Hip to the Groove #10: Oh, For F**k's Sake
by Tom Körp
Hip to the Groove #10: Oh, For F**k
Joey Comeau once observed that the human brain is a “pattern recognition machine”, capable of spinning intricate webs of seemingly valid and important connections from mere cursory allusions and outwardly unrelated circumstances.

Which is pretty much on-the-mark from a psychological perspective. Cognition, intuition, information processing, critical thinking, decision making, and procedural memory all rely on one’s ability to extract sensory information from one’s environment and formulate or adapt one’s behaviour accordingly, with certain sets of stimuli becoming “sorted” and “stored” over time for easy reference and quick reaction. Abstract concepts such as language, mathematics, aesthetics, and music, for example, all require one to perceive and remember the relationships to, meanings of, and associations between any number of individual elements—sounds, glyphs, objects, shapes, colours—and then be able to recall, reproduce, and rearrange them as needed. Sounds into speech and song, lines and curves into letters and numbers, letters into words, numbers into equations, objects into tools, shapes into symbols and structures, colours into portraits, et cetera.

Given the use of rote teaching methods like the ABCs, spelling tests, multiplication tables, the colour wheel, and the recitation of musical scales, it’s safe to say that humans are extraordinarily receptive to, and conditioned for, the perception of patterns. Likewise, whether by nature or by nurture, the human mind craves order, and it regularly seeks to derive meaning from external stimuli, or to impose it thereupon. In his comically morbid faux-job application “My Father Was a Great Man” (part of the Overqualified collection), Comeau simply takes this mental facility for pattern recognition and the implication of associative meaning and skews it towards the abnormal tendencies of apophenia and pareidolia. Faces in the wallpaper, shapes in clouds, patterns in static—cognitive false positives which can engender a foundationless sense of wonder, amusement, mystery, and dread—the imaginative blessings of the creative savant and the delusional curses of the paranoid schizophrenic.

Although Comeau’s essay is only tangentially related to the topic at hand, his concise, memorable description of the potential pitfalls and empty promises of false patterns serves as a handy self-check for the observational writer, a reminder to reign in one’s haggard hobbyhorses and edit out one’s perilous preconceptions. (Rule #1: “Correlation does not imply causation.” Rule #2: “Anecdotal evidence is not proof.” Rule #3: “Try not to overuse parenthetical clarifications.” Ahem.)

Be that as it may, I couldn’t help but notice a handful of seemingly ready-made (and positively infuriating) cognitive connections which arose during the past week or so, and set about mentally pushpinning and string-linking digital clips and scattered ephemera like some made-for-TV conspiracy theorist. The process may be a bit haphazard, but bear with me, now…

In late August, I had learned that Philadelphia post-punk trio Algernon Cadwallader had just released their second full-length album, Parrot Flies, which I quickly mail-ordered from No Idea. But a few days later, whilst ripping the newly-acquired CD to my digital music library, I performed a quick Google image search for the album cover, iTunes being reliably useless when it comes to automatically downloading artwork for small-press releases. This, in turn, led me to the French (yet not exclusively francophonic) music blog Still No Change, which is where my present rant begins.

Still No Change is one of “those blogs”—the Internet is lousy with them—which provides downloads of unauthorized rips of recently released albums (Parrot Flies included). All of which, in this case, are accompanied by the following legally dubious disclaimer:

The albums posted here are for preview only, if you like the artists, please support them by buying their records. And if you are an artist and want us to delete any album we have posted please send us an e-mail at stillnochange@gmail.com

Aghast at the naivety, cheek, and awkward punctuation of the above disclaimer—and simultaneously confronted by the unsettling self-knowledge that, little more than half a decade ago, I would have been downloading just about everything that Still No Change had to offer—with the reckless zeal of an undergraduate, no less—I took to the ol’ Book of Faces to semi-publicly vent my spleen in 500 characters or less, as is my curmudgeonly wont. Casual, cathartic e-griping ensued, but the underlying issue of guileless and guiltless music piracy continued to fester in the back of my mind. Not a good place to be, that; things there tend to get out of hand relatively quickly.

