The other day I thought to myself, "what the world needs right about now is yet another blog". So here it is.

I wish I could tell you what it's about. All I can say is that I'll attempt to string together a few decent sentences every once in a while. We'll see what develops.

Feel free to register and - may god have mercy on my soul - leave comments. Try to behave.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Busking - Part One

So the record business is lurching toward oblivion. Retail sales are in the tank. Most record companies are no longer willing to cough up the kinds of recording budgets that they used to. Threatening to prosecute half the planet (including, I've just learned, a certain someone very near and dear to my heart) seems impracticable, not to mention reprehensible. Even the head of EMI has admitted that "Suing fans does not seem like a winning strategy." Got that right. DRM (digital rights management) succeeds only in annoying and insulting those who are still willing to pay for music. I'm reminded of "The Future", one of Leonard Cohen's many prophesies:
things are going to slide
slide in all directions
won't be nothing
nothing you can measure anymore
the blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and has overturned the order of the soul

Granted, the old music industry - or, "the devil's riding crop" (see verse 2 of that song), now wielded with such enthusiasm by the RIAA - was never a great defender of the "order of the soul," but you get the idea. It's all sliding. The RIAA, record companies, distributors, artists... everybody knows (thanks once again to L. Cohen).

Now, perhaps the advent of free music is just the harbinger of a glorious new era dawning, one in which nothing costs anything. If so, fabulous. But, absent the full-blown arrival of that blessed event, the rules of capitalism still hold sway. Every other transaction in the chain (studio time, fees for the engineer, producer, and musicians, gear, electric bills, food, parking, parking tickets, car detailing, tarot card readings) all are still measurable the old-fashioned way.

This being the case, my first reaction upon becoming fully cognizant of this disorienting state of affairs (say, circa 2000) was one of consternation. Thieves! How dare they! That's my intellectual property their stealing! How do they expect us to make a living?! Etc. I've driven many a pleasant conversation into awkward silence upon learning that my interlocutor had just the other day downloaded my entire catalogue via Limewire. "Really!? Gee thanks. Say, I hear you sell riding lawnmowers for a living. How would you feel if I just drove one off the lot tomorrow?" But I don't do that anymore. I've seen the light.

Many years ago, I was a busker in Paris for a time. My favorite spot was the Métro - specifically, one well-travelled corner in the hive of tunnels around the St. Michel station. It was dry, the acoustics were great, the police didn't bother me, and the parisians were, well, if not effusive, then at least not totally unsympathetic. Those parisians were comprised of three groups: those who ignored me (unfortunately, a majority), those who stopped to listen (without contributing), and those who stopped, listened, and were then kind enough to leave some money in the guitar case. I did not get rich, but I did alright.

Come to think of it, there was a fourth group, comprised of exactly one person: the station-master inside the ticket booth down the hall. One afternoon, after having been hammering away for a while at some pointless, endless, drony, open-tuning guitar dirge, I began to notice many of the people passing by were smiling at me. Some were chuckling. I began to wonder what was up. I also noticed that that man in the booth had for some time been broadcasting a message over the station's PA system. Since the PA system was just as lousy as my french, I had understood nothing. Finally, one of the passersby approached me.
"Excusez-moi," he said. "Do you understand what he is saying?"
"No, not a word."
"He is saying that your song is very very boring, so please play a different one." Then, just as I was about to thank him for enlightening me, he added his own commentary:
"And may I say also that your costume needs pressing." I'm sure it did.

Anyway, I would argue that P2P networks are like the Paris Metro, or the choice street corner, with the users of those networks falling into the same three groups. I would no more expect every person who downloads my music on Limewire to pay for it than I would every passing commuter in that tunnel. Some are in a hurry. No doubt many agree with the station-master and just don't like what they hear. Others just don't happen to have any spare change at the moment. Is it reasonable to tell those people to cover their ears as they pass by? Does it make sense to banish them from the tunnel? Would any sane person advocate barring the doors of the Metro? Should we serve them all with subpoenas? Blow up the whole system? Of course not. And yet that is exactly what the RIAA and its lawyers would have us do.

Anyone encountering a busker in a subway tunnel knows that the music they're hearing could just as easily be heard for free as not. Why is that? Is it because the listener has found a new way to "steal" it without getting caught? No, it is because the music is - a priori, de facto - free. In the confines of the Metro, the music is soundwaves floating through a public space, offered up to the passing crowds, no strings attached. I can no more force you pay for those soundwaves than I can make you pay for the air they're floating through, or than two people standing in a crowd can charge anyone else who might have overheard their conversation.

