TL;DR Stupid Facebook truthy meme oversimplifies complex issue and pisses me off.
I’ve seen this image posted on Facebook a couple of times now, and it bugs me.
First off, a disclaimer: I am an artist who would like to make a living from my work. I believe that artists should be paid.
On the surface, this little meme-graphic seems to make sense. Cheapo yuppie scum will pay $5 for a mochalatteccino steamer, but they don’t want to pay $1 to listen to a song that they like. Dig a little deeper and this analogy not only falls apart, but backfires badly.
First, “won’t pay” means “won’t pay, but will download for free”, since otherwise there isn’t much of an argument here, unless we are suggesting that one must purchase anything one likes rather than going without. Millions of people won’t buy expensive cars either, but they’re not doing anything wrong unless they attempt to obtain one for free.
Second, let’s quickly define “song”, since the meme author doesn’t do that for us. Since the meme claims that a song costs $1, it seems to suggest that “song” means a digital file containing a recording of a song, since $1 is about the going rate for a single song on legitimate digital music purchase channels.
Maybe that seems intuitive, but I just wanted to make clear that the original meme isn’t even all that precise. Now, having made sure we’re all talking about the same meaning, I can launch into the main flaws of this meme.
A cup of coffee and a song are both things that one can buy, so how does the analogy not hold together?
The meme’s author isn’t comparing the two items equally. The ingredients in a single cup of coffee may cost less than one dollar, but the ingredients (bits and bytes) in a single digital song file cost even less. But what about the years of training for the musician(s)? What about the cost of the recording equipment? The instruments?
Well, if we’re going to count those, as the meme graphic does, then we have to look at a coffee on an equal footing. Here’s a little infographic from the Wall Street Journal about what makes up the price of a Starbucks Grande Latte in China (choice of country is arbitrary):
I’m not going to bother doing a mathematical comparison, because that’s not really my point. My point is that the simple meme treats a $5 cup of coffee as simply the cost of its ingredients (which are more than a few pennies… at least 64 pennies if this infographic is right) and doesn’t take into account all of the costs that go into making it the way it does for the song. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to compare them on an equal footing, because some costs, percentage-wise, would change based on how many units are sold, and some wouldn’t.
The root of why we can’t compare them, then, comes down to this: the most obvious way that the two items differ is that a cup of coffee is a physical object, and a song is not. Here are the important differences in properties between a cup of coffee and a song:
- A coffee cannot be instantly duplicated at virtually no cost; a song can.
- A coffee cannot be shared between two or more people without reducing the amount that each person can drink; a song can be shared with many people without reducing the amount or quality of the music.
- Each coffee can only be sold once; a song can be sold or given away again and again.
- You can steal a cup of coffee; you cannot steal a song. Well, you can, and that’s called plagiarism. But stealing in the sense of taking a copy of the song for free to listen to (rather than claiming it as your own work): no. You can copy it without permission, but the key difference is that the artist retains his/her own copy and you have not deprived the artist of the ability to sell that song to someone else.
But that’s not really the point, is it? The graphic claims that effectively everyone (“people”) will pay for a coffee, but “millions” won’t pay for a song. Stay with me on this…
A cup of coffee is a commodity, in the sense that one is essentially the same as another. If we want to be anal about it, we can say one Starbucks Grande Latte is the same as any other, rather than all cups of coffee are alike, but same fucking thing, really.
A song recording is not and the crux of my argument here is that it is silly to treat it as a commodity. A coffee has value because it has cost something to make and if you don’t pay for it you won’t get any. Yes, you could grab someone else’s coffee off the counter and make a run for it, but you are still paying because of the effort and social cost involved (try going back to the same shop the next day). A song recording, on the other hand, no matter how much it cost to make, can be copied without permission at essentially no cost and essentially no risk. You can not pay for it and still get it, without depriving someone else of the pleasure of listening to it. A song does not have value because of the cost of making it. A song has value because we say it does.
That’s what copyright law is, at its heart, regardless off all the corporatist baggage it carries now. It says certain types of ideas have value and can be treated in limited way like property for a limited amount of time. Someone else should not profit off of your creative work without your permission.
I think I’ve shown that the comparison itself is flawed not only in the sense that the graphic doesn’t compare coffee and songs on equal and fair footing, but that even if one could compare them fairly, they are not really comparable. But let’s get back to the main premise of the graphic: “Millions of people will pay for a cup of coffee, but not for a song (recording, presumably)".
