    Same could end up being true for authors. More DIY publishing, which will be beneficial for some writers, but will also nearly eliminate the publishers as being the arbiters of taste. People (consumers) will have to go to the trouble to make themselves better informed in order to not buy (in whatever form that purchase takes) crappy art.

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