Grin and Share It

Like probably every parent of teenagers, I’ve had a few moments of being worried that the Recording Industry Association of America might sue my children.

I wonder if the heads of the major labels, or the studio chiefs, or the moguls themselves, are worried that their children or grandchildren (or Jack Valenti’s great-grandchildren) will be swept up in the dragnet. Or, on the other hand, is there some amount of reasonable confidence that the lawyers and PR people combing the list of downloaders for possible prosecution would not be so foolish as to round up the offspring of the very people who are doing the suing (and who are paying the bills for the lawsuits)?

It is possible that these entertainment-business honchos have actually sat down with their children and had a heart-to-heart discussion about the tragedy of downloading—it’s even possible that they’ve met with a receptive audience.

But unlikely. No parent wants to whistle into the wind.

If 40 million people are already doing this (in the U.S. alone), a power shift has taken place, a behavioral sea change has occurred, a generation gap has opened up that is so profound that all the suing in the world isn’t going to put the toothpaste back in the tube. What we have here is not miscreant behavior but a fait accompli. And, indeed, the various high-concept efforts and PR schemes to beat back the tide will fail because, inevitably, it is not just your customers who become your enemies (bad enough) but your friends and family (there are people in the auto industry who recall the horrifying moment when Japanese cars started showing up in Grosse Pointe).

And yet, even though resistance is futile, there is still a great deal of money at stake—and a great deal of money that can be spent on futile resistance. There are large legal departments working into the night, angry executives shouting “Do something!,” PR firms hotly bidding for the business (this has now, as a meta–media joke, made it onto the HBO show K Street, in which James Carville and Mary Matalin’s firm hopes to win some anti-piracy business), and lots of soldierly righteousness (“There is no issue in my life I take as seriously as this,” said News Corp.’s Peter Chernin the other day) standing in the way of everyone’s just admitting defeat. All industries instinctively try to defend themselves from obsolescence—usually at the point when they are already obsolete. Everybody goes a little crazy and shoots in all directions when they realize they’re about to lose their monopoly.

Of course, monopolies are always lost. Destructive competition always arises. The development of new technologies always screws somebody over in the end. And, relatively speaking, this is progress.

So I want to leap not too far into the future and imagine a world—after we finish suing people who are not relatives of media moguls—in which we accept the fundamental peer-to-peer exchangeability of digital media and attempt to turn lemons into lemonade.

Here’s the main point (which the entertainment industry is incapable of understanding or intent on obscuring): Music and movies and the act of distributing and selling music and movies are different things.

A middleman is always in a difficult position when it comes to defending the primacy of his middleness. So the entertainment industry has made the calculated moral leap of speaking not just for the distribution chain of command but for the integrity of musicians and filmmakers (which, to most actual musicians and filmmakers, is so extraordinarily shameless and Orwellian that many find themselves reflexively taking the side of the downloaders).

Now, of course, the entertainment industry does not really claim to speak for all artists and all music and movies, but rather for all mega-artists and blockbuster music and movies. If it could strike a deal to let all marginal artists be freely downloaded and to protect all profitable ones, it surely would.

But this, in a nutshell, is the problem: Blockbusters are the most affected by piracy, and less commercial work the least affected.

The industry’s argument—that without the industry itself setting the price and gathering and distributing the proceeds, there would be no incentives for the artists to create the product—is obviously spurious. Rather, there will be less incentive to create blockbuster products—less incentive, one might reasonably argue, to create predictable, homogenized, crummy stuff.

In other words, what we have here is potentially very good news: It doesn’t really take too much to imagine that the undermining of the present distribution systems will be a net gain for the quality of music and film.

If there is no way to make money off the mass-market blockbuster, then emphasis and interest returns to the creation of more individualized work (the people who were interested only in the windfall-profit margins go into other businesses). Art for art’s sake, even—wherein the business model emerges after the art is made. There’s the potential here for a cultural inversion. Instead of making products that we hope will sell, we instead make products that won’t sell very much, that in fact are purposefully designed not to appeal to the disposable culture—and most precisely not to appeal to teenagers.