Specifically, my complaint against album-ripping music blogs is threefold, and it is by no means limited to, or solely directed at, Still No Change:

Issue the First: If the unauthorized uploading of an album was truly “for preview purposes only”, wouldn’t it be provided as a stream (say, via Box.net or Soundcloud) rather than as a straight download? Let the visitors hear the music without actually having it, yeah? What about providing links to the artist’s website, or to retailers whereat listeners can legally purchase the album? After all, a “preview” implies the potential for a purchase, physical or otherwise, yet music blogs like Still No Change make little to no effort to facilitate one. Rather, they likely preclude it.

Issue the Second: Physical album sales are in the pisser, and the ongoing trend is towards digital album purchases via portable media players, smartphones, and tablets. As such, what real incentive does the “previewing” listener have to purchase an album, physical or otherwise, if s/he has already acquired a high-quality rip and summarily transferred it to a portable device? Similarly, what percentage of the casual listeners who frequent rip-centric music blogs like Still No Change will invest the time and capital required to see a (relatively rare) live performance, let alone buy a t-shirt, poster, or album from the merch table?

Issue the Third: Furthermore, why should a band or record label be required to contact a blog in order to tell its administrators to remove unauthorized content? Why should anyone be required to tell another person that s/he should neither steal intellectual property nor traffic copies of said property without the consent of the author? What in Hell ever happened to copyright, droit d’auteur, and the Berne Convention?

Granted, I have no doubt that there are artists and performers who would welcome the added exposure which music blogs like Still No Change provide. The thing is, the very appeal of added exposure is that it enables artists and performers to increase their listening audience, and thereby to increase their revenues from album, merch, and ticket sales. Larger crowds mean larger venues, longer tours, increased merch sales, better touring accommodations, and (inevitably) better album production, all of which are undoubtedly good things for the artist. After all, it costs a goodly amount of money (and energy) to record and produce an album and to tour in support of it, and the incentive to do either is greatly diminished when so-called fans would rather abuse the artist’s goodwill (via digital freeloading) than financially support his or her creative endeavours. Honestly, if one truly enjoys an artist’s work, one should be more than willing to pay for the privilege.

Speaking of albums and artists, a recent (and remarkably forthright) blog post from the Anglo-French art-folk project Uniform Motion has outlined the distribution-related expenses and projected per-album revenues for the band’s latest independent release, One Frame Per Second. No mention is made of recording or mastering expenses, but the very specific revenue breakdown is as follows:

Spotify: €0.003/song; €0.029/album (~1667 listens = €5)
Deezer: €0.006/song; €0.052/album (~833 listens = €5)
eMusic: $0.29/song; $2.60/album (approx.; varies by subscription)
Amazon MP3: €4.97/album (70% gross)
iTunes: €6.28/album (70% gross)
Bandcamp: €3.88/album (given optional €5.00 donation)
CD: €4.34/album (net)
Vinyl: €7.75/album (net)

Moreover, as Uniform Motion notes in their blog, it costs €35 a year to keep a single album available on iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon; with three albums, that’s €105 a year in digital shelving fees, thereby requiring annual sales of 24 digital albums (alternatively, tens of thousands of Spotify and Deezer listens) just to stay in the black.

Similarly, with a manufacturer’s required minimum order of 250 units for the vinyl version of One Frame Per Second, Uniform Motion estimates that they will need to sell 72 LPs in order to cover the cost of production. While this may not seem like an unreachable sales goal for any decent independent band, keep in mind that Uniform Motion only produced 350 physical copies of One Frame Per Second (250 vinyl, 100 CD), which are only available via mail-order and at live performances. If and when that initial run sells out—and hopefully nets Uniform Motion the full €2300—it’s all digital until such time as the band sees the need for a second pressing.

Bit of a problem there. A Google search returned no less than five music blogs (all in less than half a second!) whereat one could easily download an unauthorized digital copy of One Frame Per Second at no charge whatsoever. (Notably, Still No Change did not appear to be among them.) Not to mention the fact that Uniform Motion themselves have embraced the pay-what-you-want honour system for digital downloads of the album via Bandcamp, effectively undercutting potential digital sales through Amazon, iTunes, and eMusic.

