Yvonne Caruthers  

The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism, by Matt Mason

Yvonne Caruthers
August 15, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Since I do lot of teaching I read a lot of books. Not all of them are music-related, but a high proportion of them are. From time to time in this space I'll be posting reviews of books I've read, with the hope that 1) you'll be able to sort through books more quickly (as to whether you really want to spend the time reading them) and 2) you'll read something that you might not have otherwise considered. Enjoy!

- Yvonne Caruthers
This is the most provocative book I’ve read in a very long time. I bought it because the title intrigued me---piracy is a musician’s worst nightmare, right? The author thinks not, and puts forth one compelling argument after another.

I’m the parent of twenty-something adult children. When they started college, about 10 years ago, I was appalled at the piracy they and their peers openly engaged in--downloading everything from software to music to texts. On each of their campuses it was “accepted” behavior--that is, the students knew about it and helped each other, while officially what they were doing was “illegal”. I was shocked. MY kids were stealing music? How would they feel if someone stole something they had created? Isn’t that the whole point of copyrighting---the creator gets paid for what he/she has produced? You can’t just take a product and use it without paying for it--that’s stealing! I still remember the arguments we had at the time. Of course I was helpless in the face of how rampant the practice was, and how seductive it was for the students to get things they wanted for free. Did they need a new copy of XYZ software, or did they want Band X’s latest song? A friend of a friend would have a copy which in turn could be copied, and so it went, from one student to another.

That was ten years ago, prehistoric times on the digital world time-scale. In the intervening years Napster rose and fell, and replaced itself. iTunes rose and keeps rising. Does anyone NOT download music today? MP3 players, iPhones, and all the other “new media devices” allow you to take music and videos with you everywhere. One of the latest gadgets, the Kindle, (weighing only a few ounces), allows you to load dozens of (heavy) books onto a small device, and for those who travel a lot and love to read, its lure is hard to resist. Of course the music, videos, and books that are “in” those devices are available as downloads, some legal, others pirated. (We’ve all heard about new movies that circulate on the internet before they open in theaters.) The incontrovertible fact is that anything that exists in digital form can be copied and distributed effortlessly.

Newspapers, television stations, radio stations--they all have an online component now. In fact their collective online presence has nearly driven print versions of newspapers and magazines out of business. And as much as I prefer to read the paper when it’s made of actual paper, I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets annoyed with my morning paper (arriving at 6am) when a late-breaking item hasn’t made the front page (printed at 11pm the night before). I read about it the previous evening (online, an hour after it happened) and I want details in the morning. Does this inevitably frustrating time lag mean that digital media will soon completely replace print media? Where does advertising fit in to all these changes?

The Pirate’s Dilemma addresses these and many, many more scenarios. The author, Matt Mason, knows first-hand what piracy is, as he’s been one of the pirates for a long time. One of his best-known stunts centered around the fact that he and his friends started a music magazine. In order to get publicity for it, they created a fictitious band which soon had a huge following, with guest appearances by real (as opposed to virtual) artists. Today such a stunt doesn’t surprise us because many of us have seen or heard about similar stunts played out on YouTube (which is, according to Mason, a “pirate” response to the demise of good TV programs).

Mason cites arguments by pop artists who figured out that if they toured world-wide and sold 500,000 copies of a record they’d still owe the record company $300,000, but the record company would have made nearly $5 million from the sales of those albums! The artists’ solution? Cut out the record company. Put your music online, let people download it as much as they want, and if they think it’s good they’ll pay you for it (the recent Radiohead experiment is one of the latest ventures to use this philosophy).

I was hoping Mason would address the classical music business, but he doesn’t, probably because we account for such a small proportion of music sales worldwide. However, I kept thinking as I read the book that some of his observations and principles are also applicable to our profession. How many big-name classical artists have been dropped by major record labels? How many of those artists (and orchestras) have created their own labels and distribution systems as a result? Musicians such as cellist Matt Haimovitz have gone the “club circuit” route---playing in venues usually associated with jazz or pop music. Mason calls such ventures “pirate” ventures, i.e., they’re outside the mainstream because the mainstream distribution systems don’t work well enough anymore.

I hope thousands of readers will seriously read and ponder the issues this book raises (it’s only 240 pages). If nothing else, reading it will at least keep you up to date on re-mixing techniques, how graffiti and fashion are alike, and what terms like “grime” mean in pop music. This book gave me a lot to think about: If only I could come up with a way for classical music to “go viral” somehow.....

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