“Nothing Left to Lose: What Happens When Music Becomes Worthless?” by Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2007)

Nothing Left to Lose: What Happens When Music Becomes Worthless?

by Jay Babcock

Originally posted Oct 1, 2007 on Yahoo’s Arthur blog

In a few days Radiohead’s new album In Rainbow will be available on a pay-what-you-like basis to anyone who wishes to download it from them. Take it as a acknowledgment of what everybody already knows: in the digital world that the transnational entertainment-communications conglomerates have done so much to summon in the last 25 years, without apparent regard for the long-term consequences, recorded music—music that people used to buy—has become free. For established artists like Radiohead—or Prince, who launched his new album via a CD tacked on the front of a British Sunday newspaper, or his lordship Paul McCartney, who debuted his latest album through Starbucks, or (worst of all) the Eagles, who are releasing their new album exclusively through an anti-union discount store chain that shall remain nameless—this is all fun ‘n’ games. Like most artists, they’ve witnessed the music industry’s legendarily shady accounting practices for years, incredible feats in which record companies stayed in business yet somehow, when it came time to pay the creators, never made a dime. So it’s gotta be a big kick for all of these dudes to be able to thumb their shapely noses at those who have been screwing them for years. They ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more, and they’re telling us all about it.

Well, good for all of these guys (except the Eagles, of course). It’s hard to shed a tear for mega-corporations whose record companies are run by beancounters who are bad at math. And most of us weren’t likely to buy a new Radiohead album anyway, so “free” just means some of us will download it, listen to it and delete it. No loss there for anyone, I guess. Meanwhile, Radiohead will receive tons of applause from not just their loyal fanbase, but also the “information wants to be free” internet booster contingent. They’ll be the subject of every music-related conversation for weeks. And will rake it in at the turnstiles, as they always do, when they perform live. Though their music is now worthless, Radiohead’s value as an income-earning entity has increased. Savvy.

But hold on. What happens to those no-to-low-income artists, many of them doing signficant work, who haven’t established themselves in the pre-burn/download era? Going deeper, what happens to the entire infrastructure of artists, enthusiasts, record labels, live venues, stores and media (TV, radio, print, etc) that made Radiohead’s ability to give away their music possible in the first place? What happens to this ecology, unbalanced and out-of-whack as it already was, when its currency has become almost completely worthless?

The most immediate effect is already apparent: there are fewer and fewer mediated (or, curated) places devoted to music. In America, which has an underdeveloped commons, those places are marketplaces: in other words, record stores. And the really good record stores in this country—the ones owned and operated by knowledgeable enthusiasts, staffed by dayjobbing musicians and music freaks, local clearinghouses of art and information, where meaningful discoveries and lasting connections have historically been made—started disappearing a few years ago and extinction seems to be nearing. What’s going to replace these stores? The schools got rid of significant art appreciation and application long ago. Public libraries, our repositories of cultural knowledge, are criminally underfunded and understaffed. Publicly funded performance venues of all sizes exist all over Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, but good luck finding such spaces in the USA.

These spaces are important, because by containing elements of both chance and quality control, and by being in the real, physical, analog world, they increase the quality and complexity of communication between people. You take those away and you guaran-goddamn-tee a society of atomized, alienated consumers, disconnected cubicle people who gaze at computer screens more than each other’s faces: humans, in other words, in love with machines. Which, I guess, is what “Radiohead” means. Goodbye, art, community and communion: hello, paranoid androids.

Jay Babcock is editor/owner of Arthur Magazine