I’m not a musician. At first glance, then, it seems a little odd that I’ve taken so much time to write a lengthy response to David Lowery’s letter to Emily White about filesharing and the effect it’s had on the music industry.
I take a position on filesharing and the free exchange of copyrighted works that surprises many people I meet. Because I’m a writer, they assume that I oppose all forms of unauthorized copying and distribution, that I resent anyone who wants to “steal” my work, and that I’m afraid that filesharing will ruin publishing—as it ruined the music industry. They get a little annoyed, and indignant, when I tell them that I think our copyright laws are fundamentally flawed, that universal access matters more to me than copyright protection, and that selling used books is just as much of a copyright violation as exchanging copies of an e-book online.
I also tell them that as far as I can see filesharing and the Internet hasn’t ruined the music industry at all. It’s radically changed the economic model of how the business works, taken a great deal of power out of the hands of the major labels, made distribution easier but publicity more complicated—yes, all those things, but it hasn’t reduced the number of performers or stifled the dizzying growth of new genres and subgenres, and it certainly hasn’t decreased any young musician’s desire to get into the business. Quite the contrary. (Just look at The Voice).
David Lowery, on the other hand, attests very strongly to the human cost (or what he believes to be the human cost) of filesharing on independent musicians, going so far as to implicate people like Emily White in the tragic deaths of two of his friends, Vic Chesnutt and Sparklehorse. His argument comes perilously close to a kind of Paradise Lost rhetoric, a nostalgic paean to a time when fair was fair and…you get the idea. He also offers what I think is a very conservative, and reductive, account of why copyright matters to musicians and other artists. For all these reasons, I think his work deserves a detailed (and, I hope, respectful) response.