Freeloading

Chris Ruen

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Like many other lifelong music fans, I began participating in music culture during my adolescence. From the profits of a dog-walking job, birthday and Christmas money I bought my first CDs. A subscription to SPIN magazine exposed me to new artists and music journalism—and the high-stakes thrills of trusting a review enough to buy an album without having heard it. Music defined my self-image during those awkward periods of few friends and shapeless angst in the 1990s. So much so, that I soon thought myself to be one of music culture’s loyal citizens; somehow responsible for maintaining its vitality. As my library of hip-hop, post-punk, and trip-hop grew, I amassed a parallel collection of crotchety opinions about which music was worthy of public consumption and which artists actually deserved careers. As is the case with many misfits of postwar suburbia, I cultivated a sneering suspicion for top-40 radio, major labels, or anything that smelled of “corporate America.” Nothing stroked my self-righteous ego more than patronizing relatively obscure, small artists on independent record labels. I became, on some level, a music snob.

I grew older and began to engage with music as a writer and journalist, interviewing musicians and writing concert reviews as a college amateur and professional freelancer once I moved to New York City. Though friends with many musicians, I was content to play a writerly role: the outsider. I threw in my lot with the critics—leaning against a side wall of a rock club, straight-faced with folded arms— rather than with the creators themselves. I was entirely uninterested in humanizing musicians and didn’t respect the work that went into making an album. Music was just “there,” all around me, and waiting to be unearthed.

Because I had no way to appreciate the nature of recording, it was easy to disrespect musicians. If an artist I loved made a disappointing album, I acted as though I had been victimized by some criminal act. My subconscious separation from the artist became a matter of necessity. They were an “other” upon whom I depended to receive more of what I needed: good music. I put them on an inhuman pedestal when they made something I liked, and treated them like inadequate slaves when an album didn’t please me.

Recording music on the Minnesota farm exposed the ignorance, entitlement and jealousy underlying my previous relationship with music as a fan and critic. I never accounted for the time, focus, inspiration, drudgery, and plain luck that writing music—even mediocre music—necessitated. I never understood the tedium of completing a decent recording. I had no clue.

My appreciation grew for all the music I had ever loved, the human labor and mysterious inspiration that brought it into being for my repeated enjoyment. To have any career in art was a sacred thing; to count on enough support from fans to devote oneself to creating new works, sharing them with the fans who made their creation possible in the first place. What a democratic cultural ideal, I thought.

When the file-trading service Napster was peaking in 2000, I was entering my freshman year at a university where each dorm room came outfitted with new, juicy broadband connections, ideal for transferring large digital files. Nearly all of my friends habitually used services like Napster, burning the digital songs to blank CDs. I knew very few people who still purchased music, even in 2000. Multiple record stores in my Minneapolis college district closed in my four years there.

I pirated hundreds of songs during my college years, but I sensed disposability and devaluation infecting my relationship with music. Logging on to a file-sharing service was part of an addictive cycle. The trembling high of infinite rewards captivated me as I searched for whatever band or song I could think of at the moment. At the end of each downloading session, the disappointment of a still unfulfilled and unquenched desire followed. “Free” music and its perfect abundance felt awfully cheap in the final analysis. Piracy turned my genuine love for music into just another fidgety online addiction. It was an exercise in hyper-consumption: quantity over quality, breadth over depth, entitlement over ownership. Intuiting that my classic relationship with music (paying for it) was indeed a more spiritually profitable enterprise, and a hell of a lot more interesting and fun, I mostly stopped pirating when my online service of choice, Audiogalaxy, was shut down in 2002.

Anyone in my generation who paid attention to the litigious battles between Napster, Metallica and the RIAA instinctively gleaned that nothing was less hip than getting uptight about music piracy. Doing so aligned one with multi-millionaire artists, greedy major labels, corporate scallawags and thick-skulled Luddites. I resolved to avoid that particular gnarled and futile debate.

While purposefully ignoring the controversy of digital piracy through the mid-2000s, I assumed new digital models were emerging to replace the revenues of physical music sales. They had to be emerging, right? Considering all the capital and brainpower invested in the industry’s future, solutions would need to come sooner than later. In my mind, the controversy over piracy evidenced a perfectly healthy period of technological transition. As for the artists and industry heavyweights who predicted doom for the future of music: they were overreacting, obsessed with protecting their obscene profit margins. Piracy was arguably a positive development. It helped promotion-starved small artists connect with fans, threatening the unjust monopoly of bloated major labels. I didn’t hear of any independent artists raising their voices on the issue. Plenty of great new records continued to be released each year. The industry seemed to be doing just fine. How bad could piracy be?

