I’m a little late to the party, but I just finished reading your letter. You know the letter I’m talking about, right? The one you wrote to an NPR intern named Emily White and then put on the web? I don’t want you thinking I’ve been going through your mail. I’m assuming you know how the Internet works and meant for us to read it.
I don’t need to remind you of the details, but I will anyway, because this letter will also be on the Internet where other people can read it, and not all of them are familiar with what went down. Basically, Emily wrote a thing for NPR about how she has 11,000 songs on her iPod and only paid for a few of them. You responded with an entertaining and thoroughly detailed explanation of why she’s a fucking thief, and then the Internet exploded.
Most of the things you told her weren’t huge surprises. I already knew that online piracy is destroying the music industry and leading us towards a dystopian future of rock star shanty towns and singer/songwriter hobo jungles. But I had no idea that artists were dying because of this! If that’s true, I’ve got blood on my hands. I’ve stolen music. A lot of music. I’m not even going to give you a number. If I did, you would get into a car right now, drive to my house, knock on the front door, and punch me in my fat fucking face. It’s a big number, let’s just leave it at that. And I’m not even a part of Emily’s generation of mp3 pick pockets. I’m 43, old enough to know better. But after reading your letter, I feel genuine remorse. And not just for the music I’ve stolen; all the other stuff too. A decade ago, I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, and I had no idea you were supposed to pay. I just walked in and nobody stopped me or asked for a ticket. I saw Janis Joplin’s psychedelic Porsche. I saw Joey Ramone’s leather jacket. I saw Michael Jackson’s bejeweled glove. Those memories are in my head, and they’re all stolen. My eyes were like shoplifters. Now I wonder, what if I was retroactively harming the musicians I claim to love? I don’t know how that would work, but you can’t get something for nothing without hurting somebody. Because I didn’t pay the $22 to see Jim Morrison’s Cub Scout shirt, it’s arguable that I helped kill the Lizard King a second time.
But as compelling as your arguments were, I had some problems with them. And I feel okay telling you because I’ve never stolen any of your music. In fact, I bought the vast majority of it. I own pretty much everything Camper Van Beethoven ever put out (excluding a few EPs and singles) and most of Cracker’s discography. I willingly and happily paid for it, with only a few regrets. But that’s just an inevitable part of being a music consumer. You’re not going to LOVE everything. But after reading your letter, I’m having a change of heart. Remember when you told Emily she owes $2,139.50 for all the music she’s stolen? If that’s the new rule, I should mention that as much as I loved Telephone Free Landslide Victory, I only really liked a few of the songs. I bought it first and foremost for “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” which was and remains awesome. I also have a fondness for “Where The Hell is Bill?” and “The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon.” But that’s it. Which isn’t terrible, by most album standards. But the thing is, if that record was released today, I would’ve listened to the samples on iTunes and just bought those three songs. At .99 per song, that comes to roughly $3. I paid $9 for Telephone Free Landslide Victory at a record store in 1987 (the same price it’s going for on iTunes right now, weirdly enough). So the way I see it, you owe me $6 for the music I bought and didn’t want. That’s fair, right? If Emily has to pay for the Velvet Underground songs she was given by her senior prom date, you should have to pay for the Camper Van Beethoven songs I had to buy blind. If she’s paying for old sins, so are you.
You referred to “artists” several times in your letter, which could mean anyone who makes art, but I’m pretty sure you meant “just musicians.” I don’t believe for a second that what I do is art, but I am a writer, and that falls in the general category of artist. Maybe you’ve heard, but I’m getting screwed, too. In the 1990s, when I was just getting started in this business, writers got paid. Occasionally it was a token amount, but it was always something. You only wrote for free if it was a ‘zine and you were funding and distributing it yourself. But if a piece of writing was meant for public consumption, there was money involved. I remember talking to an editor in 1997, and he wanted me to write for his magazine, and he told me, while cringing, “I only have the budget to pay you $1000.” He felt bad about that price! And I felt like I was being ripped off! $1000? What kind of self-respecting magazine pays their writers a lousy grand? Greedy dickheads, that’s who!
