Interview – Chris Ruen

Brooklyn’s Chris Ruen is one of the most compelling and forward thinking critics of our current download culture, or FreeLoading as he calls it. Chris took a quick break from writing his upcoming book on the subject of digital piracy to answer some of M3’s questions…

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Chris – I am a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. I have been published by The New York Times, Slate, the New York Press, Cool ‘Eh magazine and Tiny Mix Tapes. I also spin records around bars in Brooklyn a couple of times a month. I started writing about music piracy (what I call FreeLoading) in 2009. One thing led to another and my book, FreeLoading: How Our Insatiable Hunger For Free Content Starves Creativity, will be published this Fall in the US and Australia — and hopefully many more territories when all is said and done.

What inspired you to write about music? What is your own musical background?
I don’t really see myself as a music journalist, per se, but music culture has certainly been a crucial part of my life. As an adolescent I got into ‘80s stuff like New Order, The Cure, The Smiths, etc. I graduated from high school in 2000, so the ‘90s were formative for me. A wildly diverse, contradictory time for pop music. Looking back, the fact that artists like Portishead, Tricky, Bjork, PJ Harvey or NIN were on MTV, on commercial radio, on majors, building big audiences and sustainable careers… There was a lot to hate about the CD era, but all that money sloshing around also contributed to some highly realized art being made, invested in, and enjoyed by millions of kids like me.

I subscribed to SPIN magazine back then and would devour each issue. If they gave an album a 9 and the review piqued my interest, I would just save up some of my dog-walking money and grab the CD without having heard a thing. I was heavily invested in music as a fan.

In college I started interviewing bands, reviewing concerts and reviewing albums. I wrote a column for Tiny Mix Tapes and freelanced for New York Press (RIP) after I moved to New York from Minneapolis, where I went to college. Some time passed and I found myself writing formulaic band features for very little money. Professional music journalism seemed less and less worthwhile as a career goal, so I basically stopped focusing on that world. Didn’t see much point in continuing as a music freelancer. That said, the book is very much about how we experience music and I’m sure I will do more music writing in the future, one way or another.

What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
Definitely vinyl, for the same reasons lots of people prefer vinyl these days. The “warmth” of sound, the artwork and the engagement with an album’s complete context. It’s just more fun. Now that I’m spinning records, I’m much more invested in that medium. Vinyl is also expensive, inconvenient, and very very heavy — so it’s not all roses and sunshine either. There are trade-offs with this stuff. Personally, I’m happy to trade some modicum of convenience or wealth for a higher quality experience, joy, pleasure or meaning. Vinyl is worth it to me and to a growing community of consumers, but I still have my CDs and appreciate that format. I enjoy the convenience of my iPod when I’m walking to the subway.

No matter where you stand on this question, it’s tempting to be a snob about why your consumption choices are superior to other people’s choices. But as far as formats are concerned, I think it’s all good. Whatever floats your boat. When I started writing about FreeLoading I very quickly realized that, as a writer, I had to do away with my own sentimentality or bias towards physical media. What I love about this moment in history is that all the formats you mentioned are still viable. It is somewhat seductive to imagine that now, because of the internet, EVERYTHING will be digital, that physical media is just going to be banished to history with the buggy and the milkman. But I don’t think many people really want that kind of a future as far as media is concerned. What is more boring than homogeneity? Consumers have diverse tastes and they will ultimately decide which of these formats live on.

Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
Yes and no.

The album format was invented as a result of the physical limitations of the record. Only so much room on that format, only space for so many spins. So, people were correct to wonder whether the album would survive the digital era. Today, there is no especially good reason for the 10 song, 45 minute album to exist versus a single or a five song EP or a 30 song, 135 minute song cycle. But if you look at digital sales figures over the past few years, you find something very surprising. Growth in US digital album sales has consistently outpaced the sales growth of individual tracks. It seems that music fans still enjoy that format and see value in it. An album is a big artistic statement and cultural touchstone whereas singles are pretty fleeting and easily disposable. And no one really wants to listen to a 135 minute long song cycle.

On the other hand, if you have chosen to believe that you are entitled to all the music in the world for free and get in the habit of downloading entire albums or discographies and then just scan through them once and forget about them, there is no question that you are robbing yourself of really experiencing that music, or that album. Because we only have so much time in our lives, the infinite abundance of unlicensed music does undermine the album and our ability to enjoy them. It pushes us toward fleeting experiences of instant gratification because we no longer have the patience or focus to invest in a piece of art. An old teacher of mine used to say, “There is a proportional relationship between the amount of energy and time you put into something, and the pleasure and meaning you will get out of it.” I think that’s a very true statement.

So, there is a paradox here. The album is being undermined, but it is also being valued more than ever because some music fans are choosing to invest in that format despite all the voices telling them that it doesn’t matter. As a music fan, I find that pretty heartening.

Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
The record store isn’t dead, but it is in critical condition and it’s pretty obvious what put it there. Some combination of the legitimate digital market emerging, the illegitimate digital market (FreeLoading) emerging and I think you have to also acknowledge the timing of the Great Recession, which took all of these shaky retail chains and just sucked up any hope for credit or consumer demand.

I think it is necessary, actually, that some record stores would close or that a lot of them would close given digitization. That was another sentimental notion I just had to do away with when I first started exploring this stuff — that record stores had any inherent right to exist. But the overwhelming success of Record Store Day shows you that people really love their independent record stores and want to celebrate them, if given the chance. I think the ideal scenario is that the casual and mass consumption — the chain stores  — that business disproportionately shifts online while the independent retail outlets that can truly serve a community survive, or even thrive in the digital age. That sort of happened in book publishing recently. When the Borders chain went out of business last year, independent retailers saw a sudden spike in sales.

Either way, consumers are totally in the driver’s seat on this. Music fans will decide — and are already deciding as a function of their consumer habits — whether the record store will live on. If we don’t support this stuff as individuals, it will go away, without a doubt. No government is going to bail out a fucking record store, you know?

The same applies for labels and professional musicians. Take the lazy acceptance of FreeLoading to its logical extreme and popular culture won’t vanish, but whatever remains will only be a proxy for the advertising industry. Of course, a lot of it already is. That’s a serious consequence of FreeLoading that people haven’t really talked about.

To your question, it would only be a tragic case if I wanted record stores to continue to exist, assumed they would survive, but then did nothing to support them myself and then they all closed. That’s closer to a “tragic” situation, but I would also totally deserve that consequence.

‘FreeLoading’ seems to be an apt description for what other people may term ‘file sharing’. Could you elaborate a bit more on this term and why you chose it?
Sure. I saw problems with both of the usual terms, “piracy” and “file-sharing.” I thought piracy was too harsh a word for what most pirates were doing online, downloading unlicensed stuff for free but also not trying to make money off of that content. It seemed that talking about piracy meant entering a discourse around theft, and I don’t consider illegal downloading to be theft. It’s a violation of legal rights, exploitation, infringement… okay but “theft” is a little clumsy. And accuse someone of being a thief and guess what will happen? They get defensive and pissed off and are much less likely to engage in a conversation with the accuser. But media companies like the word “piracy” because they are under the misunderstanding that it helps their cause. It just confuses matters more in the end. And once The Pirate Bay appropriated the word “pirate” the jig was up anyway. I have to give them credit for that, very clever.

So, “piracy” drove the discussion toward all of these irrelevant little side arguments and didn’t go anywhere in addressing the problem. Now, it’s important for readers to understand that I used to FreeLoad a lot of music, mostly when I was in college but I did it after college, too. With that experience, I know perfectly well that “sharing” has nothing to do with 99.9% of what is termed “file-sharing.” This isn’t brain surgery. If there is free stuff out there that you want and it’s convenient to get, and there are almost zero chances of facing punishment for the act, then of course lots and lots of people are going to do it. That doesn’t make it right, or smart, or progressive, or related to “free speech” and it definitely doesn’t have to do with “sharing.” Sharing, after all, is consensual! When you know an album is for sale on iTunes and you just do a Google search and download it for free anyway, that has zero to do with sharing.

So, I could see that “file-sharing” was equally agenda driven. It allowed FreeLoaders to just ignore the obvious nature of what they were doing and excuse themselves from facing reality.

If those words were poor symbols to be using, I tried to think about what might be better and it just sort of zapped into my brain one day sitting at a neighborhood bar. “Free” plus “Download” became FreeLoad, which came with its own meaning. I looked up “Freeloader” in the dictionary, which said, “A person who takes advantage of the generosity of others without offering anything in return.” So, the generosity derives from those who made the music, movie, book — and that includes the creator along with whomever the creator decided to partner with (the record label, publisher, etc). Remember that all of those parties are taking a risk by investing in these works and putting them up for sale. The music you love wouldn’t exist for you if not for that creator and their business partners, so it is only fitting for you to respect their choices and show some basic gratuity for their generosity if you are asked.

Obviously, digital technology and ineffectual policy has made it very easy to “take advantage” of that generosity. No one says we have to pay any artist, but that doesn’t excuse us from obtaining their work anyway just because one tool or another makes it an easy thing to do.

There is a lot of talk about revenues on this issue, which I think misses the real point. I like the word “FreeLoading” because it centers on what is really happening, that blatant disrespect of creators’ rights. And remember that copyright is also a human right. Check out the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 27.

