The bludgeoning of Gepetto: how “free” culture killed creative careers

The free content culture of the internet is democratising art and music, and is leading us to a digital playground where everyone can make some money out of their creations, right? Well, that’s not how it worked out in Sven Johnson’s Future Imperfect

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson


Not many people mark the anniversary, but the release of 16Volt’s back catalog to free download on May 28, 2009, is the date I quietly acknowledge being vindicated for the unpopular position I took against the ringmasters of what I perceived as a download-entitlement circus: a gluttonous, Roman digital feast hosted by self-righteous web-celeb bloggers sufficiently arrogant to believe they were somehow better able to decide what was best for a musician’s career. The same smug know-it-alls who Lawrence Lessig effectively left hanging when he seemed to shift his position from the more confrontational “massive civil disobedience” position preached by people like EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow – and as suggested in Lessig’s own “The People Own Ideas!” essay – to something quite different: a belief that creators should actually have the right to decide for themselves how their efforts should be distributed.

Lessig’s apparent shift is something I first noticed when, during a virtual world talk, he stated, “I don’t think that [free] works always, but it does work for some. And all I argue for is the right of creators to make that choice.” In those words was a tacit acknowledgment that Epstein, in his elegant counter-response to Lessig’s earlier assertions, was essentially correct in arguing “The Creators Own Ideas“.

It’s a date I recognize because unlike the highly publicized marketing experiments of popular and financially secure bands such as Nine Inch Nails (“Year Zero” viral campaign) and Radiohead (“pay-what-you-want” CD sales promotion), or the often painful-to-hear but freely available sonic explorations “shared” by nothing-to-lose garage bands, 16Volt was one of the better-known examples of how the established recording industry could screw with a musician’s career. If anyone had a right to take up arms against the old guard or deserved an opportunity to decide how and when his music was distributed, it was Eric Powell, the force behind 16Volt.

It was, from my outsider position, the date on which Powell – of his own accord – apparently decided it was time to try to use the technology threatening his musical livelihood to distribute his work for his own advantage instead of allowing some venture capitalist to make that decision for him by, among other things, embedding mp3 widgets distributing unauthorized music on his heavily trafficked blog; a VC unable to recognize both the marketing and ethical failings of not also providing a direct link to a struggling band’s website, and who – in a series of email exchanges we had – seemed to me little better than a grade school kid making a grab for some dimestore candy.

Forget legalities and self-serving interpretations of “Fair Use“; to my mind it was about being personally selfish over the long-term. I’ve always been in it for myself, as I assume everyone else is. The difference was one of perspective.

Mine was the simple logic that if we didn’t find some way to fairly compensate musicians for the time and effort they put into creating the intangible music we audibly consume, we could eventually expect less of it. To make matters worse, I believed we could expect an even greater percentage of what was produced to be some corporate strategist’s idea of what the masses wanted; either that or an epidemic of Executives’ Cuts not too different from the butchering Sid Sheinberg gave to Terry Gilliam’s brilliant Brazil. Either way, I expected the music I enjoyed was going to take a hit. And it did – even if the impact wasn’t apparent at the time.

Barlow’s good news/bad news/good news tale in which he explains to record executives, “you’re mean sons of bitches and you’ll figure out a way to win anyway, eventually” applied to not just an oppressive entertainment industry, but to an entitlement-minded “free culture” griefers. It wasn’t really the studios versus the downloaders; it was the labels, the entitlement-happy downloaders, and the parasites versus the musicians caught in the middle. Whether the labels retained control or everyone else usurped control, it was clear the musicians were the odd man out; everyone seemed to forget who it was that actually created the music.

Consequently, it was truly unfortunate Epstein’s essay wasn’t more widely read; more universally understood. Not because good music was forever lost – it wasn’t – but because we’re so terrible at learning from our mistakes and so often seem to find ways to repeat them in one form or another.

Throughout this period, few people realized the potential impact our collective actions would have beyond the world of mp3 files. The same people watching their jobs head to Third World countries excused their own career-damning behavior, wrapping it in some “fuck the Man” justification when what they really needed to do was learn the lyrics to Tool’s “Hooker With A Penis” – and to understand that in some way they too were adversely affected by their seemingly innocuous actions.

Not that any of this mattered. When 16Volt released their back catalog, it should have mattered more. It didn’t. The masses expected it.