And so it is in the case of file-sharing over P2P networks. In my view (that of a person trying to make a living creating music intended for other humans to hear), your downloading my song is functionally the same thing as hearing it in a subway tunnel. All of those zeros and ones that make up a digital file are analogous (reversing the relationship) to those soundwaves. The air in the tunnel is the software (the codec, the P2P program it travels through, your operating system). The floor, ceiling, walls, escalators, and doors of the Metro are hardware (servers, switches, modems, hard-drives).

The last word of the previous paragraph brings us to the "problem" (and to why this comparison is "functionally" rather than "exactly" the same). In the subway, once you've heard me play the song, you then continue on your merry way, carrying with you only a memory of the event. In the case of the downloaded song, the "memory" you carry with you is not really a memory at all. It is the thing itself, a perfect copy (more or less, depending on what codec you're using). If you want to hear it again, you do not have to return to the Metro, find me, and hope that I play it again. Whenever you want, you can hear it just the way you heard it the first time. So can an unlimited number of others, for free. You get to keep it.

That copy is what economists call a non-excludable, intangible, non-rival good (in plain english, something you can't hold in your hands, which can be used simultaneously by many people who cannot be kept from using it by the fact of their not having paid for it). The RIAA says that this "good" is (and must always be) "excludable". It "demands that knowledge and culture be rationed by the ability to pay. Alternative traditional forms, made newly viable by the technology of interconnection, comprising voluntary associations of those who create and those who support, must be forced into unequal competition with ownership's overwhelmingly powerful systems of mass communication" (Eben Moglen, the dotCommunist Manifesto).

For the busker, the free offer of music does not mean that payment is not possible (or desirable). On the contrary, the fact of its being offered freely creates the very conditions that make payment possible. Given the choice between someone who throws me a coin and someone who does not, I'll take the former. But, in keeping with the spirit in which the music offered, that payment must be voluntary, non-coerced. And this is what sticks in the throat of the RIAA. They have lost the ability to coerce payment. The nature of the medium has made it so. Moreover, this same medium has also taken from them the ability to coerce artists. We no longer need their permission to make a living. Because we now have at our disposal the mother of all busking spots: everywhere, or here.


Amanda said...

Mr Shindell, I'm very glad to have discovered your blog. I'd known your name for a long time but this year heard Lucy Wainwright-Roche do one of your songs and that convinced me to finally seek out your music (legally!). Of course I am ecstatic I did, and have been enjoying your records.

I'm not an artist so I hesitate to lecture artists about how they should structure their affairs -- I can't disagree if a muso holds file sharing to be theft and is outraged. Less empathy for the whole DRM debacle. I don't download illegally myself but surely your attitude is the way to go. Cheers and good luck.

Pablo said...


Missing from the analogy is the fact that you paid your fare to set up on the subway and entered this arrangement willingly. Yo do not post your albums on Limewire willingly, and there is no way, other than creating a model akin to shareware, to get compensated. You can't opt out of P2P either.
And besides, since was playing in the subway the ultimate measure of what being a musician is about? Desperate times call for desperate measures, and that's why we've all done it, but we moved on, didn't we... We practiced for hours, bought better instruments, made the recordings, etc.That's an investment, in any other line of work.
As we grew more capable as musicians, we grew more incapable to do anything else for a living. Now what?

Saludos from Brooklyn,


RS said...

Hi Pablo, my thinking exactly - that is before I changed my mind. I'll take your points one by one. But I do so in a spirit of absolute sympathy and understanding. I have felt your pain, brother. Sometimes I still do. I'm just trying to figure it all out.

1. "Missing from the analogy is the fact that you paid your fare to set up on the subway and entered this arrangement willingly."

- You're right. I had thought moving the analogy up to the street, for that reason. But I much prefered playing in the tunnels, for the acoustics. So I left it there. But the analogy would've been just as valid (assuming you think it is valid) in the street, where there's no fare to be paid. And yes, it's assumed that I entered this arrangement willingly.

2. "You do not post your albums on Limewire willingly"

-- I don't post them myself, but now I no longer object if my music is posted by someone else. Of course, if you're not persuaded by my arguments, you will object to that. I can't help you there.

3. "And there is no way, other than creating a model akin to shareware, to get compensated."

