Talking Music, Freeloading, and “Cultural Self-Destruction” with Chris Ruen

Chris Ruen’s Freeloading — out soon on O/R Books — is a smart look at digital distribution and culture. What makes Ruen’s approach particularly interesting is his willingness to engage with questions of morality, and his willingness to examine where current trends might lead. In advance of his marathon reading of the book, we conducted this interview via email.

When I was in high school, a lot of the music I listened to — whether it was hardcore 7″s or Onyx’s album Bacdafucup — was listened to via dubbed cassettes. The same was true of a lot of the people around me, yet most of us eventually started paying for music. Do you see a parallel with the current generation of teenagers accessing music digitally, or do you think the bar to entry has crossed a threshold?
That parallel certainly exists in the cases of some consumers, but if all of your peers seem to be freeloading (my suggested word or piracy/file-sharing) and you are never nudged to re-consider your actions; why would you start paying? The dubbing you did existed within a world where people assumed that they’d have to pay for most of the music they wanted; and the dubbing was restrained by time, money and social connections. Today, with freeloading? Not so much. I think that difference breaks down the parallel in many cases. However, there is plenty of contradiction to be found.

I think it’s a form of cultural – even Human – self-destruction for us to use the digital revolution as an opportunity to dispense with the rights of creators (copyright). Copyright terms need to be radically reduced, but it’s important to look around at the books, films, albums, etc. that have meant something to you, and recognize that most, if not all, of those works benefited from the legal protections of copyright – and we benefit incalculably as a result. But it does mean that you have to place some check on your own selfishness. I doubt that multitudes of teenagers or college students will respond to that argument, though some have and some will. My own feeling is that those 25 and older, who may have had to start working for a living and recognize the importance of being compensated for your work, are more likely to adjust their consumption habits toward respecting creators’ rights – whether that means paying for albums and songs or licensed streaming – and could manifest that parallel. But they will still have to make some effort to think about their actions and adjust their habits.

You’re fighting instant gratification and a discourse that has found myriad ways to tell young consumers, “Your choices don’t matter. Just download it for free. No one cares.” If we are to rise above the last decade of decline and create a more diverse, sustainable and lively creative culture, I think you have to force the issue a bit and try to confront people on their individual actions. Is anyone entitled to knowingly violate a creator’s legal rights? Maybe you’ll do it ‘cause it’s so damn convenient, but are you entitled to do so? That’s sort of a fundamental question that hasn’t been asked enough post-Napster and it leads to a more balanced discussion of these issues.

No, I don’t believe we’ve crossed that threshold completely (otherwise wouldn’t have written the book!) but it will take a shared minimal effort and commitment to steer us back from it. It’s just a matter of people being willing to re-examine the consequences of their actions and think about the sort of world they are building. Such thinking is common in regards to the environment or buying local food; that general spirit of embraced responsibility just hasn’t translated to supporting creativity. Not yet, but I think it will happen.

In the third part of the book, you refer to Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments — where did you first encounter this work?
When I look back on the process of writing the book, it all feels very haphazard. Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments certainly fits into that.

I remembered reading a piece about Adam Smith in the New York Times Book Review. Have no clue as to when that happened, but the piece referenced The Theory of Moral Sentiments as this sort of unknown or under-referenced backbone to Smith’s later work, that undercut a lot of the maximal laissez-faire, Invisible Hand, government-better-keep-its-hands-outta-the-marketplace ideology that is associated with capitalism.

Then, while working on the book, I came across numerous examples of people like Chris Anderson and Mike Masnick excusing freeloading by saying that it was just supply and demand at work – now that we have infinite supply of creative works, the demand is so low that of course the price is zero, blah, blah, blah… The post-scarcity argument. This reminded me of the article I’d read about Adam Smith, but when I searched for it I couldn’t find it, which was a little weird. Anyway, the treatise itself was easy to find (thank you, Public Domain) and it was shockingly relevant to the aforementioned economic argument I saw being made that effectively excused the exploitation of artists as irrelevant to the unquestionable power market forces.

The key term Smith uses is “tolerable decency” – that tolerable decency is the basic requirement for any society to function, given that perfect benevolence (which Smith holds as an ideal) is impossible. Now, what guarantees tolerable decency? Is it the market? No. In fact, the market can’t expect to adequately function without tolerable decency in the society that surrounds it. Nor can any institution. It’s the law under government that guarantees this tolerable decency – the same law that guarantees through copyright that creators have a right to produce and distribute their works without being unduly exploited in the marketplace. Not only did this work well for my book’s subject matter and thrust, but I emerged with greater clarity on the nature of capitalism in general.

Corporate sponsorship and/or patronage comes up for some criticism in part three; do you view it as an inevitable option? One can choose not to download; is it as easy to avoid the results of patronage?
The basic point is that, before the development of copyright in the early 18th Century, patronage was the dominant form of supporting the arts. This never disappeared, but certainly copyright and reproduced artworks gave the leisure class the opportunity to support the arts and artists directly in a more democratic fashion. So it follows that, if we are to abandon copyright, we should expect corporate patronage or state patronage to again become dominant. And if that happens, if truly independent books, films and albums of high quality are less and less likely to find investment in the digital age, we are generally speaking, fucked. We will have fewer opportunities to connect through art for its own sake and understand our world. Progress will become less and less possible.

If creators are ambitious enough or compelled enough to make art their life and feel as though that sort of career is the only thing worth doing, and if society increasingly denies them their legal rights, then yes I do think it’s basically an inevitable option. People need energy and time to create – and both of those require money to live and to focus on the work. Where do our most ambitious artists find that money if consumers are increasingly unwilling to contribute theirs?