I thought of all these things just a short time after Powell released his back catalog because included with the mp3’s was a PDF file which read like a desperate call for help from an individual being bludgeoned by circumstances beyond his control – a person who just wanted to spend time in his workshop creating those things which entertain us; things which make our lives a little more enjoyable.

It was a subdued plea ignored by loud, popular websites which could have called attention to the predicament faced by musicians; sites sometimes too busy pretending to be something they weren’t for the sake of advertising revenue and whoofie.

Meanwhile, the clueless masses didn’t stop to consider the 3D point cloud files they were generating from hacked game controller-scanners and “sharing” with the world were accelerating changes already underway in manufacturing; changes which would have an impact on their own livelihoods.

It never fully registered with them during the Music Wars that for every band beaten into submission by profit-minded executives and lulz-seeking hackers and apathetic consumers, some other job was lost: recording engineer, stage hand, professional driver, graphic designer, whatever. So, of course, it never occurred to them that for every manufacturer whose business was somehow adversely impacted by the “sharing” and/or “liberation” of direct digital manufacturing data in a world increasingly filled with rapid manufacturing devices, that their own livelihood was potentially affected. They didn’t grok it.

Someone had told them they were the future’s creatives, yet no one explained to them how they’d transition from blue collar assembly jobs to engineering researchers. And they didn’t even know enough to ask.

Instead, like a Black Friday crowd storming the entrance, they once again took a short-term perspective and trampled over each other, the newly democratized creative class. Like privileged kids cut loose in a toy store, they took advantage of the toymakers until they grew bored, ignored the toys altogether and went all Lord of the Flies. Instead of playing fair with the amazing toys provided them, they bludgeoned Geppetto while the Foxes, the Cats and the Innkeepers plotted anew.


Sven JohnsonSven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the US military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.

[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]

14 thoughts on “The bludgeoning of Gepetto: how “free” culture killed creative careers”

  1. Great work Sven. Way to voice an unpopular opinion.

    My concern in all of this is coloured partly by where I stand. In effect, people have managed to create a norm whereby everything is given away for free. I don’t mind this. But I’d also like to get paid simply because a man can’t live on free mp3s and films. He can cut his outgoings yes, but he can’t live like that. the net has created a world in which everything is free but we do still have to live in that horrid other world.

    I’d be less concerned about all of this if we were finding reliable means for content providers to live off of the stuff they produce. But there seems to be an attitude of “someone will figute it out later”, which worryingly is the same reason why the US government doesn’t want to do anything about climate change.

  2. Jonathan – Appreciate the comments. Not my best writing effort so I’m glad you found it worth your time to read. If nothing else it gave me your “someone will figute it out later” observation. Thank you.

    “the man” – Allow me to point out I’m not defending the recording industry. Quite the opposite. Also allow me to reiterate I care more about myself than the musicians, so in that way I arguably have the same motivations as the most egregious and disrespectful file “sharers”. However, it is because of my selfishness that I take the side of musicians over everyone else.

    Home puppetry isn’t killing Geppetto any more than home cooking is killing restaurant chefs. It’s people walking into someone else’s kitchen eating food they weren’t offered and for which they don’t pay which is the problem as far as I’m concerned. Even if the food were provided free by the government, the cook has a right to expect to be compensated for their Time; at least in my mortal world. Time is lowest denominator currency. If it were freely available food and they (the downloaders) were starving, at least the theft of someone’s irreplaceable Time would be excusable, but those aren’t the circumstances. Music isn’t a basic need for human survival; it’s a luxury we all enjoy. A luxury that requires someone’s Time to produce.

    I personally would rather listen to 16Volt than my own home-made music. And for that luxury I’ll compensate the effort. If you’re happy listening to your own music, more power to you, but at least respect – as Lawrence Lessig now respects – the rights of creators to decide how the fruit of their labor is distributed.

  3. interestingly enough, as an unintentional social experiment, our decision has had some fantastic results. we (the band) have made more money off giving away our catalog for free and asking for donations (only if they want to) in the last 2 weeks than we did for the entire time we sold digital downloads off our site. that is a serious paradigm shift and an very reverse way of doing commerce. give people something, let them have it. if they like it, if they see the value in it, they will respond. in a way it has restored my faith in people and shows that a good lot do indeed care and do indeed value what we do and do indeed see that the money is rarely used for drugs and strippers. instead it’s used to keep the art alive. to fund future endeavors, to keep the electricity on and gas in the bus. i really hope this opens up more discussion with others as well. it’s an interesting time. this model of “free-commerce” – who knows how it will all pan out. but ultimately it is up to the artist in this case and i think we have shown that we can benefit from it.

