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Photo of a car on fire / by Tim Pierce Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

You Wouldn’t Give Your Car Away for Free

A few years ago, it was common to hear people say, in regards to claims that musicians were no longer able to make money from album streams or downloads, that “they will make it up through touring.” It was the kind of disingenuous, guilt-eliminating comment that gets parroted ad nauseam without any form of fact-checking.

Now, thanks to the dreaded virus, we no longer need to worry about it; the prospect of clawing back a few bucks through touring has completely disappeared, which leaves musicians with almost no avenues now for making money!

These days, as an older and much angrier man, I sort of side with the anti-copyright ads of the 1990s that you would sometimes find on video rentals, in response to illegal file sharing. There, a collective film industry would say, “You wouldn’t steal a car. Then why steal a movie?

The good old days of industry guilt trips

Anyone, outside of those in the industry, would laugh at this. It seemed like a pathetic attempt by super-rich, media conglomerates, to ensure that none of their rightfully earned royalties and rentals got away from them. Their motivation seemed to be coming from self-interest, rather than a legitimately moral point of view.

However, there is a still a great truth to their statement: the vast majority of people in life would not steal money, or a material item, especially not a car. Yet, this same great majority expect to pay nothing for entertainment.

Back before many streaming services existed, and when I used to have a normal kind of job, I would come home on the train in the afternoon, and glance over at people watching movies on their phone; and often, I would think to myself, I bet you that’s a pirated film!

These people traveling home with me on the train weren’t assholes or thieves; they weren’t politicians, or self-righteous individuals (like me). They were just normal people, paying off ridiculous Sydney mortgages, making sure their kids got a good education. And so I feel guilty for saying this, as well as it being a kind of arrogance on my part, but I bet you very few of my fellow passengers were shelling out their hard earned cash on entertainment.

There is a kind of public perception that free entertainment is a birthright. When we were kids, we got everything for free on television and radio; advertising — which we bitched about later on as more enlightened adults — paid for this entertainment.

So audiovisual entertainment had a low starting point. The whole point of it, if we were smart enough to work it out, was to help commercial companies sell their products via legitimate broadcasters. It was not high art, the kind of things we saw at art galleries; it wasn’t books that we borrowed from libraries, or bought in shops. It was just stuff that you watched or listened to; completely immaterial and disposable.

And this feeling remains as an implicit belief in adulthood: Why should I pay for anything that doesn’t put food in my belly, or a roof over my head?

But, yet, if creative people did not set aside their time to make all of these wonderful, immaterial, completely value-less distractions, each and everyone of us during that train-trip home would have been forced to stare at our neighbor’s weary face, stricken with the kind of worries that plague the adult mind; is the new guy going to displace me at work? When am I going to have sex again? Is working these long hours going to kill me prematurely? Fuck!

The problem with this deep-rooted belief in free entertainment is that 90 percent of creative people are not quite hobbyists, who do it only in their spare time and have normal jobs to support them; but they are also not like the remaining 10 percent in their field, artists like Taylor Swift and Metallica who vacuum up most of the cash: Our 90 percent are somewhere in the middle, not leaders but not amateurs either, struggling to eke out a half-decent existence, while also fulfilling a creative role in society.

They might be supporting actors, lesser-known voice-over artists, house music producers, sound designers, mix engineers, small-time writers, essayists, poets, color graders, singing coaches, session musicians, record sleeve designers — who we’ve all been in contact with at some point in our lives. Maybe not always directly, but hidden in the background, contributing to our sum total happiness and excitement.

But now, most creative people are sandwiched between multiple generations of consumers who have a relentlessly inbuilt expectation of ‘free’ — and a handful of tech companies — who have a more, immoral, capitalistic view of ‘free’.

— That is, ‘free’, until they have to pay the other 10 percent their ‘silly money’, contracts often worth millions of dollars. A joy that is not shared by the vast majority of artists on their platform.

These companies tend to ignore, that without their vast majority of minimally paid artists, they would not be able to offer such a massive back catalogue, no ultimate ‘everything that exists in the world’ kind of subscription model — making them less appealing to consumers and advertisers alike.

So, all I say, is be careful when you consider giving your work away for free; you are maybe doing yourself a disservice. Thousands of likes and streams is not the same as someone paying you what you deserve.

At the end of the day, creative people are not magical fairies, geniuses, or scum of the earth; they are just like everyone else, who have a mortgage to pay and kids to educate the best way they can.

*Header image by Tim Pierce / Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0


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