Ways To Live Online: Nothing Is Free
When you first find yourself on the internet, the temptation to download is immense. In my early days online, way back in university, I would seek out music and programs, but not films and select ‘save as’, as a lot of other people did (and still do). It was the days of dial up and because of a quirk of our local subscription package, our house had a free, albeit very narrow pipe to the internet. We would each have the connection for a night to get what we wanted. And what did we get? Just data. Sure we listened or used what we downloaded, but we never cherished what we had. We might quickly scan a record, but never get into it. The limitless possibilities of a software package meant that we rarely felt compelled to really explore what we had. After all, it had come so easy, there was no compunction to actually sit down and ‘get our money’s worth’. At the time, there was the justification to say, ‘well I would never have bought that record, or be able to afford that program, so no harm done.’ But harm was done, because our actions, no matter how small, do have an effect. If you take music for free, the artist doesn’t get paid for it. It’s that simple. If you download a package, you’re not adding to future development. It’s true some that the wholesale practice of downloading music has thrown up some interesting anomalies. I’ve read that the band Shellac were able to tour in countries they never released music in, precisely because their back catalogue was illegally available. But it’s also meant that acts are now forced to align themselves with commercial sponsorship deals, undertake gruelling tours and are put into an unfavourable position when it comes to negotiating with online streaming services such as Spotify. It’s true CD prices were ridiculous and arguably they encouraged fans to get their music for free, but there was a chance that a band could earn a fairly respectable living from their art. Right now it’s a pretty bad time, but I’d like to think it will get better. I absolutely do not download music for free and haven’t done so for many years, and the same for programs too. Aside from the fact it’s wrong. There’s no need. When I made music, I eventually ditched all my copied software to use free and shareware (that I paid for). Why? Because it was glitchy, and that meant it led me in all sorts of unusual places. It was also easy to learn and the limitations meant you had something to play off. I found it easier to create, but more importantly, it was way more fun.
As for recorded music, all you do when you download an artist’s entire back catalogue is fill a drive. It’s rare you discover anything new, you don’t value what you’ve stolen. Because of streaming services such as Spotify, SoundCloud and podcasts like the Marvin Suicide show, there are plenty of ways to discover new music. It’s easy to subscribe to the BoomKat new releases newsletter, cut and paste the artists you like into Spotify, or use and support Spotikat, and there you go, new music. What usually happens now is I’ll find a new record, stream it for a couple of weeks at work and then buy a copy on vinyl for home. Yeah, vinyl: it refuses to die because it sounds great and now thanks to 3D printers could become a really interesting format: print your own records at home. Print really weird records at home – bizarre gestalts of different sound files physically mashed together. You don’t have to pay much to get so much back.
But for all this to become possible a process of education has to happen. There can be no free anymore. And we have to get over this ridiculous notion that artists can’t ‘sell out’, because right now they’re being forced to do so to make a meagre living. We complain when a band sells out to the ‘man’ without accepting that we are all the ‘man’ to some degree or another. We have to be better. We have to accept responsibility for actions and realise that whatever we do online has a consequence.
Now with the news that the NSA has a nice fat Prism hooked up to everyone’s data, it’s starting to become pretty obvious that there’s no such as thing as free. We might not pay for Google and Facebook with money, but we do so with our privacy. How comfortable are with that? Would we continue to use these services if they weren’t free? I think we always knew what we accept as ‘free’ wasn’t really the case. Remember the outrage when Instagram changed their terms and conditions so that images could be sold for use in adverts? Didn’t you also think, ‘well how else is the platform supposed to make money if we won’t pay for it?’ I’d like to think we were on our way to a more subscription way of doing things. There are dozens of platforms I pay to get an expanded service: cargo collective, vimeo and until recently SoundCloud. (only because I haven’t had the time to really get the value out of paying for its enhanced service, but who knows, that could change). There was a movement, however nascent that we were starting to consider our way in the online world. The cynic in me now thinks that things will carry on the way they are: our infringed privacy is just the price we pay for the world we’ve created. But the romantic, believes that at some point, some of us realise the incredible power our laptops and tablets give us. Maybe we’ll write, make a movie, it doesnt matter if it fails. It’s a hobby, but we’ll pay for services that these tools support – even if it’s just for a little bit. We’ll be active, rather than passive. Or maybe it will be simpler than that. Maybe we’ll wake up and realise that if we want quality, we’ve got to pay for it: it will become commonplace to have a monthly service subscription – just like our cable service – to a variety of services – news, music streaming, creative platforms. And that subscription will be flexible because we’re not the same person each month. We stream more films in the winter, but upload more pictures in the summer. When we start paying for services, we’ll be consumers, and as consumers we’ll demand certain rights. We won’t be fobbed off by a fifty page, lingustically confusing document to use a platform. We’ll demand clarity because we have the power to spend our money elsewhere. And perhaps then we won’t stand for this intrusion on our privacy. We’ll use different tools and services, not because we have something to hide, but because our privacy is evidence of society’s very best ideal: that everyone is presumed innocent.
The bad new is this kind of behavioural change is likely to take years, and for it to happen we have to be active users of the internet, not passive as we are now. You have to give back, you have to pay your way. It could be a big action: with money. But it could also be a small one too; by sharing what you think and offering support. You’ll always get something in return.