  4. 16v – I have to say I’m not surprised. I’ve long believed there are ways to leverage “free” and on those marketing points I don’t disagree with those who believe “advertising” for the band – whether authorized or not – potentially benefits a band. However, that’s not the issue which concerns me. Where I’ve disagreed with what I presume is the majority is in the belief that neither I nor anyone else has the right to decide for them – for you – how to best promote their work. It’s not my place. It’s not Fred Wilson’s place. It’s not the place of some kid posting mp3’s to Grokster. It’s the band who decides. They should be allowed to make the call without anyone else usurping control. Only in that way do I see a future in which everyone benefits.

  5. Thank you for the interesting and well thought-out post. I am very happy to hear about the “success” 16volt is experiencing as a result of this social experiment. I have long been a fan of the band and was happy to spread the word about the back catalog being released.

    I think the lesson to take away from all of this is that we need to figure out how to capitalize our efforts in this new society. While it’s true that everyone wants something for free; it’s also true that people are willing to pay for things they really enjoy.

    For me, personally, I crave the tangible quality of a CD. I will occasionally download music from the Internet to check it out, but if I enjoy it, I will eventually order the disc to add to my collection. I look it at as equating to taking a test drive in a new automobile.

    I think 16Volt’s approach is an innovative and effective one. I love the fact that I am legally allowed to share their music with my friends.

    I also think FiXT/Position Records has developed an innovative way of releasing “free” music. For those of you unaware, FiXT Records occasionally releases completely free mp3 tracks from their various artists (sometimes they will release one or two whole albums at a time). The only “catch” is that the tracks are sponsored, and each one includes a brief sponsorship message at the beginning of the audio. The concept began when Ubisoft sponsored an album of remixes from Celldweller. More recently, Guitar Center sponsored an entire Blue Stahli album and a full-length sampler album of FiXT artists.

    I can honestly say that the FiXT model has convinced me to buy two new albums already, and I am planning to order two or three more when I have the money and opportunity.

    As I said at the beginning of my comment (before I started rambling); we need to figure out how to capitalize our efforts in this new society. 16Volt and FiXT/Position Records are both taking strides to test the waters and figure out what works for them. I think the actions of both are extremely commendable; and I hope that more artists will find the freedom to do what they want with their music to keep pushing this envelope. The more the artists interact with their potential audiences and find out how they want their music served to them; the better chance they have of capitalizing on their efforts. It’s as simple as that.

    Monetization, open communication and free releases do not always have to be mutually exclusive.

  6. To pursue a ‘creative career’ has always been to tempt tragedy, and as I write there are thousands of talented artists out there starving (or working in low-level office jobs) because they never got their break. It is inevitable that many creative careers will die due to content being infinitely copyable. But the argument has passed beyond whether this is fair or not: it isn’t, and creative careers have never really been fair anyway. The fact is that the product can be copied, and if it can be it will be. That isn’t going to change. Creative professionals will need to make their money selling experiences that can’t be copied: a trip to the cinema; a concert; watching your favorite author on a discussion panel. And there will always be people who will pay for art no matter how freely available it is.

    It’s also important to remember that Pablo Picasso, Mozart and Philip K. Dick were all broke when they died…

  7. One thing that puzzles me about this whole debate: I have NEVER heard Lessig, Doctorow, Barlow, Stallman, or any of the “information wants to be free” crowd, talk about forcibly depriving creators of their rights. They might be encouraging people to release their material for no cost, but even then they advocate Creative Commons licensing to specify and control how their creations may be used, while retaining copyright. I’ve heard e.g. Jerry Pournelle and others in the SF Writers guilds accuse Doctorow and co. of theft.