As long as FreeLoading is as easy as it is today, I don’t expect people to stop doing it altogether. It’s very tempting, after all. But that’s why the change in terminology is so critical, because it acknowledges the creators’ rights, first and foremost. I could say, “I FreeLoaded the new Shins album today.” Even if you aren’t ready to stop doing it, you can at least admit to yourself and to others that you aren’t entitled to that album for free. That acknowledgement in the aggregate creates a much more reasonable, less defensive terrain for debate and hopefully increases the chances for us to resolve our feelings and habits as consumers. At least, that’s the idea.

There are definately a lot of people that seem to take access to free music for granted these days. Do you feel that the abundance of recorded music that is easily available on the internet has in some way devalued the art form?
I was in some message board debate on this stuff a few years ago and I saw someone write, “Under our current economic system…” as if that system were about to radically change. There is a lot of magical thinking on this issue, one example being that somehow not paying for your content is a revolutionary stance against evil capitalists, or something. It isn’t. The truth is that most of us live in some version of the market-based system and I don’t see that changing. I am unaware of a more workable general system. True socialism isn’t any more attractive to me than a “free market,” which is something people talk about as though it is a real thing (for a market to be sanctioned by law, it is inherently regulated and therefore not “free”). So, we are left with this system where we ascribe our own value to products through money and determine supply through consumer demand and government expenditures/taxes.

Someone who is a habitual FreeLoader may arguably be ascribing some value to content by spending their time with it, okay. That’s Chris Anderson’s so-called “attention economy” at work. But when the rubber meets the road, we ascribe value by the amount of money we will pay up for product x or experience y. That’s the way markets work. That’s reality. So, the person who knowingly FreeLoads is implicitly saying, “This stuff has no value. It has so little value that it is meaningless whether or not I reward its creation. It has so little value that it doesn’t matter whether I am exploiting the people who made it for me and invested in its creation.”

Ascribing value is a personal choice and doesn’t have anything to do with abundance (and keep in mind that the “post-scarcity” abundance of FreeLoading is illegitimate anyway as a matter of law). I know lots of people who spend a good chunk of money on music, and those people are making a statement: “This has value and means something to me.” A habitual FreeLoader is saying: “This has no value to me, but I still want it…” It’s a very opportunistic and conflicted position to take, so it isn’t surprising how silly and short-sighted a lot of the arguments coming from the “Don’t worry, it’s fine!” camp have been. It’s the easy route and the lazy route.

Again to your question, the wallet share of consumers going to recorded music has dropped dramatically since 2001, so if we are going to take our economic system with any degree of seriousness then, yes, in the aggregate music as an art form has been dramatically devalued. But concert revenues are up over the same period and I also know that there are people out there who are spending more on music than they ever have, so there are plenty of contradictions to be found. And the fact that in 2012 anyone pays for their digital music, much less that that market is steadily growing, tells you how much smoke was being blown up people’s asses throughout the 2000s, when Cory Doctorow and the collective digerati were so sure that charging for bits would be a disaster. It’s pretty remarkable how wrong they were.

Recently, there seem to be a large number of bands offering their releases for free via sites like Bandcamp. What do you think of this distribution method, do you think it is a realistic solution to the problem of illegal downloading?
I think it’s great and delivers on a lot of the idealism of the internet. If my arguments can be boiled down to anything, it is the principle that creators have the right to choose how their work should be distributed and decide who can benefit from that distribution. Bandcamp totally fits into that, but no more than record labels do. I have some of my own music available for free download on Bandcamp, so that should tell you how I feel about it.

Is it a realistic solution? No, I don’t think so. There are certainly people out there who are conscientious enough to support more direct forms of commerce, and I applaud those folks. Maybe Bandcamp makes it so blatantly obvious that the artists do want to be paid that some consumers begin to feel aware of what FreeLoading really is (illegal exploitation of the artists you supposedly love).

But the big battle here revolves around the human desire for instant gratification. If you feel entitled to all of this content out there and see no real consequences, you are probably going to continue downloading. I don’t know what the right punishments for serial FreeLoaders should be, but some form of common sense punishment is necessary. Though I imagine my position will evolve on this, at this point I see bandwidth throttling after repeated warnings, perhaps with minimal fines attached, as perfectly called-for. I’m not for ridiculously large fines against individuals we’ve seen in the past or for suspending internet access completely. Figuring out what fair penalties look like will be a process, and a messy one. But some punishments are necessary if the law is to have any meaning.

Do you think the digital age has rendered traditional concepts of copyright obsolete, or do you think they are still relevant?
It depends on what you mean by “traditional.” I’d say that means a balance between the public and private interest, in which case those traditional concepts were threatened by the entertainment industry long before the internet came along. I am strongly in favor of reforming copyright to a maximum term of 50 years in concert with greater measures to punish websites and services that, to echo the language of the dreaded SOPA, serve no significant purpose other than the facilitation of FreeLoading. The Pirate Bay guys or Kim Dotcom are amusing in some ways, but I am increasingly disgusted by any business that charges advertising or subscription fees on the mass illegal exploitation of artists. At best, they are looking for loopholes in the law to justify themselves, but there is no good excuse or justification for what they do. I am equally disgusted by the extension of copyright terms, which have essentially destroyed the public domain as it was intended. In that sense, the entertainment companies and legislators have been in serious contempt of the public’s rights and we should call them out on it.

