Wednesday, 7 July 2010

You get what you pay for

A man walks into a bar and orders a pint. The barman carefully pours it, puts it on the bar and walks to the till to ring it up. While he does this, the customer downs the pint and casually strolls out of the bar, refreshed and happy.

Where's the punchline, you ask? Nowhere to be seen - it's not a joke, it's stealing. Stealing liquid, mind, of which there are thousands more barrels, and which the innocent barman did not create, brew and transport all by himself. But a service and a product were provided, and not paid for. Most people wouldn't dream of doing this (although my friend did see someone steal a 6-inch Subway the other day) but thieving isn't such a crisply defined concept anymore. Partly because people feel so disillusioned by prices, recessions and authority in general, but mainly because of the big playground of freebies that is the internet. Young people were the first to hop on the cyber bandwagon in the naughties, and they quickly learnt about the joys of file-sharing, downloading and online trading, before the elders who had established businesses and copyrights had figured out how to stop them. In print media, publishers were delighted at the prospect of reaching a wider audience and providing up-to-the-minute news reporting, and soon most publications were available, gratis, online.

The Times has taken a lot of flack over the past month for deciding to put a paywall up (a week's subscription working out to around 28p per day), with experts predicting the venture will fail and the Guardian in particular taking the opportunity to filch their unimpressed readers. My favourite Times columnist (and general legend) Caitlin Moran wrote a wonderful article a couple of days before the wall went up, defending their decision against a lot of very public outrage and Murdoch-bashing. Of course, if you don't believe in paying for online news, you won't be able to access the article. But she made a good case for the change, which perhaps I am more sensitive to as a would-be journalist, as well as driving home the basic and excellent point that 'Bitch gotta make rent.' The perks of creative jobs are falling fast with the rise of the net, as people can access music, literature, journalism, film and photography without paying a penny to their creator. Moran simply stated, amongst other rational business reasons, that it is hard enough to be a working journalist without your pay diminishing even further. It is a hard business to get into, not at all well paid and almost impossible to live on as a freelancer, and thus more and more financially privileged young writers who can afford to do the job as a hobby are seeping into the industry. No more feisty lasses like Caitlin, who hails from a Wolverhampton council estate and the comprehensive system, writing in one of Britain's oldest and most prestigious rags. An exclusively privileged comment and editorial team would make for a much more conservative and monotonous tone, undoing all the good work the paper has done in recent years in becoming more balanced with diverse comment writers and a wider perspective than, say, the Mail or the Telegraph. Also, I agree with Caitlin that writers deserve to get paid - we read their work most days, they work challenging hours and with tough deadlines, and get nothing like the salaries of the ankers and politicians whose deviance they so often expose. Many would argue that it's too late to start putting up paywalls; the internet has been free to read for years now. But the Times does have a certain caché, and as such many rely on it for firm facts and expert analysis. So I think they'll keep some audience, but more liberal fence sitters and those likely to list the Guardian as 'their' paper (myself included) will just stop reading online, perhaps grabbing the paper itself once in a while. I'm just saying I don't think it's that controversial to put a price on something a lot of people work hard on, especially when that price is under 30p per day.

This discussion had gone on for a while when I followed a link on Twitter that led to the website of the great musical theatre composer & lyricist Jason Robert Brown, where he had posted a very similar discussion about sheet music. Brown, who is a bit of a hero in the niche world of musical theatre, decided enough was enough and went online to try and stem the tide of sheet music 'trading' online and defend his work and copyright. So he sent maybe 400 people advertising the sheet music for his songs online a polite message asking them to take their ad down, including his email address in case they had any questions. Many did, but one tenacious teen emailed back demanding to know what his problem was and questioning his identity and motives. What followed is a very interesting back-and-forth between two generations; the older artist that has worked hard for many years to build his reputation and career, and the young, confident teenager with a strong feeling of entitlement. The teen who argued with him, Eleanor, is fairly articulate and makes a very forceful case that many teens 'can't afford' sheet music, mp3 files and movies legally, and the big 'jerks' who created them shouldn't make a fuss about what is surely a drop in the ocean to them. The thing is, why should they let it go? JRB spent years writing beautiful, witty, perceptive songs that are sung in most musical theatre cabarets here and in the US. They are popular for a reason; his genius and effort. The fact that he is successful shouldn't mean he deserves to lose a massive cut of his potential salary from sneaky sharing and illegal downloads.

Perhaps because money has become less tangible over the years, with plastic, paypal, online banking and standing orders, it’s harder to teach your kids about value and saving. I remember having a solid concept of pocket money; if you saved it up for a few weeks you could hit Woolworths and splurge on that coveted toy (or later, Tammy Girl for that lusted-after shiny lycra top), and at school fetes and bring’n’buy sales myself and my sisters had a couple of pounds to spend wisely on treats. I remember clubbing together with my sister to the tune of £1.50 each for a Barbie Dream House and feeling the first high of a business partnership. Later, we would spend our hard-saved, if not earned, cash on CD singles and albums (back when the CD was still a futuristic novelty.) Jointly we bought All Saints’ first album, and I eyed her Britney Spears Baby One More Time single with envy, knowing instinctively that it was a landmark musical moment. Even now, I find loans, credit cards and overdrafts hugely daunting; not being fiscally minded, I don’t understand and therefore fear laying down money I don’t have. I am saving to self-fund a postgraduate course and money is on my mind most days. I do hope that is not the case my whole life, but with the media nosediving and people refusing to pay, who knows?

The point with Brown and Moran’s defence of their work is, while it may be a bit of a hassle or a dent in your pocket to fork out for their writing or composing skills, tough luck – they provided a product and completed a task which you are now reading/learning from/playing/singing. Cough up. The paywall will continue to be controversial (largely because of Rupert Murdoch’s unpopularity rather than the paper itself) as there are other strong print media options, but I do think at the very least people should buy their music, films and sheet music legally - and come on, an iTunes mp3 is around 79p, sometimes Amazon’s are as little as 29p. Those singles we scraped together for as starstruck teens were £1.99 including packaging – now we can whisk them on to our laptops seconds after they are released for less than a pound. If everyone stopped supporting musicians and writers, only the wealthy self-funders or the Katie Price-style overexposed could afford or would bother to put out their work. The message from the creative industries is clear – we’ve had enough, pay for your stuff.

But I want it NOW!

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