Tonight, in the main branch of the New York Public Library, the long-running conversation about artist copyright, piracy in the digital age, changing (and disappearing) artist revenue streams, and illegal downloading continues with two people who’ve added much to that discourse of late: Talking Heads vocalist and all-around interesting fella David Byrne, who recently penned How Music Works — a wide-ranging treatise on how music is crafted, distributed, monetized, listened to, and regarded — and Chris Ruen, the 31-year-old author of the fascinating new book Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger For Free Content Starves Creativity, which, as you can tell by the title, argues that illegal downloading not only hurts the artist’s bottom line, but ultimately threatens to choke off the supply of great music that, for many of us, helps make life worth living.
Music and Copyright in the Digital Era: David Byrne in conversation with Chris Ruen is the title of tonight’s hour-long, moderated talk (7 p.m., $15-$25); an event that brings Ruen back to the room where he spent much time writing Freeloading, his first book, over the past couple of years.
“It’s pretty cool that I’m returning in this capacity,” says Ruen, who explains that Byrne got ahold of a proof of his book over the summer (it was published last month), loved it, and reached out to Ruen through his publisher to team up for the event. “Of course, my immediate reaction was, like, fear,” Ruen laughs, “but I agreed to do it. [Byrne] and I have been e-mailing back and forth a bit, sharing ideas and some themes we want to discuss, and I met him last week at a party and kinda broke the ice. So I’m excited, I think it’ll be a lot of fun.
“Freeloading music is an unresolved topic and so many people have downloaded music for free, it’s one of those issues that a lot of people have an intimate relationship with and have their own thoughts on,” says Ruen, who brings up the recent, well-publicized online dust-up between Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery and NPR intern Emily White over the ethics of illegal downloading as illustrative of the fact that tonight’s talk is part of an ongoing and still-relevant conversation.
Ruen dove headfirst into the fray in 2009, when he wrote a provocative essay for Tiny Mix Tapes titled “The Myth of DIY: Toward a Common Ethic on Piracy,” in which he concluded: “If you find meaning and beauty from a musician’s work and you want them to continue creating it — then you are obliged to support them. If you like the idea of record stores, the people they employ, the values and spirit they promote — then you are obliged to support them. If you’re consistently doing one without the other, then on some level you, not Metallica, are the asshole.”
The same point is at the heart of Freeloading, which — like the TMT piece — provides the backstory that Ruen himself was an unapologetic music pirate until he began working at a Brooklyn cafe, saw that some of the indie-rock musicians who came in — members of the Hold Steady, Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend, musicians he considered “success stories” — were virtually broke due to, he believed, digital piracy killing album sales (“Even I had an apartment as nice or nicer than those of some of these ‘rock stars,'” Ruen writes), understood that at some point the lack of financial support could compel many of them to stop pursuing a career in music, and had the epiphany that “behind free content’s superficial illusion of more lies a long-term reality of less. Sooner or later, it is something we all have to pay for.” “If you ask people whether they think it’s okay to knowingly violate the rights of an artist, I don’t think you’ll find many people who think it’s okay,” says Ruen. “Maybe there’s a few, but even those people aren’t saying that because they think it’s okay, it’s because they’re justifying it and conflating it with other issues.” In Freeloading, Ruen picks apart some of the justifications for illegal downloading — from the belief that record labels and rich artists “deserve it” (for price gouging, greed, and generally being dicks to their fans) to the idea that piracy helps smaller artists reach a wider audience.
“That’s somewhat moot,” Ruen says of the latter notion, “since artists are fully able to choose to release their music for free if they wish, and there are plenty of examples of that happening. So there’s no contradiction between respecting artists’ rights and also embracing all the ‘frictionless’ potential of the Internet.”
Ruen allows that freeloading often boils down to the very human flaw of greed winning out over guilt (“There’s that fundamental question of, ‘Can you check your own desire for instant gratification?”) and social norms (“If your friends and peers are doing it and don’t care, then certainly you’re not gonna question these actions”), as well as the missteps of the music industry. “The RIAA lawsuits made it difficult for labels or artists to talk about ethics or what’s fair,” he says. “It was so heavy handed, and that justifiably pissed people off. It was a PR disaster. And if we’re having this conversation four years ago when that’s still on everybody’s mind, there’d be no sympathy and it’d be ‘Fuck record labels, they’re fuckin’ assholes.” I think the more time passes and we get away from those lawsuits, that’s having an effect on perceptions around this issue.”
By dismantling the various justifications for freeloading — and Ruen says he’s yet to hear a single convincing argument in favor of illegal downloading — Ruen hopes to get readers “to a place where they feel comfortable owning up to it and saying, ‘Yeah, it’s free, that’s why I’m doing it, I don’t think it’s right and I’m not saying it’s progressive.’ If you can get people to that place, then you can have a conversation and talk about policy and respecting artists’ basic rights.”
Ruen’s outspokenness on the issue has earned him plenty of enmity and vitriol from, well, freeloaders, but he says he’s not trying to fan the flames of the debate just to watch shit burn. “There’s a thin line between trying to engage people and being a provocateur or a sensationalist. I’m not down with that, I don’t think that’s cool, and I’ve tried to bring a rational, fact-based approach to the discourse. The subject does bring out some passion, but I think the really angry responses, you’re going to find those online behind the safety of anonymity.”
“I think [tonight is] gonna be a lot of passionate music fans who understand how much they’ve gotten from these artists who’ve had the chance to have careers,” says Ruen. “And it’ll be an older, more mature crowd. Age makes a big difference in this debate. I know that when I was in college, I didn’t know what it meant to have a job or to need to make a living, and the older you are, the more you understand that ‘I want artists to be able to do this and make more of this stuff for me to enjoy, so they need to be paid somehow.’ I don’t think it’s gonna be an antagonistic audience, but you never know!”