Wednesday, March 28, 2012

ACTA's Silver Lining

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is the latest attempt by the global alliance of rich countries to control what they consider to be their intellectual property. If passed, it will allow governments to more easily censor the internet, arrest and imprison people for theft on the internet (downloading songs, movies, etc.), and it will cause the price of various pharmaceutical drugs to skyrocket. If passed, it will allow the drug companies to make even more obscenely massive profits, and, in theory, it will allow the recording industry and Hollywood to return to the level of profitability they used to have, before the internet came along.

Luckily for us regular thieves, there are Important People opposing ACTA and other such treaties (and proposed US laws, such as the recently-defeated PIPA and SOPA efforts). Our strange bedfellows include the likes of corporate giants such as Google and Intel. Being from Intel's home state (by complete coincidence I'm sure) Senator Ron Wyden has lately developed the gumption to suggest that if the US is going to be a signatory to ACTA this should require Congressional approval. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration, thinks this is not necessary.

I don't know whether ACTA will pass – it has a lot of multi-billion-dollar corporations on both sides of the equation, as well as a growing, global social movement in opposition to it. But what really galled me was getting my latest copy of International Musician, a soporific publication that is mailed to every dues-paying member of the American Federation of Musicians every month or so. On page 2 the president of the union was beseeching the members to support legislation protecting intellectual property – he didn't even mention a bill by name. Presumably we should support any such bill that comes along the pipeline. He wrote that we should support these bills because stealing IP on the internet "hurts working musicians," actors, and others involved with making movies and musical recordings.

The inconvenient truth is, this is a load of crap. There is a class system in place here among what the union president calls "working musicians," and for the overwhelming majority of us working musicians, the system doesn't work, never has, and isn't going to be improved by draconian measures to stifle the free nature of the internet or issue massive fines or arrest warrants for downloading or uploading music, films, etc. Of course, if you a) are starring in Hollywood blockbusters on a regular basis, b) are one of the lucky authors of one of the 300 songs that are constantly in rotation on most commercial radio stations all year long or c) were born sometime after 1980 and have never talked to any working musicians or actors about what life was like before then, you might drink the Kool-Aid.

But for those of us who have been independent working musicians since the internet became popular, as well as before anybody knew what an MP3 or a bit torrent was, we can tell you that before and after the internet, approximately 90% of CD sales were, and are, at shows. Why was and is this the case? Because we don't get commercial (or "public") airplay now and, in most cases, we never have. It is getting airplay that leads people to go buy your CD in a store. If you don't get airplay then people don't buy your CDs in stores. They buy them at shows because that's just about the only place they're likely to ever hear your music. If you're lucky enough to have fans coming to your shows who heard you somewhere else it's probably the internet that's responsible for them hearing of you in the first place, and without the internet they wouldn't be there buying your CD (or just coming to your show) in the first place.

Same with movies. I was having dinner with two filmmakers and two of their supporters – that is, two filmmakers and two people who are trying to figure out ways to raise the $100,000 or so that these filmmakers need in order to make their very worthwhile documentary. They all know that there is far less than a 1% chance that the final product will ever turn a profit, if it even gets made in the first place. This is the model most filmmakers around the world have been working with forever – it's not a recent, internet-driven phenomenon. The fact is, most working actors, working musicians and working filmmakers barely make a living, if they make one at all, and that's how it's been for decades before the internet. The fact is, it is the Cultural 1% (or really 0.1% or less) that stands, at least potentially, to benefit from these draconian laws the leaders of many rich countries are trying to pass on behalf of certain Fortune 500 companies.

So, the head of the American Federation of Musicians is either confused, or is a stooge for the Recording Industry Association of America and a handful of bought-off superstars. OK, no surprise there. But as I was reading the editorial in International Musician and hearing about the swelling grassroots movement opposing ACTA it got me thinking. That is, what would life be like if ACTA were ratified by all these different countries? More to the point, what if ACTA was successfully able to do what it's sponsors are hoping it will do? What if the internet were finally going to be scourged of "illegal," copyrighted material once and for all?

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced this could actually be the best thing ever to happen to independent musicians and other indy artists. Much the same way as wars are good for protest singers. Being a humanist first, it's not something I'd wish for – I don't want to see bombs killing families for ExxonMobil and I don't want to see anybody going to prison for listening to music. But if ACTA were to be effectively enforced, I think the result could be an international cultural renaissance like we've never seen before.

I'll explain. The assumption of the ACTA supporters is that if people couldn't "steal" movies and music, they'd pay for it instead. This is undoubtedly true for some people. But is it true for most people? I'm pretty sure there's no way to know until treaties like ACTA are passed and thoroughly enforced, but my educated guess is that most people (or at least a very significant minority) would simply abandon corporate culture almost entirely.

People "steal" music they've already heard on the radio or on TV, for the most part. The YouTube videos that have "gone viral" usually haven't, in any real sense – the millions of downloads for the few artists that get them are usually the direct result of massive amounts of corporate radio airplay or national and international TV exposure. Faced with the prospect of not having the option of taking the path of least resistance – that is, downloading the stuff that's already familiar to them, the way children usually want to only eat food they've eaten before -- people will be prompted to branch out. People will start looking around for free music on the web, and they will find it. They will find it because of independent artists like me and many others who have long ago abandoned any fantasies of commercial success as defined by Clear Channel or MTV. They'll find it because we'll be giving it away, as is our right as creators of content, as they say, and the internet will (hypothetically) no longer be cluttered with corporate pop music.

I believe the result of ACTA's effective enforcement would mean that people would be "forced" -- that is, nudged just enough – to branch out beyond their bland but familiar diet of well-produced but often otherwise vapid pop music and start earnestly looking for good music that's out there, that they don't have to pay for. The internet is, and could become far more under the right circumstances, the radio play the overwhelming majority of working musicians have never had. Even if cyberspace were no longer cluttered with corporate junk, it would still be cluttered by bad, independent music – that's the nature of the beast. But with less corporate clutter it would become that much easier for web surfers to find the gems amid the muck, and there are lots of them – far, far more than we'd ever even know about if it were up to ACTA's supporters, who are the corporate behemoths who have created the Orwellian media landscape we are currently living under.

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