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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Free Music

By Andrew F. Nunnelly, Crimson Staff Writer

At the beginning of this year, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that it was going to stop pursuing litigation against individuals who participate in illegal person-to-person music sharing and instead focus on its fight with internet service providers. Without the threat of lawsuits, music downloading essentially becomes legal based upon an absence of consequence. This raises the questions: what does music actually cost, and what are our obligations, if any, as consumers of music?

When Radiohead released “In Rainbows” last year, the band allowed their fans to ascribe their own monetary value to the music, asking them to pay as little or much for the CD as they saw fit. Other bands with large, loyal fan bases like Nine Inch Nails have since tried this experiment with varied levels of success. What this initiative ultimately amounts to is a kind of sentimental gratuity that fans can leave their favorite bands. Someone who gave Radiohead $10 for “In Rainbows” most likely did so out of a moral desire to reward the group for their work rather than a direct estimation of the songs’ monetary worth. Thus the question of music’s value is still unsolved by this scheme.

Of course, a Mastercard commercial would tell us that music is “Priceless,” and as far as emotional value is concerned, this cliché is right on the money. Perhaps monetarily, though, the correct phrasing consumers are looking for is “without price” or “FREE!”

When Beethoven debuted his Ninth Symphony 185 years ago, there were several things of which we can be certain, namely that there was no bootleg made of the performance, there were no “Best of Beethoven” CD’s for sale outside the concert hall, and Beethoven was not holding out on a record deal with Interscope. Why? Because a recordable medium for audio simply did not exist.

When Thomas Edison and others perfected the technology of the gramophone, consumers could start bringing the music into their homes, and live performance was replaced by a physical artifact. But unlike paintings or sculptures, whose existence is only susceptible to a gradual aging of the materials with which they were created, the physical medium of recorded music has been in constant flux since the first version of the technology was invented.

With subsequent evolution of storage formats, music has come to be valued in accord with technology pricing. 20-somethings from all of the last four generations have awoken one day to see their copy of “Sergeant Pepper’s the Lonely Hearts Club Band” drop precipitously in value since they first bought it: from vinyl to 8-track to cassette to CD. Quality of sound has changed in that time, leading to changes in prices, but the music that has made the leap from format to format has stayed the same. How can we say what it is really worth besides in emotional and aesthetic value?

With the rise of MP3 and streaming audio, the costs of production and distribution intrinsic to older media of audio recording are being diminished and sometimes phased out altogether. Following the above history of recorded music, one would suppose that without technology cost, music would once again be “priceless.” In a sense, years of technological leaps have brought us back to square one, where people no longer collect music in its physical manifestation, but rather appreciate it without any costly artifacts.

Unfortunately for us though, the artifice of the recording industry is too deeply engrained into our consumerist habits to simply celebrate this new freedom and set up free online catalogues.

Now the industry, ostensibly decimated by p2p file sharing, has decided that music—which they had only ever valued based upon its technology—has some intrinsic monetary worth. They have invested in and advertised for systems like iTunes, they have sued children and housewives for felony piracy, they have created anti-sharing technology like DRM and made music lovers’ lives generally miserable—all in the name of making money off a relatively recent physical commodity that people have come to believe they need to pay for.

As upon their first encounters with radio, the music industry has been slow to recognize the beauty of file sharing. They should embrace music’s performative origins and let go of selling the physical artifact once and for all. There is a lot more money in concerts these days, even for those who can sell albums. Consider the downloaded single a free preview that guarantees the band at least a $50 concert seat sale. Classical composers would have killed for that kind of advertising.

As it stands now, the consumer’s pecuniary obligation to the music artists and industry is extremely ambiguous, especially now that the RIAA has taken its suits off the table. On one hand, iTunes is making large inroads into the traditional music retail market and demonstrating that some are still willing to buy their music. On the other hand, the plethora of music blogs, “free sites” like Rhapsody and Ruckus (now deceased), official band websites, Myspace music, and even just the power of Google allow consumers to find free MP3s of just about anything they could want. Why, then, do they keep buying music?

Part of me says that it is guilt, paranoia, or morality while the rest of me sees it as simple stupidity. Consider for a moment music’s present and historic availability. Download as much as you want, go to concerts, and let it be up to the music industry to adapt to this hearkening back to a time before the music’s physical footprint prevailed in our lives. Music has been set free, so go get some. —Columnist Andrew F. Nunnelly can be reached at nunnelly@fas.harvard.edu.

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