    I happily pay for music and fiction etc. when it’s GOOD, which effectively means that I support artists that I know and like. In the past I have been burned, too often, by what I call the “pig-in-a-poke problem”: paying money out, upfront, for something that turns out to be rubbish. And that was years ago, when it was possible to take a chance on new popular music having some kind of quality, which I can not say now. If I generalise my opinion on this, it makes sense to me that artists do have to let their work reach public eyes and ears, and judged worthy or popular, before they can expect to be paid for it. There are just too many artists out there, clamouring for my attention and money, that just “putting it out there” is not going to make me open my wallet any more. Sorry …

  8. Brian – I recall after former President Bush’s State of the Union address in which he mentioned Iraq purchasing nuclear materials from Niger, that in his defense an administration spokesperson said he was “technically correct” in his comments, even if the so-called evidence was highly suspect. In other words, the intimation was that average people should have paid significantly more attention to his words and ignored the inferences he was making; should have listened to his words critically and cynically, and then gone and done some homework (between one of their three jobs) to reach their own conclusions. Right. I, personally, have a problem with that kind of excuse.

    In the same way I believe some of the individuals who are considered the champions of, for example, cracking DRM, are engaging in a similar manner. I don’t like DRM any more than the next person, but like it or not, if a musician chooses to enter into a contract which results in the distribution of DRM-protected product, then – if I choose to respect the musician – I can either ignore the product or purchase it with the understanding that my use will be limited. I have that choice and I’m intelligent enough to recognize it as I believe are most people.

    Again, forget Fair Use for a moment, because I’ve seen too many people use it not as legitimate justification but as an excuse for questionable behavior. If Bush’s spokespeople can expect a nation to parse words intended to justify war, it seems reasonable to me to expect that savvy consumers can be aware DRM restricts them in some way. As they say, it’s not rocket science.

    What I’ve seen, however, is a support for DRM-cracking. The justification for supporting this activity usually revolves around Fair Use but also around what seems to me to be a kind of tug-of-war between people like those you mention and the entertainment industry. Fine. Only what about the musicians? What about them? Are they not simply collateral damage? Is that acceptable to everyone? I don’t feel it is.

    When their music is *liberated* and uploaded to P2P “sharing” sites, exactly how should they respond? They can’t really take matters into their own hands because they’ve entered into a contract with the labels. We still operate in the U.S. under a system of laws; they’re not simply ignored. Consequently, they can’t just start doing what they want, and so they become bystanders and casualties while someone like Doctorow somehow has *some* people thinking he puts his books out into the public domain when in fact, just as you assert, he still retains some important rights. I find that especially interesting.

    There’s something wrong in all this, as far as I’m concerned. If I don’t like DRM, I don’t purchase the product, hack the protection and thumb my nose at the company that chose to cripple product in this way. The best way I can respond, in my opinion, is to ignore them and their product entirely, because even a “shared” mp3 can be of monetary value to “the Man”; it just requires a little imagination on how they can leverage it.

    Most people don’t seem to have much imagination in this regards. Or simply choose not to think about it. However, if 16Volt can find a way to make money giving away music, don’t you think an industry full of the kinds of people who brought our financial sector to its knees with “innovations” can figure out how to leverage shared files through tracking systems? I do. And that makes how we as consumers behave especially relevant.

  9. Sven, you changed the metaphor to cooking and stealing food from the kitchen. But of course the original slogan was about home taping of music. Stealing music by recording it to cassette tapes. Theft! Piracy!

    Thirty years ago, I was killing music by making mix tapes with my dual cassette deck. The music labels said real musicians would never make music if anyone could just copy it. Personally, I have more faith in musicians.

    Labels aren’t innovating in ways to make money off free distribution because those methods completely eliminate the labels. If musicians can distribute their own work and fans can pay them directly, what the hell is a label good for? The labels know this. So do more and more musicians.

    I’m not defending breaking the laws of this land (heaven forfend) or going against the wishes of musicians clinging to a sinking business model. I’m just saying, your eloquent rant could just as well be referring to dual cassette decks.

    Maybe also worth noting, Gepetto made Pinocchio for free.

  10. “the man” – Yes, I changed the metaphor because the common denominator is the same and it’s worth recognizing it. In the end, whether tangible product or intangible services, it mostly boils down to Time and Effort. Should the chef not be compensated for his/her Time? Is the person taking Time to cut steel and inject plastic into molds producing trinkets of no real worth inherently of greater value than a musician? Not to me.

    As to cassettes, I’d call that a poor example, as you surely are aware that the technology inherently degrades the recording quality and thus severely limits the impact of illegal distribution by casual listeners.

    I also recorded music to cassette 30 years ago to give to a small circle of real life friends, but the impact was negligible. Digital distribution of perfect copies among thousands of unacquainted people connected via a Network is not. Both are theft, and I’m certainly guilty, but upon recognizing the negative impact on my own listening pleasure, I’ve ceased such activity. I’m too selfish to take only the short-term perspective.

