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.
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.