-- Now, I'd be the last person on earth to say that musicians shouldn't be compensated. In the immortal words of the GWB, referring to his job, "This is hard!" But it's just not true to say that "there's no other way." Leaving gigs aside, there are lots of other ways. Despite the fact the my songs can be gotten for free, a significant number of people continue to pay for them when they by from iTunes (despite DRM) or the like. People continue to buy tangible goods - less and less in stores, more and more directly from my website. The response to my Open Guitar Case has been, if not massive, well then at least positive. And the word massive is not one that has ever been used in connection with my musical career.

In the three cases I've just cited, there is a value added to the transaction. In the case of itunes, the added value might be ease of use, security, mac mystique, whatever. In the case of the tangible goods (physical cds), the added value is the art, liner notes, texture, and solidity of the thing. Finally, in the case of the Open Guitar Case, based on the notes they've sent along with their donations, I'd say they're just happy to have been given the opportunity to do what they know is right. I would argue that in the other two scenarios (itunes and tangible purchases) that moral component might be at work as well. We must appeal to this, and not to the law.

4. "You can't opt out of P2P either."

-- You're right. It's been forced upon us. It's disorienting. It's enfuriating to know that there are people out there who feel entitled to ignore the fact that this is how we earn a living. I know perfectly well that there are those who have downloaded all of my songs, who listen to them, who are not poor, who find value in the music, who know that I'm not exactly swimming in money, and who still don't feel any imperative to support the cause. I confess, that despite my open arms attitude, this continues to rub me the wrong way. On the other hand, perfect strangers thank me for giving them a place to compensate me for whatever value my music has for them. That's a beautiful thing. So, the big question is, What exactly has been forced upon us, the former or the latter.

5. "And besides, since was playing in the subway the ultimate measure of what being a musician is about?"

-- It's an analogy. I no longer play in the subway. But I take your point. I would answer by rephrasing your question: "Since when is maximizing the amount of people who hear our music NOT what being a musician is about?"

6. "We practiced for hours, bought better instruments, made the recordings, etc.That's an investment, in any other line of work. As we grew more capable as musicians, we grew more incapable to do anything else for a living."

-- All true, especially the last bit!

7. "Now what?"

-- I wish I knew. Like I said, I feel your pain. But one thing I'm sure of is that the RIAA is doing far more harm than good to people like us. Between us and the fans, they are creating an adversarial relationship where there should be trust, good faith, and solidarity. Their PR campaign should be met with ours. That campaign might take the form of advertisements featuring independent musicians saying something to the effect of, "Make no mistake, this is how I make a living. If my music has value to you, please show your support." We must appeal to their better angels rather than criminalizing the simple acts of listening and sharing. And, being an optimist, I believe we would see the tide shift in our direction.

Un abrazo,


Avram Mirsky said...

Hi Richard, still hoping you'll venture into South Florida again soon (I forever rue the fact that I was out of town when you played the Main Street Cafe in Homestead some years ago), that great Nexus of 21st century North American babylonia (ironically flavored so profoundly by our neighbors to the south). It must be interesting, to say the least, to reflect on the state of the EUA from a country like Argentina that moved through the horrors of the 70's and early 80's, followed by economic meltdown. Do Argentines other than the Mothers of the Plaza still talk about those times with a sense that they will never allow such a nightmare to re-occur?

Anyway, I hope your model of direct transaction works well. I was a charter subscriber to Todd Rundgren's essentially failed attempt to remove the middleman from his audience, and I ultimately concluded that Todd's out-sized ego was the source of Patronet's dysfunctional operation for over a decade. At least he never asked us to pony up subscription fees again.

Last night I had my first-ever experience of a stadium concert - Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The concert started late because of the slow pace of entry, as every ticket-holder was thoroughly frisked before entry. Frisked! I marvel at how passively we have accepted these sorts of indignities into our lives. It is a testament to Bruce that by the end of a 2 and 1/2 hour non-stop performance, I was actually able to transcend the milieu.

I've paid the piper - albeit the lowest grade - and will await the new album patiently. I look forward to one day being in the same place as where you're playing, perhaps even Buenos Aires.

Fred said...