Indeed, any parent who’s ever despaired about the pervasive influence of pop culture, the lowest-common-denominator sexing-up of every teen, the free-for-all of mindless vulgarity, ought to be slyly encouraging his or her kids to ramp up their downloading and hence help destroy the system. Pop culture eats itself.

In some sense, what you begin to imagine here is a pre-media-conglomerate condition.

There’s much less money available, so pride of authorship becomes a large reward. You’re looking for passionate devotees (who may actually pay) instead of the passing interest of a cheap-thrills audience. What’s more, because there is so much less money in the system, you remove the middlemen. Agents, suits, focus groups—gone.

Now, I know this borders on the idealized and sentimental, but bear with me. The industry is arguing the narrow legal issues. It’s arguing, in fact, many of the restrictive points it helped enshrine in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It argues, too, on a moral level (however prosaic): Downloading is just a form of shoplifting.

But the industry Sturm und Drang is in some sense much more akin to the keening about unfair competition and the plaintive calls for new protective measures that invariably occur when industries are under siege from cheaper producers overseas. The entertainment industry is like Big Steel or Detroit or the apparel manufacturers. Entertainment, like those other industries, can claim that it is being laid low by the disloyalty and perfidy of its customers and the lack of protection afforded it by an ungrateful government, but soon enough it becomes clear that, simply, somebody else is doing its job cheaper and better.

“Even though resistance is futile, there’s still a great deal of money that can be spent on futile resistance.”

Movie studios and music companies achieved their wealth and monopoly because they offered a more efficient distribution system. Now that system is being trumped by the greater efficiency of peer-to-peer exchange.

It is not lawless teens who are wreaking all this havoc but the marketplace.

In fact, the courts and legislature will surely be predisposed to protect the entertainment industry, as they are inclined (at least initially) to protect all important and powerful sectors of the economy. Entertainment is, after all, not only one of the largest industries in the U.S. but one of our most successful exports.

Still, the real aim here, which some but certainly not all entertainment executives appreciate, is not to stop the downloading but merely to slow its impact. A soft landing would be nice.

But it isn’t the end.

Or it is, relatively speaking, the end of significant aspects of the content-distribution conglomerates. I suppose you could even argue that downloading is, consciously or not, a form of passive resistance. Gandhi making his homespun. A stand against perceptual imperialism! (It is notable how music and movie producers, once glamorous, are now widely regarded as grotesques.) But it certainly isn’t the end of movies or music—or even schemes to make money off movies or music.

Producing, manufacturing, and distribution, which represent much of the value supplied by the entertainment industry, are now pretty much idiot-proof. You can make music and movies without most of the costs that are now inherent in the entertainment-industry systems—and many people are.

As mass-market pop culture is being ripped off, another mom-and-pop culture is slowly moving into place.

If you think back to before the rise of the entertainment conglomerates, you get to a music industry made up largely of transitory, hit-or-miss labels. Tin Pan Alley. That’s where we’re heading. From there, a new music business will be formed. Likewise, the movie industry, which, in fact, is now riding high on selling the DVDs that will provide the digital wherewithal to steal the industry out from under itself, will shortly find itself as moribund as it found itself in the sixties—with television having eaten its lunch and the independents (and yes … foreign films) mocking the movies it did produce. And, quite possibly, the movie business will, as it once did, bounce back in some new sort of creative seventies (even without all that cocaine). Failure is regenerative.

And it’s worth mentioning, however much your children download, pop culture itself, alas, still won’t go away (although some of it will, and pop stars will be paid less, which can only be a good thing). It just gets invented somewhere else in the entertainment-distribution chain. If the music companies can’t invent the stars that MTV needs, then MTV will merely invent them itself (as it already does). No biggie. Indeed, the amateur-hour reality shows are doing just that.

There will, naturally, be economic losers. And I do not want to be so heartless as to say that in this instance virtually all of the economic losers deserve to lose, and that almost nobody will ever mourn their fate—but sometimes capitalism does have a sense of humor.

Anyway, the point here is our children (as Whitney Houston might say). And what they’re doing right now. And what we should be saying to them—what the Recording Industry Association of America would have us say (the threats they would have us make), or, alternatively, something about the larger historical forces at work and about this being a very interesting time in which to observe the passing of economic and cultural worlds.

Which, of course, they’ll be so very eager to hear all about.

Grin and Share It