In an age where we can download whatever we want—music, films and other creative content—for 'free', where's the economic incentive to be an artist? There's doing it for love of course. But beyond that, click by click, are we undermining the human connections that bind us together?
In the city where I live, there's been a sharp rise in homelessness. It seems like every day there are more and more young people sitting on sleeping bags, holding cardboard signs, asking for spare change.
One day, I was at the train station and I saw a young woman—blond head bowed, holding up a sign up that said she had nowhere else to go. It makes my heart sink even further when I see a women on the street. No one deserves to be homeless, but I know that women are particularly vulnerable.
As I walked towards her, rifling through my wallet for some gold coins, a man—a young Asian guy—stepped in front of me. He was holding out a $20 note. He squatted down and said with a big smile, "Here you go mate," and waited for her to look up so he could put the money in her hand.
I only mention that he was of Asian descent because of the turbulence between competing discourses it creates. A young Asian male calling a blond girl down on her luck, 'mate.' In Australia, in this age of persistent stereotypes, it feels important to record any details that undermine dominant narratives about 'mate-ship,' race, class and gender.
But it wasn't this, or his unusual generosity that surprised me. It was how uncommon their interaction was, and how natural it should be.
The Japanese author Haruki Murakami once wrote, "There's nothing [...] in the world at large that says things have to be a certain way." And being witness to that scene, it seemed to me that the guy had invented something I had never seen before.
He had the same impulse as me. But he skipped having an internal crisis of wanting to help, not knowing how much to give and worrying what the money would be spent on. He saw someone in need and just gave. And he did it in such a way that recognised the person who needed help.
He didn't drop a few coins in front of her and hurry off. He responded to her in a way that said, 'I see you,' and that was something that seemed much more important than the sum of money he gave.
Around me the grey rush of commuters hurried along, trying not to make eye contact. But I could see many were shooting quick sideways looks to find out what was disrupting the flow. And before me was this little tableaux—two people making a transaction filled with humanity and compassion.
A world of touch screens and no touching
Today's Rabbit Hole is me rambling about how we should pay artists, and I know the story I just told is a weird place to start.
I'm not using it to make some point about how our economy has reduced artists and other 'content providers' to begging—although this is true in some senses. Being without a home has no equivalent. It's not like anything else.
What I did want to do is highlight the brilliance of that act of giving, and the respect that comes along with it.
Our society is increasingly giving itself over to depersonalised systems of exchange. Our economy is becomingpost-human, and I fear we're starting to lose touch with the true human cost of many transactions.
Go to the supermarket, and the rows of checkouts where a person once stood are empty—replaced by self-service machines. Try to communicate with a company and you're likely to find yourself part of an automated circle-jerk, or being sweet-talked online by a chat-bot. Journalists will soon be replaced by programs that can write stories by themselves (I'm not f*cking kidding), and now with the rise of high-frequency trading, billions of shares are bought and sold every year by massive computers that work faster than human cognition can follow.
As much as I love where we are technology-wise, it bums me out in equal measure.
I saw the best minds of my generation without healthcare
I was listening to this lecture by Jaron Lanier—an internet pioneer who was one of the architects of Web 2.0, where the exchange of information was freed up and we all became content providers.
Lanier has since reconsidered his position, but originally he and his tech-friends thought that democratising information so that anyone could download anything would create a fairer distribution of wealth and power.
"For all those years, I was filled with expectations that when digital networking hit the world, what would result would be this huge wave of improvement—of well-being, of the spreading of wealth, of the creation of opportunity."
What happened was nothing like he expected. The renaissance never came.
"Instead what I saw [...] was the spread of austerity and recession across the developed world. I saw a reduction in the powers of the middle class [...]. I saw a loss of social mobility, and an intense concentration of wealth and power."
But the biggest change in Lanier's thinking came when he saw some of his musician friends struggling. Every week, Lanier—who is also a composer—found himself attending and contributing to fundraisers for people he knew who were middle-aged, who were sick, and who didn't have health insurance.
"I helped make up the 'music should be free' rhetoric. [...] What changed for me was looking at the real world. I was absolutely convinced that the music labels were evil incarnate and that if we freed musicians from labels, musicians would do better."
But, of course, it didn't turn out that way. A few artists, including Radiohead, have successfully marketed and sold their work directly to fans, but this method unfortunately hasn't taken off. It's a shame. When it does work, it's great. This week I paid five bucks to download one of Louis C.K.'s stand-up shows, which you can purchase directly from his site. It was awesome. And so cheap!
It felt good to buy directly from him. When I buy from iTunes or whoever, I never know who's actually getting the money.
Lately, Talyor Swift has done a great job of standing up for herself when it comes to getting paid. But she's not in the position of most artists. Seeing these epic fights between Swift and iTunes and Spotify is like watching the giant robots battle in the film Pacific Rim—it's fun, but it's not going to change anything for us mortals way down the food chain who have to pay to be artists; who can't afford private health insurance; who will probably end up with little to no superannuation.
Don't get me wrong, Swift deserves every penny. Why should companies whose only contribution to the world is servers large enough to cope with the sheer volume of demand for her work get more money than she does. Taylor Swift deserves to be Elvis-fat and obscenely rich. These companies couldn't thrive without people like her.
I'm not getting on my high horse about this. I've watched two of Louis C.K.'s shows on YouTube for free. It's just nice to pay artists directly, and it should be made easier. Louis on his site asks:
"Please PLEASE don’t torrent this special. If you want to share it, direct people here. It’s so easy to drop the 5 dollars. We don’t make you join anything. We let you use the file any way you want. It costs a shitload of money to make these specials and I do it myself. I love offering it to you directly for so cheap and so easily. I would like that to continue to be a good idea."
And my five bucks is most likely going to be spent on (1) his kids, and (2) him making more art.
Jello Biafra gets the last word
This week I saw a Facebook post by ex-Dead Kennedys' lead singer Jello Biafra that read:
"People are willing to pay $5 for a cup of coffee that costs pennies to make, takes minutes to prepare, is gone forever after one use."
"Yet millions of people won't pay $1 for a song they like, that cost thousands to record, can be used over and over again, took years of practice to create AND lasts a LIFETIME!! Respect the artist. Buy the music."
He's absolutely right. And it got me thinking—how much did I give to artists this week?
Five bucks for over an hour’s worth of entertainment? Crazy. Go, check out Louis C.K.’s site.
And, sh*t! How much money am I spending on coffee!