I still lament the loss of Napster, when it was possible to get pretty much anything you could think of. The upside to its demise for me is that I spend marginally less money on CDs now. Every time I found some great tune (and I first heard you there), I'd run out and buy the whole CD so I could hear what else was on it. Still, I think your take on the question of how to approach the changing world of music availability and the tension between "sending it out to the universe" and making a living is a rather enlightened one. Responsible support for recording artists by those of us who are lucky enough to have an income evokes the wisdom in the formulation (mistakenly thought by many during the bi-centennial celebration to be a quotation from the U.S. Constitution), "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

spoco2 said...

Hi Mr Shindell,

The whole P2P thing has indeed been a real moral fighting ground to me.

I like to use P2P to see if I actually like something, be it an album, movie, whatever. And if I do, I go and buy the physical object. I have actually bought some music online, and I'm not that big a fan of it. I really like having shelves of CDs, all there with their liner notes and artwork, all there as my perfect backup of the music. Yes I then rip them all and play them as MP3s, but I like to have the real object. When I've bought online I've felt a little 'meh' about the whole thing, yes I have the music, yes I can listen to it, but I feel so much better for it being a more handy form of something I can go and pick up if I choose. I think that puts me in the 'out of touch' and not with it generation (which is pretty sad at 31).

However, I feel that myself and others who use P2P in this way are sadly in the minority. What I see so much of is people trying to invent justifications and moral arguments why what they download for free should be free. They try to delude themselves into thinking that what they are doing, by taking something that someone spent time, money and effort making without recompense, is right.

They are purely trying to sooth their consciences and the more you try to say that it's wrong the more outraged they get that you could possibly impinge on their right to take stuff for free.

And that's why, I guess, I've preordered your next CD, and also why I'm going to queue up Reunion Hill to listen to now, which is a rip of a CD I have sitting on a shelve to my right. :)

Also, I would definitely support you by coming to your live shows.... if you ever came to Australia!

Regards from Melbourne Australia,


Stu said...

I'm of two minds on this. I think the idea of making music free to all is a good one, in theory, and yes, there are plenty of folks who will in good conscience pay in order to offer thanks to the artist and to encourage further good works in her/his behalf. "In Rainbows" being the perfect example.

The other half of me is reminded by what was related to me when I got a counseling degree some years ago--if your clients start to drop off, raise your rates. This is only semiserious, of course, but does raise the issue of value. When one has to invest a portion of one's time and effort in order to obtain some good thing, it is held as more precious than if it is easily available at no expense to oneself.

I've been writing songs for years, too, and play them for friends for free. I've never made the brave leap of trying to support myself through my craft (which is my true vocation, as opposed to my occupation, which is working for an evil NA company). But if I had made that leap, and was absolutely dependent upon the income generated (Pablo's last point), I think it would be very hard to give it away for free, except to those that I know and love.

Anyway, still on the fence on this one.

JD said...

Richard, I first discovered your music when searching Napster back in 2001. I was looking for Dar Williams, but you and Lucy came up too because of Cry, Cry, Cry.

So I downloaded some of these songs, listened to them and downloaded more. And even burned a CD of them. I grew to love your songs so much that I have purchased every new CD of yours since and even some older ones. Actual physical CDs. (thanks for having songs on eMusic too)

Obviously, without the freedom to download freely, listen, delete, etc - I probably would've never discovered your music.

Now I've turned a few friends on to your music and we attended a concert of yours in Tampa a few months back. I'm also going up to see you before the Green River Fest in Mass in July.

And after discovering you... I've also checked out a few other Signature sounds artist.

So that stealing at the beginning..... well it was good for all parties.

CatsSpoon said...

This post was some time ago, but the debate is still current. I would like to say that I often test music before I buy it. If I like it, I often buy several albums, or several songs. Legally. Sometimes I order a CD to be shipped. The DRMA that is locking some music is a pain because when I change computers or ipods, I loose my permission to play what I have already purchased. This is a problem.

With the freeloaders, isn't it proven that the freeloaders are also the ones that spend the most money on legal music? So what is someone gets by on a song or two. Maybe they needed a charitable donation or two.

I do hope that the artists are able to retain some of the money that the companies filter down to them. If not, I guess the home production studio is getting easier and easier to work out for yourself. My brother is a sound engineer, and his studio is home based. His artists retain 100% of their profit, and only pay him a flat fee. He sets their fans up with low res DL's for free, and those that want better quality can purchase it. It works great I think.

I love your music, and I am happy to have downloaded several of your songs for free. I turned around and purchased something like 11 off amazon, and then two of your albums. So, a couple of free songs enticed me to get more. Thanks!