Honestly, I’m hard-pressed to find the logic in that particular business decision. The album is already free to stream via the Bandcamp website; why give a potential buyer the option to download it at no cost? The Internet is a bargain-hunter’s paradise, and nothing beats “free”.

Which leads me to the last part of my not-so-loosely-related ramble. Months ago, I had availed myself of a clearance sale at the local Blockbuster (yes, they still exist!), whereat I acquired, amongst other things, a used copy of the Irish indie flick Once. I finally sat down to watch the film this past weekend, less than 24 hours after reading Uniform Motion’s aforementioned blog post, and but a few days removed from my initial online grousing about the ethical laxity of music blogs like Still No Change.

Right off the bat, I was struck by the opening scene of Once, in which Glen Hansard’s nameless busker fends off the unwanted attentions of a shifty-eyed junkie who has been ogling the handful of Euros in his open guitar case. After a brief, remarkably polite altercation—the rolling Irish “fook” serves less for angry emphasis than for harried punctuation—and a quick chase down Grafton Street, the frustrated busker eventually catches the winded and apologetic junkie just inside St. Stephen’s Green. Cue the following conversation:

Busker: “Look, don’t fucking rob me. I’m down there trying to fucking make a living like anyone else.”
Junkie: (breathing heavily) “I know. The two of us is on the same team, man. I’m sorry, right? I’m sorry, man. But you’re right. You’re rapid, you are.”
Busker: (pause) “You want money, just fucking, just ask me for it. Don’t have me chase you all the way up the street for it.”
Junkie: (uncertain pause) “Want to give us that fiver then, do ya?”
Busker: (bitter laugh) “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Here.”
Junkie: (pause) “How’s your ma?”
Busker: (incredulous sigh) “She’s dead, man.”
Junkie: “Well, how’s your old fella?”
Busker: (waves him off)
Junkie: “Fair play to ya, right?”
Busker: (sighs) “I’ll see you later, all right?”

Isn’t that just the plight of the modern musician writ small? Hansard’s busker knows that he’s going to get ripped off. He knows that it’s going to be a waste of time to chase after the thief, and an even bigger waste of time to remonstrate him for his cravenness. He knows that, even if he does catch him, he’s already been beat, that there’s no point in retracing his steps to pick up the small change he’s lost along the way, that there’s nothing he can do to keep the rubes from messing him about any other day of the week. Hell, he even knows the junkie, and calls after him by name to stop running and return his guitar case. Worse yet, the cheeky, thieving scoundrel actually has the gall, when caught in the act, to compliment the busker for his musical ability, and then asks if he can keep some of the money anyway. Just a bit. ‘Cause, y’know, we’re all in this together, right?

Granted, filching junkies have an excuse for their behaviour, however slight and self-inflicted. Not a reason, no; certainly not justification. But there remains some small sliver of pitiable humanity in the drug-addled wretch that encourages one to want to help rather than to harm.

Not so for the digital freeloader. For my part, I can think of no such excuse for the callous denial, if not blatant theft, of an artist or performer’s due by the anonymous, album-ripping masses of the Internet, let alone the “who, me?” attitude of blog-based enablers like Still No Change. You want to help promote an artist? Write a review or share a link to a song and a legitimate website. You want to own an album? Pony up the cash which you obviously have, considering that you’re downloading music to a computer and/or portable media player that is easily worth hundreds of dollars alone, not to mention monthly ISP and mobile fees. Otherwise, you’re just some pathetic jackass, stealing a mere pittance from those who sweated and strained to earn it in the first place, then claiming to love and respect and support them for what they do.

I mean, really? Really?

Oh, and for fuck’s sake—artists, stop giving it away for free. If an album was worth making in the first place, then it’s at least worth a fiver to own.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Features (September 8th, 2011)

Tags: beatbots, features, hip to the groove, music piracy, music industry, still no change, uniform motion, once, glen hansard