You’re right, you can’t avoid the results of patronage. However, if you believe it’s important for independent creativity to exist within our economic system, then you can freely choose which world you want to support. Do you want to forsake creators’ rights, and contribute to a future where artists are more desperate and more likely to depend upon corporate patronage? Or do you want to decide for yourself, with your own choices and dollar, which creativity is deserving of an audience and which creators are deserving of a career? Those individual choices add up in the aggregate and communicate to artists whether or not they can trust their fans for support, and may directly figure in to whether or not they decide to sell a song for a commercial or sign with a label that is effectively a branding apparatus for Mountain Dew.

In all this, we consumers hold the cards. Artists and businesses can only respond to our demands and choices. I find that to be pretty empowering.

You address many theorists of media and cultural dissemination, including Cory Doctorow, Marshall McLuhan, Jaron Lanier, and Lawrence Lessig. I noticed that Lewis Hyde’s musings on gift economies didn’t come up. Do his ideas have any relevance to the arguments you’re making here?
Absolutely his ideas are relevant, but unfortunately there were a few things that I just wasn’t able to get into the book.

The tension between art and commerce permeates the entire book, I think. It’s an awkward dance. It’s imperfect. But I think Kyp Malone gets at the tension succinctly in his interview in the book, when he talks about his own frustration with having to sell his music, which he considers to be part of his very being and something sacred. He notes the Christian tradition of the sacred as being rightfully outside the world of commerce and notes Jesus in the Temple, smashing the money-changers. But, he says, “Somebody fed Jesus. He didn’t starve to death in that story.” It’s great to be righteous and purist, but at the same time we all have to eat.

As much as it’s true that art and creativity is sacred and transcends money and markets in so many ways, there are practical realities we are obliged to deal with. How are these people going to eat and pay rent and have the time to create, to share their gifts? How are we best going to engage with these gifts; harness them, amplify them, enjoy them and simply become aware of their existence? It just drives us back to commercial realities. Back to the crudeness of money and distribution and investment. Hyde is a bigger fan of institutional patronage than I am, but I think that communicates to individuals, in the context of freeloading particularly, “This isn’t your problem. This is a government problem or a philanthropy problem. You don’t have the agency to deal with this as an individual.” Clearly, I think there’s little hope in solving this problem, or any other, unless we recognize our individual agency – that we all have a role to play. Of course, government, philanthropy or corporate patronage can compliment such actions, but our own choices need to be part of the picture.

Going back to my earlier point…okay, so Hyde talks about the beauty and sacredness of the “gift sphere” and that’s wonderful. It is. But I bought his book for $16 crude dollar bills at WORD and it is published by Vintage, the same imprint that publishes the Shades of Grey series! So the profits of the most commercial shlock that we have today is pretty directly aiding in the continued distribution of this other work, one that is all about the debasements of commerciality upon art! I’m not saying he’s right or wrong, just that the whole art vs. commerce issue is incredible for its contradiction. If his book weren’t protected under copyright, and weren’t for sale, would you or I even have heard of Lewis Hyde or have been introduced to his ideas? I seriously doubt it.

Also, it’s good to keep in mind that “gifts” are by nature consensual and the very notion of consent flies out the window when people accept freeloading. Hyde also is a huge advocate of the public domain and I am totally with him in that regard. My position is that maximum copyright terms should be around 50 years and that protecting the public domain is essential to restoring balance to copyright.

But, yeah, I wish I would have at least mentioned Hyde. It just didn’t happen. There was a lot to cover and at a certain point I had to focus on finishing the damn thing.

While Freeloading predominantly addresses questions of music, it does touch on other media as well, particularly in your interview with Kyp Malone. Freeloading is being released on O/R Books, whose distribution model is distinctive — though you’re also holding the release party in a bookstore. How has the writing of this book affected the ways in which you’d like to see your own work distributed?
Well, technically it isn’t the release party. It’s just a crazy event that I thought would be interesting to try to pull off. I’m putting this “Terrible Idea” together myself and I bet there will be some sort of “official” release party by my publisher closer to December.

Writing the book has made me much more agnostic about formats and physical vs. digital. If readers want physical books…great! If they want digital…great! Who am I to try to convince anyone what they should or shouldn’t like? So, though I am much more drawn to holding the book in my own hands, I’m happy to distribute my writing in whatever form seems to “work.” I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way in terms of format.

I also think bookstores are essential. Personal engagement and experience is essential. We are social creatures. We aren’t meant to be clacking away from isolated computer terminals all day. I have a very hard time seeing an all-digital future, without those retail spaces. I just don’t think it’s a reality people particularly want, though time will tell! One of the great things about supporting creators’ rights is that people have to choose: do you want this digital product that’s a lower quality experience but is a bit cheaper and more convenient; or, do you want the more expensive physical product? People can make their own choices.

In Freeloading, you refer to an album that you recorded about ten years ago. What ever happened with that album?

Basically they are just demos. I gave them to friends and sent them around to people. Played a show at Coco 66 (RIP). Recording that music catalyzed the shift in thought that led to this book. I considered it – maybe I should be focusing on music and not writing, which wasn’t necessarily leading anywhere at the time – but writing won the day in a landslide. Soon thereafter I started writing about freeloading and one dream/nightmare led to another.

I still have musical ambitions and have lots of unfinished songs, but I think it’s true with all creative work: either you put up or shut up. If you want to do it, you have to commit to the work and all that comes with it and have faith that it will be worth it in some way. I haven’t done that with music, not at all. Maybe I’ll become more of a musician in the future if I push for it or opportunities arise, but right now it just informs my other writing and ideas. Anyway, I received enough positive feedback to leave the songs up on my Bandcamp page. People can check them out via my website Warning: very tinny!

Photo: Tod Seelie

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