Tonight David Byrne and Author Chris Ruen Explain Exactly, Specifically, and Definitively Why Illegally Downloading Music Makes You A Huge Asshole
Tonight, in the main branch of the New York Public Library, the long-running conversation about artist copyright, piracy in the digital age, changing (and disappearing) artist revenue streams, and illegal downloading continues with two people who've added much to that discourse of late: Talking Heads vocalist and all-around interesting fella David Byrne, who recently penned How Music Works -- a wide-ranging treatise on how music is crafted, distributed, monetized, listened to, and regarded -- and Chris Ruen, the 31-year-old author of the fascinating new book Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger For Free Content Starves Creativity, which, as you can tell by the title, argues that illegal downloading not only hurts the artist's bottom line, but ultimately threatens to choke off the supply of great music that, for many of us, helps make life worth living.
Author Chris Ruen
Music and Copyright in the Digital Era: David Byrne in conversation with Chris Ruen is the title of tonight's hour-long, moderated talk (7 p.m., $15-$25); an event that brings Ruen back to the room where he spent much time writing Freeloading, his first book, over the past couple of years.
"It's pretty cool that I'm returning in this capacity," says Ruen, who explains that Byrne got ahold of a proof of his book over the summer (it was published last month), loved it, and reached out to Ruen through his publisher to team up for the event. "Of course, my immediate reaction was, like, fear," Ruen laughs, "but I agreed to do it. [Byrne] and I have been e-mailing back and forth a bit, sharing ideas and some themes we want to discuss, and I met him last week at a party and kinda broke the ice. So I'm excited, I think it'll be a lot of fun.
"Freeloading music is an unresolved topic and so many people have downloaded music for free, it's one of those issues that a lot of people have an intimate relationship with and have their own thoughts on," says Ruen, who brings up the recent, well-publicized online dust-up between Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery and NPR intern Emily White over the ethics of illegal downloading as illustrative of the fact that tonight's talk is part of an ongoing and still-relevant conversation.
Ruen dove headfirst into the fray in 2009, when he wrote a provocative essay for Tiny Mix Tapes titled "The Myth of DIY: Toward a Common Ethic on Piracy," in which he concluded: "If you find meaning and beauty from a musician's work and you want them to continue creating it -- then you are obliged to support them. If you like the idea of record stores, the people they employ, the values and spirit they promote -- then you are obliged to support them. If you're consistently doing one without the other, then on some level you, not Metallica, are the asshole."
The same point is at the heart of Freeloading, which -- like the TMT piece -- provides the backstory that Ruen himself was an unapologetic music pirate until he began working at a Brooklyn cafe, saw that some of the indie-rock musicians who came in -- members of the Hold Steady, Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend, musicians he considered "success stories" -- were virtually broke due to, he believed, digital piracy killing album sales ("Even I had an apartment as nice or nicer than those of some of these 'rock stars,'" Ruen writes), understood that at some point the lack of financial support could compel many of them to stop pursuing a career in music, and had the epiphany that "behind free content's superficial illusion of more lies a long-term reality of less. Sooner or later, it is something we all have to pay for."