April 6th, 2006


Pirates have a proverb: if your boat is sinking, don't sue the water

More tales of piracy today. A story in the LA Times, Sinking a music pirate, details the cautionary tale of one Mickey Borchardt, a student arrested by the FBI and involved in a criminal trial for illegally trading music files online. The RIAA are not sueing him, but are clearly behind this, and have recorded a propaganda video in which Mickey "repents". Mickey talks in the LA Times article about his deep shame about his former life as a buccaneer on the high seas of P2P. He has become a collaborator, a shill. The message is that property is property and theft is theft. He pled guilty in March and will be sentenced in May "in the same courthouse as Zacarias Moussaoui", which, symbolically at least, can only mean one thing: the death penalty. But, while that's no less than Mickey seems to think he deserves, it won't mean much; he's already ritually disembowelled himself on behalf of the RIAA and its message.

I have a few things to say about this. First of all, Mickey, as a recording artist I have to say "Thanks for dying one thousand deaths, but you have not died for me. NOT IN MY NAME!" The RIAA's cause is not mine. If I have to choose between being an industry bod and being a pirate, well, I choose piracy every time. The free blue waves of the high seas of musical adventure win out over the fenced green tombstones of the money-property graveyard. Of course they do.

Let's take a case in point. Some reckless buccaneer with a music blog has posted the whole of the new Stereolab album Fab Four Suture. Here it is. Now, I know Stereolab personally. I wouldn't say they're exactly friends, but we've played together, appeared on panels together, and so on. How do I feel about downloading their stuff? Well, I feel it's okay. I agree with the general impression that (like the music industry itself, some might say) Stereolab have been coasting for a while. They keep releasing the same record. It's a nice record, subtly arranged, pleasant. But I've bought it quite a few times already. So I feel justified in just downloading this new one.

No doubt some people will feel the same way about my new record, Ocky Milk, and that's fine too. These "unconvinced" listeners will at least listen, even if they don't buy. That may not matter to the RIAA, but it matters to me as an artist. And even if these people don't buy this record, they may buy another one, or they may come to a live show, or they may pay for a track off iTunes or E Music.

Or, you know, one of these downloaders may have sex with me, or give me a column in a magazine, or ask me to come and give a talk at an art school, or collaborate on a project, and that will lead to, you know, marriage, or a surprise twist in the career path, or something equally amazing. "Peer-to-peer" can mean much more than just sharing music. To the RIAA, a "peer" is simply a freeloading customer, a source of monetary loss. But to me a peer is a person, the source of all sorts of possible gains, quantifiable or not. To the RIAA, with a business agenda but no human agenda, that peer engaging in P2P can only mean the loss of dollars. To me it can mean the possibility of barter (the theme of artist Carolina Caycedo's work), but also friendship, communication, and a million other human possibilities.

Live At the Witch Trials is an article on Pitchfork about the RIAA's persecution of P2P pirates. "Recorded music sales worldwide have dropped by more than 15% since peaking at nearly $40 billion in 2000," says entertainment lawyer Steve Gordon. "Although sales of digital singles on iTunes and other authorized digital services have multiplied in volume, they have not earned nearly enough income to offset lost income from declining CD sales... I tend to believe there is a cause and effect between P2P and declining music sales -- but that the record companies exacerbated the impact of P2P by (a) Overpricing CDs, and (b) Failing to give music lovers a high quality low priced alternative to P2P."

Exactly. But it's bigger than that. The record industry pays too much attention to incremental changes in sales figures and too little to the big picture: the sea change the internet has brought, and the big navigational changes we need to make in order to respond to it. The important questions are the ones the RIAA isn't asking. Does music want or need to be property? Does it want or need to be an object? What happens when you get a number one single without selling a single CD? Is it worth becoming a beastly, litigious and unpopular person for the sake of a lost 15% and a rigid adherence to an outdated (and unjust) business plan? Shouldn't the music industry instead be thinking about the post-atom bit and the post-bit atom, developing a new focus on non-digitizable forms (concerts! performances!), or looking at how physical music objects might enhance themselves as niche products?

I still like CDs. As an artist, that's one of the things I make. I want you, ideally, to buy my CDs. They're the best platform for me to communicate from, and I put a lot of work into getting them right. I commission beautiful sleeves from James Goggin, I get John Talaga to design morphs between tracks that make no sense at all if you're listening on an iPod shuffle. I prefer the AIFF format to the mp3 format. It sounds a bit better. I have other issues with mp3, but they're mostly about music saturation and the risks of audio pollution of the environment (the subject of my next Wired column, as well as a Click Opera entry last month). I do think buying CDs is virtuous, but it won't always seem that way if the people selling them appear as vicious as the RIAA currently does. We pirates have a proverb: if your boat is sinking, don't sue the water.

There's no high moral ground when you're at sea, but if you want this whole thing in landlubber language, nobody puts it better than Saint Matthew, apostle and evangelist: "Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knows that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."