Tonight David Byrne and Author Chris Ruen Explain Exactly, Specifically, and Definitively Why Illegally Downloading Music Makes You A Huge Asshole
"If you ask people whether they think it's okay to knowingly violate the rights of an artist, I don't think you'll find many people who think it's okay," says Ruen. "Maybe there's a few, but even those people aren't saying that because they think it's okay, it's because they're justifying it and conflating it with other issues." In Freeloading, Ruen picks apart some of the justifications for illegal downloading -- from the belief that record labels and rich artists "deserve it" (for price gouging, greed, and generally being dicks to their fans) to the idea that piracy helps smaller artists reach a wider audience.
"That's somewhat moot," Ruen says of the latter notion, "since artists are fully able to choose to release their music for free if they wish, and there are plenty of examples of that happening. So there's no contradiction between respecting artists' rights and also embracing all the 'frictionless' potential of the Internet."
Ruen allows that freeloading often boils down to the very human flaw of greed winning out over guilt ("There's that fundamental question of, 'Can you check your own desire for instant gratification?") and social norms ("If your friends and peers are doing it and don't care, then certainly you're not gonna question these actions"), as well as the missteps of the music industry. "The RIAA lawsuits made it difficult for labels or artists to talk about ethics or what's fair," he says. "It was so heavy handed, and that justifiably pissed people off. It was a PR disaster. And if we're having this conversation four years ago when that's still on everybody's mind, there'd be no sympathy and it'd be 'Fuck record labels, they're fuckin' assholes." I think the more time passes and we get away from those lawsuits, that's having an effect on perceptions around this issue."
By dismantling the various justifications for freeloading -- and Ruen says he's yet to hear a single convincing argument in favor of illegal downloading -- Ruen hopes to get readers "to a place where they feel comfortable owning up to it and saying, 'Yeah, it's free, that's why I'm doing it, I don't think it's right and I'm not saying it's progressive.' If you can get people to that place, then you can have a conversation and talk about policy and respecting artists' basic rights."
Ruen's outspokenness on the issue has earned him plenty of enmity and vitriol from, well, freeloaders, but he says he's not trying to fan the flames of the debate just to watch shit burn. "There's a thin line between trying to engage people and being a provocateur or a sensationalist. I'm not down with that, I don't think that's cool, and I've tried to bring a rational, fact-based approach to the discourse. The subject does bring out some passion, but I think the really angry responses, you're going to find those online behind the safety of anonymity."
"I think [tonight is] gonna be a lot of passionate music fans who understand how much they've gotten from these artists who've had the chance to have careers," says Ruen. "And it'll be an older, more mature crowd. Age makes a big difference in this debate. I know that when I was in college, I didn't know what it meant to have a job or to need to make a living, and the older you are, the more you understand that 'I want artists to be able to do this and make more of this stuff for me to enjoy, so they need to be paid somehow.' I don't think it's gonna be an antagonistic audience, but you never know!"