ONE 8 • Welcome to Generation Free

Welcome to Generation Free

What does every good techno-revolution need? A great mutiny. While the self-proclaimed keeps of pop culture join the ranks of the chicken-little licensing naysayers, a new generation has emerged that is savvy and immediate, with a clear message: the jig is up. Smells like punk.

They’re vilifying their core audiences, making hyperbolic statements about the death of creativity, deliberately curbing innovation and calling for their lawyers at seemingly random intervals. The big media players have seen the effect that the internet has had on their business model and spot the future vanishing before their eyes faster than their bonuses. Today’s Generation Free have a message for those big players: we know the technology, we know what you’re up to, and we want our content free — you started it!

As the first generation to have grown up accustomed to getting music, TV, film art for free at point of use, from sources both legal and illegal, today’s young people play an important role in contemporary social history. The days of buying an album on a blind recommendation, or watching a film without first seeing a preview, are over. Generation Free is not against copyright. We have a great appreciation and understanding of culture and its value. Our support of new musicians and filmmakers is clear for all to see, but what we won’t support are outdated and exploitative media business models. And that’s bad news for the corporate culture machine.

While the media Goliaths of Gotham see the internet as a jungle that needs to be tamed, they also want to lure the natives to their side. Hypocrisy abounds, these beasts (ab)use their position online in ways that are obvious and offensive to the intelligence of legions of young people. The music industry’s treatment of bloggers is a case in point. Trendsetters with individual styles and dedicated fan bases, the most popular members of the blogosphere can receive hundreds of thousands of hits every day. Obviously record companies would love to reach such a loyal and receptive market, so when one of their acts has a new album coming out they’ll push a couple of tracks in the direction of the most popular bloggers in advance, in order to create ‘buzz’ about the release.

The ‘guerrilla marketing’ is clever; however, should a blogger discover that same music on his or her own and post said music on a blog, then we’re in a whole new shark tank of ‘intellectual theft’. Record companies have unleashed lawyers on bloggers who post individual songs, to either scare them into compliance or to sue them into submission. The net result of a guerrilla operation and so-called theft is the same: an increased exposure of the musician’s work online. Bloggers are being criminalised for doing the exact same thing that advertising agencies are paid to do — attract an audience.

When the threat of a court summons has proved ineffective, a more insidious form of intimidation is used by the media giants: a moral argument. Suddenly, according to Goliath, every illegal downloader is stealing money out of the pockets of their heroes and snatching food from the mouths of the producers’ children. Generation Free isn’t buying into the guilt: to paraphrase Howard Beale in Network, ‘the kids are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it anymore’. Generation Free isn’t willing to accept moral judgments and sneering put-downs from an industry whose gross exploitation of its artists and consumers is crystal clear. A prime example: the music industry. Not long ago, a new album would cost around £10 from your local record store, and was available on a disc that you could easily copy for use on your computer or MP3 player, complete with some shiny artwork to boot. That same album now costs £10 or more to download but comes encrypted without any shiny artwork, and (here’s the best part) we’re footing the bills for the internet connection. Worse, little if any of the new profit margins make it back to the artist.

Hollywood has no moral high ground either: pushing 3-D filmmaking as the ‘next big thing’ (didn’t this tank years ago?), claiming that to get the best experience at the cinema you need the extra sensation of objects hurtling towards you. This doesn’t come cheap. It is a paradoxical coincidence that at a time of mass belt-tightening there are films, marketed mostly to children, which require Mom and Dad to pay a 20% surcharge for a pair of 3-D glasses. Knowing that Hollywood studios will do anything in their power to avoid paying residual fees to actors and staff we’re more likely to download just to get back at them.

For a little perspective look no further than the Swedes behind The Pirate Bay. The Pirate Bay is a search engine that lists ‘torrents’ — computer files which allow users to share data from multiple locations. The site is little more than a yellow pages of file-sharing. Now Goliath doesn’t legally attack directories for listing shops that sell counterfeit blue jeans or perfume, yet that’s just what the music and film industries have done to The Pirate Bay. But rather than trying to hide away or shut the site down, The Pirate Bay continues to bite back, heckling its plaintiffs at every turn: ‘As you may or may not be aware, Sweden is not a State of the US of A, US law does not apply here’ (Pirate Bay to Microsoft); ‘Go fuck yourself.’ (Pirate Bay to Dreamworks); ‘Instead of simply recommending you sodomise yourself with a retractable baton, let me recommend a specific model.’ (Pirate Bay to Apple). Even a recent loss in court hasn’t phased the Pirates, posting an IOU for hefty fines and encouraging donations in small increments to overhwhelming corporate laywers. Sarcastic and disrespectful rhetoric is symptomatic of the growing anger among many internet users at the likes of the MPAA, over witch-hunts, where random, marginally guilty parties are being burnt at the legal stake.

Mass media bosses have tried to beat piracy and copyright infringement with scare tactics and aggression, and when you’re dealing with a group of highlynetworked individuals that’s a bad idea. When bloggers are targeted by a record label, they can tell all their readers within minutes, and their readers, in turn, can tell all of their friends. This can make or break artists’ reputations and if the kids are forced to choose between freedom on the internet or the whims of the mass media fatcats, you can guess the result.

All of this puts artists in a difficult position: How do you make a living by giving your work away? Working with the mass media can be seen as selling out by some idealistic youngsters. While dealing directly with Generation Free presents problems, it can be done. Ad-supported free streaming of TV programmes and Hollywood movies is already popular in the USA, with moves afoot to bring services such as Hulu to Europe. Ingenious ideas such as community sponsorship of musicians and filmmakers are being taken up across the web, and the ease of online publishing means that independent film distributors can get their content to their fans at a fair and reasonable price.

Another, more radical idea for musicians: cut out the middle man altogether. Imagine you’re a musician with a new album to promote. Write and record the work with all the blood, sweat and tears, then give it away, for free. Someone makes a copy of your album and passes it on to a friend. Instead of panicking about the lost revenue, appreciate two new fans you might never have had. Let your recorded output spread like wildfire from user to user – cream rises to the top of the playlist. Then, grab your guitars and hit the road. Generation Free get their kicks online for nothing, artists make money from gigs, and give something in the flesh you can’t get on any computer – a live performance.

As long as artists continue to engage, excite and entertain there’s nothing to worry about. For those behind the media machines, the message from Generation Free is loud and clear: ‘We support art, expression and community, but we don’t support you. The rules have changed – we’ll email you a copy.’

Peter Simpson is the Editor of iMPULSE Magazine, a free publication from Napier University’s School of Arts & Creative Industries, Edinburgh.