Has The Notion Of Stealing
Become Obsolete
When It Comes To Music?

By Beppe Colli
Apr. 16, 2012

Like environmental pollution, corrupted politicians, and the "natural unemployment rate", illegal file-sharing has by now become "just another item in the landscape". But in so differently from those aforementioned entities, nowadays illegal downloading appears to be a practice that's completely devoid of any perception of wrongdoing or illicitness, a perfect specimen of the "victimless crime" category, an exploration that will enrich (as in "adding to the cultural, intellectual, or spiritual wealth of") those who practice it, and "a natural condition of being" for young people who've come of age in the "downloading era".

Putting aside all considerations about its economic consequences (something which is admittedly quite tricky to measure with any degree of accuracy, given the highly doubtful notion of "depriving someone of potential sales"), illegal downloading has the quite funny side effect of making music magazines announce as "Exclusive!" something that's already been on everybody's pc for at least a couple of months.

But once in a while something happens that will make those consequences entailed by the practice if illegal file-sharing appear as new. This being precisely the case of the imbroglio concerning a recently-released album I'm going to talk about in a moment.

In the last couple of years I've often mentioned Do The Math, the excellent blog by US pianist Ethan Iverson, a musician who's quite well-known for being a member of the jazz trio The Bad Plus, but whose activities are not limited to said trio. It so happens that a recent album by The Billy Hart Quartet, of which Iverson is a member, was the source of a lively debate.

It was about mid-March when Iverson posted a thread whose title - All Our Reasons? - obviously quoted the title of an album by The Billy Hart Quartet on ECM which - while not being on sale yet - was nonetheless easily available on various music blogs. Iverson was quite shocked by those grateful comments where downloaders thanked those bloggers for ripping and uploading an advanced copy of the disc.

All legal and moral issues aside, Iverson's approach was eminently pragmatic. While The Bad Plus, he argued, are a reasonably established line-up, strong enough to survive most punches, the same cannot be said of The Billy Hart Quartet. If no one buys All Our Reasons because it is uploaded everywhere on the Internet, producing a follow-up will be almost impossible.

Iverson's thread was followed by an open debate going under the title Forumesque 10 (Forumesque being the umbrella name of all open discussions appearing on Do The Math). And I think it could be argued that maybe the presence of a thread that appeared in the double bass Forum page of a website called Talk Bass had a part in this.

Among those who posted in that thread, I immediately noticed somebody called Damon Smith, whose double bass work I remembered hearing on an album called Healing Force - The Songs Of Albert Ayler, which I reviewed. On drums, Weasel Walter, whose acoustic trio I had caught onstage a few years ago - and could the very fine bass player I saw that night be Damon Smith? I really think that the whole thread is worth a read - long and quite detailed, it's accessible on Talk Bass. Here I'll just make a few comments about  some ideas put forth by Damon Smith.

This is a direct quote: "Nobody broke into the ECM vault and stole the album. The management at ECM decided to send out promos (probably digital) fully aware of the existence of file-sharing and it leaked. Adults made an informed decision that press and radio play was worth this risk." (...) "Adults putting their music into a file-sharing world are in a sense agreeing to that inevitable consequence."

It goes without saying that Smith did not "justify" the practice of illegal file-sharing. He simply acknowledged its existence as a widespread activity. He also made a very personal distinction: " If I download without pay a Mark Dresser or Barry Guy album it is depriving them of sales. This is the sticking point for me: We need to continue to support artists we care about."

Maybe because I had not read such debates in a very long time (which I assume to be evidence that illegally downloading - and uploading! - files is nowadays seen as "a perfectly acceptable practice") I was struck by seeing the very same arguments I had seen many times before. "If I steal your car, you don't have your car anymore; but if I copy your file, you still have your file". Then, the classic variation on "record companies won't fail for this", now being "jazz musicians never got any real money from record sales, so nothing will change for them if they lose this money". And so on.

In my opinion the questionable point of Damon Smith's argument is his belief that the current state of affairs is without  remedy. But as we know ("deriving rules from facts is wrong") the circumstance that a fact exists doesn't entail that we "are in a sense agreeing to that inevitable consequence." If one thinks about those "discriminations for reasons of race, gender, or sexual orientation", or those linked to one's social conditions, the fact that the majority thought that kind of behaviour as being perfectly acceptable, or the fact that the majority didn't even perceive things the same way, didn't convince minorities that their condition was entailed as an "inevitable consequence."

Sure, at a macro level "society" today appears to tip in favour of those making hardware and those who are Internet providers, not those who make their "content". And it's true that the widespread perception of getting "free goods" as a "fact of life" is totally indifferent to the consequences of that practice. But can it be said that the kind of "volatile" consumption based on the "whim" that sees all objects as "fungible" is an attitude that's shared by all types of music consumers? And that we all are callous to the fact that - while nowadays music is free to travel all over the world as a file - it'll be musicians that'll be tied to a "local" dimension, being unable to buy a ticket to catch a plane in order to take their music to other places?

More or less at the same time, I happened to see on The New York Times (March 28, 2012) an article by Stuart P. Green (a professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark) titled When Stealing Isnít Stealing. I think this is the key passage: "(...) we should recognize that the criminal law is least effective - and least legitimate - when it is at odds with widely held moral intuitions." So we are back to the eternal debate about "mores", and the difference between "social norms" and "legal norms", and so on.

Only time - and the music we'll listen to in the future - will tell us if, and how, we'll be able to give an adequate answer to those questions.

© Beppe Colli 2012

CloudsandClocks.net | Apr. 16, 2012