There is plenty of blame to go around on this issue. We need to return a common respect for both the public domain, but also to the rights of artists whose works are still under term.

With billions upon billions of dollars being made each year by copyright-based industries, copyright is obviously still relevant. Anyone who says otherwise has blinders on. No doubt, copyright has been undermined and questioned but I see it as part of a healthy process. We ought to be re-evaluating what copyright is and what it should be given this radical new medium of communication. Hopefully we can recognize what is great about copyright and trim out the bad that has piled up over time. There is a need for greater education, more enlightened policy and also parents understanding these issues enough to talk to their kids about why creators’ rights matter. If we can do all of the above, I think we will be in for a golden age for culture and progress on a global scale.

Similarly, do you think some copyright laws could be seen a threat to certain artists’ creativity (those who make use of a large variety of samples, for instance)? Do you think actions with music, film, or any kind of copyrighted media for non-commercial purposes should be subject to legal sanctions?
I am a big fan of sample-based music, and there is definitely a point at which some possibilities for new works are threatened by some rightsholder interests. At the same time, if you are a poor musician and then Jay-Z uses a substantial sample of your work and sells 10 million albums off of that, aren’t you owed something? That is a very tough issue — sampling and fair use law — but I ultimately view it as a side issue to FreeLoading. And if the 50 year term came to pass, just think of all of the works that would be available for today’s artists to sample. I feel such a policy would address some of the concerns of Lawrence Lessig, et al. It’s also important to remember that Girl Talk, after all of the supposed controversy of his music and insanity of copyright law, has never been sued by anyone.

I don’t believe non-commercial works should be subject to litigation, but the problem with the internet is that the whole damn thing operates on paid access and advertising! The whole thing is commercial. So, that’s pretty problematic for the Free Culture movement. The ISPs are profiting by charging for access and transmission of bits; websites and services make money off of advertising or subscriptions. If you want to remix and experiment, fine. Just don’t post it on YouTube or pretend that the entire internet is a noncommercial space. Or post it wherever you want, but then accept the consequences and don’t act like you’re being oppressed when a song publisher comes along and has takes some issue with the fact that money is being made around their material. I’m not charged $60 a month to walk to the park to hear someone play a Bob Dylan song on their guitar — that is a free public space. And I can do whatever I want in my home, a private space. The internet falls under a different category.

Sometimes it is a drag when content is taken down from YouTube or a remix that people enjoy can’t be properly released, but the fact is we’re not entitled to everything and anything just because we happen to want it. There is a reason why these debates can get so collicky. The entitlement attitude reduces us all to being petulant four year olds, unwilling to accept the authority of legal or ethical boundaries. People still bring up that YouTube video of the baby dancing to Prince being taken down as some awful thing. But, it’s a video of a baby dancing to a Prince song! Who gives a shit?

What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
I think Ultraviolet, which is being introduced for film, makes a lot of sense and so does the iCloud model for music. We purchase the content for life and can access our digital copy no matter what new devices develop. Makes a lot of sense and seems to have a good chance to become the dominant model of consumption. That said, no one knows what’s going to happen and no matter what model becomes dominant, it will coexist with other models. The future of subscription is a big question mark to me. Some consumers like it, but so far not enough people to really sustain that model. Maybe that will change with improved copyright enforcement, or maybe not. I think Kickstarter and Bandcamp are going to be increasingly important for independent artists. Also, labels serve a huge function for artists and will be with us so long as people are still paying for recorded music. There will be plenty of artists choosing to release free content as well. We can expect much more chaos, more diversity and more choices going forward. Will CDs still be around in ten years? How big will the vinyl market become and will it be sustainable? No one knows and it will be interesting to see what happens.

Finally, what does the future hold for Chris Ruen?
I will be completing my final draft of the book this Spring and FreeLoading should be released in the US this Fall. Maybe a bit later in Australia, but I’m not sure. I am planning an event at my neighborhood bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn this October 20th. I will be reading the entire book out loud over the course of one afternoon/evening with participation from some of the musicians and industry folks I interview in the book. In any case, I am excited for the book to finally get out into the world. Hopefully it will give people an excuse to re-examine this issue of creators’ rights in the digital age more with the interests of independent musicians and labels in mind, rather than just the big entertainment companies.

To read more of Chris Ruen’s writing, you can visit his official website. Also, don’t forget to check out Chris’s in-depth look at the SOPA blackout, which was recently reposted on the M3 blog.

About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.


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