    “Labels aren’t innovating in ways to make money off free distribution because those methods completely eliminate the labels” – you say this with certainty. I’m not so sure. The core advantage a label has, afaic, is distribution control, not merely the price. A label could give music away for free and use it as a means to sell other product; license the music for film or commercials, among other things. There’s no reason in my mind why the business model for labels can’t change with the times. In the end, however, Control could still be theirs.

    “If musicians can distribute their own work and fans can pay them directly, what the hell is a label good for? The labels know this. So do more and more musicians.” – Again, you seem certain of your understanding. I’d venture you haven’t read or haven’t considered that some musicians want to make music, not become business managers/marketers/lawyers/publicists/etc. Musicians personally handling their own business affairs are musicians not making music. It’s called the “music industry” because it *is* an industry; it employs people from a wide variety of professions and those activities do not all go away when a band goes straight to the masses. Even 16Volt has a publicist. And in a world increasingly awash in democratized but mostly mediocre music, I suspect it’ll be more and more difficult for genuinely talented musicians to be found in the noise.

    Also worth noting, at no time did Gepetto digitize Pinocchio and upload the plans to people with CNC machines in their living rooms. There is only one Pinocchio because tangibility is an effective form of DRM. For now.

  11. I think cassettes are a pretty good example, especially in terms of the rhetoric of piracy. 20 years ago, the music licensing companies argued that people making degraded records off degraded FM radio was going to shut down all legitimate music sales. Why would anyone pay for music ever again when they could just make a cassette copy?!? Laughable, right?

    And yet today, the same music licensing companies are arguing that people saving degraded MP3 recordings of degraded internet radio are going to shut down all legitimate music sales. *sigh*

    As you point out, the we’re awash in democratized but mostly mediocre music. And that is not going to change. The tools for creating and distributing music, once only available to well-funded companies, are now in the range of cheap to free. So unless someone (you?) manage to convince everyone in the world to please stop making music unless they happen to be really great at it, that’s the way it is. Which means the really tricky thing for a musician today is not getting a contract so pay for the massive expense of recording and distributing, but the difficulty in being found and appreciated in a vast sea of free culture.

    Let me clarify that I don’t say this with certainty. But I do suspect that this is why bands like 16volt would have a still have a publicist — a job that actually becomes more important — while the jobs of jewel case maker or long box printer or typesetter or piano roll puncher are somewhat less central to the music business these days.

    I deeply (and personally) sympathize your defense of creative people who want to be paid for their labor. But I think where your defense of musicians bleeds into a defense of an obsolete business model, it needs to be more closely examined.

  12. But once Pinocchio became a “real boy,” the code for reproducing Gepetto’s creation was contained within the creation itself. If only he’d stuck to making wooden puppets or vinyl LPs…

  13. As I said to 16V, I’ve long believed the recording industry’s fears were insufficiently founded; thus I’ve already essentially agreed to the issue surrounding the rhetoric involving duplicating devices. That does not, however, mean that the circumstances differentiating the two – cassette and mp3 – are inconsequential on a non-rhetorical, practical level.

    Thirty years ago it required significant Time to duplicate a cassette and pass it along to friends. Today it requires almost no Time and the distribution passes along a globally connected network. Forget the rhetoric and instead acknowledge that there is, in fact, a legitimate cause for concern by rights holders regarding the *current* technology. 16V is a rights holder and if I were in Eric Powell’s position I’d be extraordinarily hesitant to place my faith in the masses; they’ve certainly not shown themselves to be especially trustworthy.

    Bottom line, if your not a musician or some other creator whose work is subject to unauthorized distribution and your livelihood is threatened as a result, then you can’t fully understand their situation. It’s easy to be on the outside when your profession and means of making a living aren’t threatened. Try to put imagine being in their shoes while reminding yourself there is still no proven business model for musicians operating in this environment.

    As for defending business model, you’ll have to point out to me where I’m defending it, or appear to be defending it in your eyes.

    It could be argued Gepetto gave Pinocchio a form of DRM: the same rights all “real” people enjoy. So, are you suggesting that when Pinocchio became a “real boy” his reproductive code was suddenly opened to the masses and thus raping him to spread his seed was acceptable? Sure sounds that way.

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