Years on, I realized it. Something was rotten in Brooklyn.
 My Greenpoint café was frequented by members of various Brooklyn bands like TV On The Radio, The Hold Steady, Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer, and MGMT. From my traditional perspective of writer and fan, I saw the cyclonic press coverage of these artists, the breathless critical praise, and the sold-out dates around the country. In the sphere of indie rock, they were in the upper echelon—either one step away from being on a major label or already succeeding on one. These were the success stories of the Internet Age, supposed poster children for the triumphs of file sharing. But from my ground-level vantage point in Brooklyn—away from the Rolling Stone reviews, SPIN cover stories, and profiles in the New York Times—all was not as it appeared on the mediated surface.

After getting to know a handful of members from some of these bands, I was shocked by how little money they seemed to actually be making. As a measly young writer and part-time barista who had never even heard of a trust fund before moving East, even I had an apartment—that paramount symbol of fortune in New York City—as nice or nicer than those of some of these “rock stars.”

Sure, I thought at the time, multi-millionaire artists like Metallica don’t really need me to help them finance that fourth house, but what could possibly be the rationalization for refusing to compensate working artists who desperately need the support?

I suddenly observed the music scene in Brooklyn with both the perspectives of consumer and creator in mind, noting the music-buying practices of my friends, or lack thereof. My peers, twenty-something rock disciples and aspiring songwriters, obtained nearly all of their music by downloading unlicensed copies for free online, often well before album release dates. They rarely went to concerts or bought band merchandise like t-shirts or posters, rationalizations I’d heard others express for their downloading habits.

After purposefully ignoring the drama surrounding music piracy for years, I was shaken by its clear reality. Millions of fans, like my friends, had made up their minds that they no longer saw a reason to pay for the music they genuinely enjoyed and loved. Judging by the relative dearth of intelligent discussion I found on the subject online or in my immediate social circles, meaningful debate on the ethics of “taking” or “copying” one’s music for free had effectively ceased. For such a recent technological phenomenon, packed with so many quandaries for consumers and creators, the lack of discussion was genuinely bizarre.

I saw that no moral high ground existed in the debate over music piracy; neither thankless consumers nor litigious major labels could claim it. “Free” music didn’t discriminate between rich or poor, emerging or established artists. A growing class of consumers, spearheaded by my own generation, had been duped into believing that if it feels good to download your digital content for free, then it must be good. It was, somehow, the rest of the world’s fault for not adapting to the noble practice. A new future was emerging; delirious, ominous, and liberated from timeworn social codes and responsibilities.

As the depressing realities of the digital music era sunk in, I remembered something my older brother Peter said to me years before when we shared an apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. His words seemed innocuous at the time, but now simplified my thoughts on the consequences of piracy; why it might make sense to pay for content, even if you weren’t being forced to do so.

One day, Peter and I sat on the E express train as it clattered and squealed down the track toward Manhattan. When it lurched to a halt at the Queens Plaza station, the silver doors slid open and a mariachi band squeezed into the train car. They collected themselves and struck up a resonant, bittersweet ballad. The train passengers around me looked up from their books and opened their sleepy eyes at the first few guitar strums. Soon, most everyone had craned his or her neck to watch and listen together. The passengers took a pause from worrying about their next month’s rent, romantic woes, or defeated career prospects. My own frustrated inner monologue, about a day job in Manhattan I loathed, was silenced. Music made the trip endurable. The unheralded Mariachis collectively transported passengers’ minds to a better place, one that reverberated subconsciously. The intent passengers shared the beautifully painted time—a few moments of life joined with an immediate community by the mystical power and beauty of music.

The brakes squealed. Passengers tripped forward and swung their bodies back in an effort to regain their balance. Before the silver doors opened again, one Mariachi frantically offered an overturned hat to the passengers.When he passed by our seats, I saw that his sombrero already held a few dollar bills and quarters. Yup, he seemed to be doing just fine. I decided against giving him any money, as there was no compelling reason to do otherwise. What value would I be receiving for my payment? I had already enjoyed the music. There was no logical reason to pay. For his part, Peter offered a dollar before the Mariachis moved on to the next car.

“Those musicians were pretty good, actually,” I said to my brother as we later exited the train and took a staircase up from the bowels of Manhattan.

“Yup,” he concurred. “The thing is, if you like having that music around the city... you’ve got to support it.”

I instantaneously became defensive. What, was he trying to make me feel guilty or something?

No matter, after a few short minutes I realized the truth in my brother’s simple observation.

Freeloading Chris Ruen