You already know what happened next. The Internet happened. People started writing blogs, and suddenly everybody was a writer, and everybody was willing to do it for free. For about a year, I had a weekly column for Vanity Fair‘s website. You know what they paid me? I’m not going to tell you, it’s that embarrassing. I didn’t make enough every month to cover my rent. And I live in Orlando. I live in fucking Florida, and I couldn’t afford to pay my rent, before utilities, with what I was being paid by Vanity Fucking Fair Magazine! I’m not whining about it, David. I’m just saying that if you and I were sitting in a bar right now, and you offered to buy the next round, I wouldn’t do a fake reach for my wallet. Fucking right you’re buying the fucking beer, Mr. Teen Angst.
I have an artist friend named Holly. She makes amazing paintings, and I have quite a few of them hanging in my house. But I didn’t pay for any of them. She gave them to me because they didn’t sell at her gallery shows and she needed the free space in her studio so she could make more paintings. I have one hanging over the bathroom in my office that I call “The Purple Vagina” because I think it looks like a purple vagina. It’s fucking awesome, you should come see it sometime. But I didn’t pay for it. I own it, and I look at it every day, and I really, really like it, and it didn’t cost me one cent. Not long ago, she and her boyfriend and my wife and I went out to dinner, and when the bill came, I thought to myself, “I should pay for this. I should do something to demonstrate that her art means something to me, and is worth financial reciprocation.” But I didn’t. We split the bill halfsies. Are you familiar with that Louis CK routine where he talks about sitting in the first class cabin of a plane, and he notices a U.S. soldier in economy, and he considers giving up his seat to him but ultimately decides not to? That’s exactly what it was like. I didn’t pay for Holly’s dinner, but I did think about it for a second, and like Louis CK said about his almost selfless act, “I was proud of myself for having thought of it.”
I already know what you’re going to say. There’s a big difference between giving your paintings away for free to a friend and a musician having his intellectual property stolen on Pirate Bay. There’s a difference between being in an industry that no longer values or pays their talent and an industry where all the merchandise is being ripped off. You’re right, of course. There is a difference. But on a fundamental level, it’s the same thing. It’s still artists doing things for free when they’re rather be getting paid. And unlike you, the rest of us aren’t being whiny bitches about it.
It’s hard and unfair and brutal to do anything creative, especially in a world where there’s an endless trough of content, and it’s lost any monetary value. Trust me on this, nobody is being paid what they deserve, or what we think we deserve, and we’re all angry about it, especially those of us who’ve been around long enough to remember when you could make an honest living in a creative field. But do what the rest of us do. Stew silently in your bitter juices. Or get drunk with your artist friends and rail against the parties responsible, waving your fists at invisible enemies with McCarthy-esque fury. Vent in private, and if you feel the need to write a 4000-word essay about how NPR interns with overstuffed iPods are killing you softly with songs they downloaded illegally with file-sharing software, go ahead and write it. And then put it in a box with the letters to ex-girlfriends you never sent because you realized what a terrible idea it was.
Here’s my proposal, David. You pay me $6 for the Camper Van Beethoven songs I never should’ve bought. (Make it a fin and we’ll call it even.) I buy my friend Holly dinner for the purple vagina painting I love so much. I stop stealing music altogether (I’m not kidding) and you stop reading anything for free on the Internet. Let’s start with this letter. If you read it (and I doubt that you will), pay me what you think is fair. $5, $50, whatever you can afford. It’s enough to know that you value my words as much as you want me to value your notes.
It’s not going to be easy, but I think we have the collective willpower to do this. After all, we’re not a part of Emily’s grabby generation, are we? We’re older and wiser and we know the value of art.
Let me know and I’ll send you my PayPal information.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MTVHive.com.)