Again, there’s a surface truthiness to the statements, but something still niggles at me. Yes, I know people who would pay for a coffee and download a song without paying for it. But those same people pay for music all the time, directly and indirectly. The argument has been made that heavy music “pirates” (arr! E-S-P-E-C-T) also tend to spend more on music than non-“pirates”, because music lovers tend to be the type of people who acquire music by any means.
You could argue, I suppose, that music purchases for some artists don’t benefit those whose music wasn’t purchased legally, but my feeling (no data on this, just opinion and experience) is that the popular, famous acts are the ones who lose out at the expense of smaller, independent artists because the work of the former is easier to find on P2P networks. This may or may not make a difference to you, depending on how fiercely you cling to the social Darwinian principles of a capitalist free market and the letter of the law, or how much of your feeling about music copying hinges on “don’t hurt the little guy”.
In addition, even the most dedicated illegal downloader pays for music. It’s unavoidable. For example, part of the “store operating expenses” for Starbucks Grande Latte include the licensing for the in-store music, so coffee buyers in a Starbucks are technically paying for music in the price of their coffee. But we all also pay for music that we hear on the radio (through theoretically listening to their advertisements), in the background of movies, the BGM on elevators, etc.
The graphic also doesn’t say what context the purchase of a song is in. Sometimes consumers make value judgements on items based on their packaging or other criteria. For instance, personally, I will not pay $1 for an .mp3 file. I will not do it. I will pay ~$1 for a losslessly compressed audio file with no DRM. I will pay ~$10 to $30 for a physical copy of an album (which can come out to more than $1 per song), depending on context and perceived value. I think that most people who actually like music will pay for it under certain conditions.
The last thing that the meme graphic doesn’t take into account is the ease of acquisition. If I’m out in the middle of a rice field planting rice and I feel like a coffee, I am not likely to drop everything, walk 40 minutes to a train station, and go into town to buy a coffee. Give me an option to make it appear, for free, in my hand, and I’ll take that option. (Actually, I won’t because I hate coffee, but that’s beside the point.)
Likewise, while the channels for legally purchasing music downloads have become much better, frequently it’s faster and easier to get a song through P2P channels than it is through the legal ones. iTunes is apparently really great, for instance. If you like Apple telling you which devices you can play them on (theirs). Other music stores aren’t much better and frequently have much worse selection. Because of music licensing being handled by many corporate entities who don’t necessarily play nice with the digital distributors (remember when iTunes didn’t have any Beatles songs?), there isn’t one central way to search and find what you’re looking for.
The quasi-legal back channels for getting music, on the other hand, don’t give a rat’s ass about corporate concerns, and it’s usually trivial to find what you’re looking for, as long as it’s at least moderately well-known.
Another point is that most online song sellers require payment by credit card. Don’t have a credit card? Don’t have an iTunes gift card on hand when you want to buy that song?
Does this sound trivial? Maybe it is, but every little obstacle you put between the customer and the music makes it that much less likely that he/she will buy said music.
To wrap up: the meme graphic tries to demonize some theoretical person who will pay what is suggested to by an obscene amount of money for a cup of coffee, but will not pay a single dollar to support an artist by buying a digital song recording. I think I’ve shown that the comparison is faulty due to unfair footing in the comparison (designed to make the thesis more emotional), and the fact that these two items are so different that they should not be directly compared.
Moreover, by pointing out that music downloaders tend to also be music buyers, and discussing how all purchasing is affected by ease-of-use and circumstance (e.g. coffee doesn’t get bought unless one is somewhere that sells it when one wants to drink it), I think I’ve shown why the graphic bothers me so much, despite the fact that I think artists should be paid for their work.
I really dislike meme graphics like this, because they take a really complex issue and turn it into something black and white. There are topics where this reductionism can work (“if you don’t vaccinate your children, you’re endangering everyone else’s kids”), but the topic of copyright in the digital age and the changing economic playing field for artists who produce work that can be reproduced digitally is something we should be discussing thoughtfully. We should not be drawing lines in the sand until we’ve explored more possibilities and pitfalls, in theory and in practice.
Wow. I did not intend to write such a long piece. Even so, I feel like I’ve only covered half of the issue. As an artist, I feel I should contribute to the discussion of how artists should be paid, and why it’s really bad, on a philosophical level, to compare a commodity (coffee) to our art. If I have time, I may write a part 2…