The darkness of ignorance.

With apologies to Shakespeare; I thought it was an appropriate title given the subject at hand. In case you missed it, a few days ago a 20-year-old intern at NPR posted an article that (to put it mildly) engendered lots of discussion, and the comments keep coming. 

The post (which appeared on the official blog for All Songs Considered) is an intriguing combination of ignorance, stupidity, and entitlement simultaneously. Sadly, I’m sure it also reflects a dominant cultural mindset- that recorded music is and should always be free on demand, and that this credo has absolutely no effect on all those rich musicians who are getting ripped off by their labels anyway.

For the record, I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to be making a decent living playing classical music. I also worked my a** off since I was about five years old to build and sustain a career in a field that virtually no one can comprehend these days (including most musicians). I realize I’m in a very small minority, and don’t take it for granted for one second. I also understand that recording fees or royalties will only be a tiny fraction of any musician’s income these days, due to massive changes in business models and the digitization of everything.

So I find it contradictory (to be kind) that a music “fan” working on a nationally syndicated music program believes (or patently implies) that all recorded music should be free (or almost free). David Lowery wrote a compelling response here, and hopefully Ms. White and the rest of the ASC staff took the time to read it. It’s also worth noting that in the classical field, a number of artist-oriented labels have popped up over the last decade or so, including two I have worked closely with- AVIE, and Innova. Nobody’s going to get wealthy recording classical music (maybe any music), but at least both of those labels treat the artists with respect.

Ms. White raises obvious issues regarding fair use and (to be blunt) theft. But some other questions stuck with me- should NPR be hiring “free culture” advocates for their music programs? Ms. White is of course free to express anything she likes, but was the ASC blog an appropriate forum for her views, or does that amount to an endorsement? Did anyone at NPR actually proof her post before it went up? I’ve been a huge NPR fan, but do they truly not comprehend who the core listeners/patrons are for ASC and their other music outlets, and if not, why  send them money or federally fund them at all? Incidentally, why is WVAU (or any radio station) allowing people to sit on the floor and rip the whole library to their laptop (or is that a staff perk)? To their credit, NPR posted this in response to all the noise, but I personally found it a little uninspired.

Ms. White is 20 years old; I certainly recall way too many idiotic ideas and perspectives I had at that age. She’s been mostly vilified in the comments, and has probably paid a hefty price amongst any musicians paying attention. On the upside, her piece definitely opened up (continued?) a robust discussion, so perhaps she will eventually broaden her perspective and start buying a few tracks once in awhile.

Or even support my Kickstarter project.…..

5 thoughts on “The darkness of ignorance.”

  1. Our “collective conscience” doesn’t consistently extend to that which we can’t see in front of us. Face to face, immature, desperate people, or those with sociopathic tendencies may be prone to immediate deception and theft, but well adjusted folks are not. On the other hand it is psychologically far easier for us to cheat and deceive one another when we are out of sight, tucked away behind our computers rather than facing each other in an open market. It is easier to simply accept this reality of the human condition, and try to create systems to address it, than it is to become embroiled in the textured discussions of moral relativism that the issues raise, but the discussions can’t solve.

    In contrast to the libertarian notions prevalent in some circles these days, the kind of potential accountability provided by government must play a critical role if we want to protect society from the these sorts of easily rationalized, anonymous ravages. As a society we don’t self-regulate. Left unchecked, we treat one another pretty badly. So we need enforceable laws to protect the things we value as a society. Of course this requires that we agree on what we value, and that is where legislation comes in. It also should be noted that without consistent enforcement of penalties that have meaning for those that transgress, such rules will have little effect: intermittent penalties, or punishments that “fit the crime,” do little to shape behavior.

    In this instance music lovers bend the rules to grab music without paying, even in the face of the reality that they might not have the music at all after a while if artists can’t get paid for producing it. We shouldn’t be surprised. Behavioral analogues exist in society almost everywhere we can look simply because it is human nature.

    Ms. White’s post is a clear demonstration of why we need enforceable rules and penalties if we want to protect the economic engine of artistic endeavor that recorded music has been. If artists can’t get paid for their work,and must lose money to produce new work, far less work will be produced. Without clear and meaningful penalties consistently enforcing rules, perfectly normal folks like Ms. White will continue to behave just as she does, in complete ignorance of the threat to the future of the material they so cherish. I don’t think it helps to judge her: rather lets create a structure to shape behavior to protect the things we value as a group.

    Just because the creation of such rules gives rise to corruption doesn’t mean we should abandon the effort: rather we should strive and fight for transparency and accountability and accept that struggle as a necessary aspect of dealing with human nature. That actual enforcement of such rules requires technological intervention raises serious civil liberty/privacy questions. These are topics for another day…

    Stefan Hersh

  2. I’m glad to see you mention the WVAU connection. What I gathered from White’s NPR article is her time at WVAU is seemingly where she developed her habit of ripping music to build her library. Perhaps ironically, that music was likely purchased legally and the station pays all of the requisite fees etc. necessary to maintain its broadcast license.

    I do believe that good people can make bad decisions if the immediate environment doesn’t make it clear the thresholds for acceptable (not to mention legal) behavior. Granted, ignorance of the law is no excuse but that doesn’t mean we can all shirk the greater responsibility of educating younger generations. Perhaps White’s example is a representative case where slack efforts are producing unwanted results.

    For example, in the instances where White apparently copied music at the radio station, the station is at fault every bit as much, if not more, than White for not properly training and monitoring student staff members. Moreover, depending on the nature of the relationship between the station and the parent university, American University, then the school may absorb much of the fault as well.

    Free culture arguments notwithstanding, White’s case seems to be one of several missed opportunities to instill the understanding and history of why artists and their art have value.

    Treating digital piracy like the drug war and focusing more on penalties at the expense of education, transparency, and support is only likely to produce similar results. However, if given the choice to do the right thing while understanding the reasons behind it, most people will; and for those who don’t and know better, yes, that is the time for penalties.

  3. Thank you for your excellent response to Ms. White’s post. Perhaps her attitudes can be seen in the context of a “cheating” culture that is taught to devalue labor. She puts a great emphasis on convenience. To my ear, a CD still sounds better than a download (and a live concert is better still) but is a listener of Ms. White’s generation happy to settle for convenience over quality? If you play a download and begin e mailing, tweeting and checking Facebook (as this sort of listening encourages) are you really listening with the same attention?


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