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Is Ethical Advocacy Enough? A Dialogue on Digital Rights and Art

October 5th, 2012 | 8 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Editor’s Note: This is the final piece in our series on the music industry. The first part, written by Matt Miller, dealt with the suggestion that we remove DRM altogether; the second part, written by Stephen Carradini, detailed the power shift in the post-Napster era. Today we have a dialogue between these two thinkers.


Stephen, what I think your piece points out really well is the power differential that’s at the root of this problem: consumers have the power to get free music at will, whereas artists’ power is restricted to either allowing their work to be stolen or keeping it to themselves entirely. As I say in my essay, I don’t think there’s any way to reverse that power imbalance. So the question is, how can artists make these power-mad consumers take responsibility for their actions? Can we? Or are we just going to have a world where musicians all have to teach or something on the side to make a living?


Well, I think “allowing work to be stolen” and “power-mad” are the wrong terms. It’s not stealing if artists offer it to them. And most music consumers are passively making decisions about how to buy music, which doesn’t fit “power-mad.” The latter point is the big problem: After the initial bang of Napster and the like, people just slid into a situation where it was easier to get music illegally (which inadvertently gave them a ton of power). This is partially the industry’s fault for putting up DRM walls to legal purchases (as you noted in your piece) and partially human nature’s innate laziness. I would like to be optimistic and say that people will realize the long-term effects of their actions and change direction, but I’m not. I’m sure instances of cultures changing course without consumers seeing immediate tangible benefits are rare to nonexistent. Why would we think that people will purposefully spend more money for no extra benefit? How would that ad campaign go?

English: The crossed out copyright symbol with...

English: The crossed out copyright symbol with a musical note on the right hand side is the free music symbol, signifying a lack of copyright restrictions on music. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The ad campaign could start with an advocacy message akin to campaigns for fair trade products. (Unfortunately “fair trade music” currently means exchanging free music for an email address—which hardly seems fair to me.) Granted, fair trade hasn’t become ubiquitous, but this sort of moral campaign takes a while to play out. Historically, Americans have actually been fairly willing to get on board with changing their consumer behavior in response to ethical arguments: we were the nation that instituted Prohibition, to pick only the most obvious example. But even if such advocacy fails, I still see hope for artists who can create loyalty in their fans. We may be entering the age in which only cult acts survive.

For example: one of my favorite bands, Over the Rhine, does no gimmicky marketing, nor do their tracks carry DRM. I don’t know if downloading has cut into their income, and they’ve never been famous, but they’re making a living–and doing so, I suspect, largely because their fans feel such affection for them that we want to pay for their albums. Bigger, more populist artists may not be able to inspire such loyalty, though, and so their days may truly be numbered. But as a fan of more niche styles of music, I’m optimistic for my favorite artists. That said, I don’t see either of these approaches being taken very widely. So you’re free to argue that they won’t be taken at all.


I am skeptical of advocacy campaigns in the Internet age, as slacktivism (and its online arm, clicktivism) run rampant. I can get a ton of people to click and even change their profile picture. But habits, especially ones tied to wallets, are more difficult to change. It would cost the average listener hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to purchase all the music that he or she has streamed/downloaded for free. Even saying “the past is forgiven, just start paying from all your music from here on out” requires a drastic shift in listening habits: people who don’t pay for music can listen to far more music than those who do. Those who pay for everything have to accept that there is a finite amount of dollars to spend, and some things that they would love to hear will go unheard due to lack of funds. Not only is an activism campaign asking them to pay for music; it’s requiring them to listen to less. Tough sell.

I think the future is along the lines you noted, which also lines up with this recent comic. We have to tie together people’s goodwill with their love of music at a level that doesn’t seem painful and doesn’t include force. The hardcore fan base will be willing to pay a lot (as you noted with your OTR example), and there will always be people who think everything should be free. The answer might be in the middle ground: fans who aren’t in love with the band but do like their music. If those listeners pay $1-$4, that could add up. This could be done by implementing a follow-up e-mail after free downloads (“Hey, you downloaded this two weeks ago! Do you like it? Do you want to donate?”). What would you think if you got one of those from a band you had just downloaded legal music from?


Habits are indeed hard to change. But not impossible. And, I would contend, a moral witness can help to create a community of practices that can build up changes in habit. The habit of going to the big-box grocery store is hard to change, and it’s hard to see why I should spend more money on local food. But as members of our community become persuaded of the value of buying at farmer’s markets, structures come into place to help encourage new habits. (Channeling James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, I’d point out that the church does just this sort of habit forming—and I’d say the church should get involved in members’ downloading lives.)

I’m using examples from the physical world, but it can be true of the digital world as well: for example, Google’s recent decision to penalize piratical sites will reshape digital habits on some level. I don’t think Google’s algorithm change is the solution to all our problems. But I do think it’s a potentially habit-changing move. That WSJ piece makes clear that this is a business decision for Google, but it’s not at all unlikely that somebody at the top read David Lowery’s viral letter to Emily White and decided to play tougher with the pirates. That’s a win for advocacy and moral witness.

Furthermore, I don’t see how the solutions you propose—charging a little less, an email followup—are likely to be any more effective at changing habits than advocacy. I get tons of emails (many of them from musicians) every day, and I delete most of them unread or lightly skimmed. If people are ambivalent to your work, it’s just going to be tough to get them to pay unless they’re convinced that they have an ethical responsibility to do so. If services like Spotify paid equitable rates for streaming tracks, that would be a great way for casual fans to check out music. But I’m afraid that’s not going to happen until and unless our culture develops a much more robust sense of fair pay for music—the end game of the advocacy, in other words.


On some level, any change that either of us propose is advocacy: we are trying to get people who don’t have to do something to do it because of a moral imperative. That’s advocacy, whether it’s making a textual sales pitch or tweaking the time and place where musicians ask for money. I think that a structural adjustment (ask for money once value has been established through listens) is better than an abstract adjustment (“start paying for music, because you should”). But both are attempting to accomplish the same end: cause music listeners to voluntarily change their habits. As I noted in my article, the artist still doesn’t wield any power in this situation. And that’s the state of affairs for the foreseeable future.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.