“I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric. I’ve only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs.”
These words, written by college radio general manager and NPR intern Emily White, will probably go down in history as the most remembered in the great music file sharing debate of our time. White acknowledged that most of her music collection comes from CD ripping, provoking a stinging takedown response from Camper Van Beethoven star David Lowery.
“On a personal level, I have witnessed the impoverishment of many critically acclaimed but marginally commercial artists. In particular, two dear friends: Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Chesnutt. Both of these artists, despite growing global popularity, saw their total incomes fall in the last decade. There is no other explanation except for the fact that ‘fans’ made the unethical choice to take their music without compensating these artists.”
My colleagues Paul Riismandel and Jennifer Waits have written very smart posts in response to Lowery and White’s comments. I’m less sympathetic to Lowery, myself. Most of the protests against file sharing (or “file stealing” if you insist) I read from musicians and from the content industry seem oblivious to the larger context of the problem, an economic war on the young that shows no signs of subsiding, and which is obviously a critical factor in the free content craze.
“I also deeply empathize with your generation,” Lowery claims in his response to White. “You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality.”
What is so striking to me about Lowery’s commentary is its lack of empathy for White’s tech savvy generation, which paradoxically is looking down the barrel of the most dismal economic future that any wave of college students has faced in decades. Like Lowery, I too am a college teacher. But for whatever reason, I’m willing to notice larger factors in this discussion that Lowery doesn’t acknowledge:
• Tuition rates are rising at unsustainable levels for most college students. They rose on average at around eight percent at public colleges in 2011. But that’s nothing compared to California, the state that jacked up tuition to the tune of 21 percent last year.
• In response, students are borrowing more money than ever to finance their degrees. The New York Federal Reserve just issued a report indicating that student loan debt has now reached $904 billion in the first quarter of this year. That’s a $30 billion increase from just the previous quarter.
• Tuition hikes are only one factor in this spiral. As the value of their parents homes have collapsed, they’re contributing less and less to their kids college funds. The Federal Reserve says that household wealth in the US has declined by well over a third from 2007 through 2010 because of collapsing home values.
• When these kids graduate, an estimated 85 percent of them are moving back home with mom and dad, and taking low wage jobs like the ones offered by Apple Computer. Or they’re going to graduate school to rack up more debt.
Beyond finger wagging
This sad story didn’t begin with the Great Recession. It started around the time that the file sharing debate really exploded, around 2000, with the rise of Napster and other P2P services. That’s when income inequality in the US and elsewhere really began to accelerate. From that year onward, wages for most American households began to stagnate. Look at UC Berkeley economist Emanuel Saez’s chart on real income growth for most Americans: a miserable 6.8 percent during the Bush “expansion” of 2002-2007, wiped out by a shrinkage of negative 11.6 percent over the subsequent two years, and a pathetic 0.2 percent “comeback” during the Obama administration.
“Between 2000 and 2010, the number of children living in poverty in America increased by 41 percent, and now includes nearly one-quarter of our kids,” reports The New York Times.
Lowery’s screed is tone deaf to all of this. Then he offers a litany of device and access costs that college students pony up for.
“Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself? Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?”
“Congratulations,” he continues, “your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!”
This is way off. College students aren’t paying money for computers and data plans out of some malicious desire to hurt musicians, they’re doing so because they have to, just like they have to mortgage their futures to stay in school.
So here’s the Victorian message we older folks give college and high school students:
“We lost a bundle on our homes and we don’t want to raise our taxes, so you’ll have to borrow much more money for your education as college tuition costs rise. When you graduate, the best you can expect are low paying jobs and debt default. But despite all this, we expect you to collectively pay millions of dollars for one of the few commodities whose retail cost has dramatically dropped over the last decade: recorded music.”
Yeah, right. Good luck with this. What bugs me the most about these laments from musicians is that they give the impression that recording and performance artists are the only people who have suffered over the last decade. Sorry, but its been a little tough for teachers, manufacturing workers, radio and newspaper journalists, and about one hundred other categories of people, too—our children prominent among them.
I expect to get at least one response mentioning some rich brat from Harvard who shares files, plus a lecture about how “none of this condones stealing”—blah blah blah.
Look, I get it. I don’t rip CDs. I don’t P2P files. I dutifully buy mp3s on iTunes and Amazon. But let’s get real folks. We can debate the morality of file sharing until we are blue in the face. We can get the Federal government to regulate Google and the rogue sites via SOPA and other nasty proposed laws (if we really want to go that route). But bottom line: not a few of our kids are acting like economic realists because of economic realities. If we really want to fix this problem, we need to plug those realities into the discussion and start fixing them, too.