I first met songwriter Bill Ritchie when he showed up to post a series of impassioned comments about the moral neutrality of digital downloading on my blog, the Hooded Utilitarian. I was intrigued, and he kindly agreed to continue the conversation by granting me an interview.
Splice Today: Could you briefly summarize your career in music? How long have you been a songwriter and whom have you worked with?
Bill Ritchie: About 20 years ago I found myself sitting around with two friends, one of whom was a guy from England named Peter Bruntnell, and one of whom was a classmate of mine from university named Brian Hepburn. The three of us wrote something together—and Pete was already a fully functioning pub player, so he had a dictaphone on him, and in a way that was that, it was all suddenly concrete just because it was on tape. And then Pete and I did another one by ourselves the next night and really sweated over it, and then all of a sudden we had something going, and we kept it up when he'd come to Vancouver. In-between we spent a lot of time on the phone, and then I went to England and he told me he'd been getting into Uncle Tupelo, so he'd decided he wanted to write within the stricter parameters of alt-country music—not just random pop/rock songs. Then that became the Normal For Bridgwater record, which ended up being quite popular and well-reviewed, so then somehow it became something more like finding a voice, and a caree
ST: I know you don’t want to get into too many specifics for legal and personal reasons, but could you talk in general about what sorts of problems you’ve had, or that you know others have had, with record companies in terms of getting paid for your work?
BR: Oh, well, hell … I guess the problem is essentially that you're supposed to get paid, and then you don't get paid. There's actually such a rich historical record of this kind of thing, that it's become the stuff of aphorism in our society: large entertainment-based companies who walk off with other people's money because most people can't afford to sue them, and because they figure they've got enough plausible deniability for a coin flip in court. Why, I believe they may even make Hollywood movies about this from time to time, Noah! So it boggles my mind when people I know still express astonishment when (for example) I tell them my story—which is just a simple story about not getting paid money that I'm really unambiguously owed, commonest thing you ever heard, yet somehow it throws them for a loop … and then they say something like "and they figure you can't afford to sue", and then I laugh and say "not only that, but they're right!" Of course recently I have got myself into a lawsuit, so … who knows, maybe I'll finally be able to get that shiny pink Caddy I've had my eye on … or, you know, a bike or something.
ST: How have your problems with record companies influenced your feelings about illegal downloading? Do you see “illegal” downloading as illegal, even?
BR: As it happens, there's a silver lining to my problems with getting paid. I can always trump someone who's ranting away about how downloading is stealing, it's wrong, it's immoral, all that stuff because I can always point out that even if downloading were theft (which it isn't, it's copyright infringement), it sure wouldn't be me any downloaders were stealing from if they copied thus-and-such a song because I don't get paid for the sales of the record it's on anyway, somebody else has got the money. So, "Whom are you defending?" is a question that I'm happy to be able to raise in that sort of discussion, because I just want to put it out there to people that this isn't all cut-and-dried. I'm a music rights holder and I'm fine with downloaders, and not okay with the hyper-righteous criticism of them, because, hey, I'm out actual dollars that were already paid for my work, so why are we sitting around debating whether or not someone who downloaded represents a potential lost sale for someone who's not me anyway, right?
In general terms, this conversation needs serious overhauling, it's just been so dominated by talking heads from the RIAA, and they're a little too good at giving the impression that they're speaking for "their" artists. I've told my rights society that I want to see someone who's not a record-company lawyer out there talking, just to counteract the growing illusion of paternal trustworthiness: "Hey, buddy, those aren't your artists they're our members, thank you very much!" I don't think they'll do it, because they're often trying to get the same blood from the same stone—they used to send me Addenda To Agreements that signed me up for the digital blank media levy, which at the time I thought was not my money to take. This is just the computer version of the levy they put on cassette tapes years ago to compensate people for the illegal copying those were used for, that they couldn't stop from happening, right? Only now it was computer memory, and it seemed to me at that time that such memory was being used mostly for digital photographs, general storage, etc. So I didn't sign on.
And to be honest I wouldn't mind a slice of that now, since digital music has turned legitimately into a major use of that memory, but I can't bring myself to do it because I don't want anybody to be able to point to me and say, "See, he's down with the program too" because I'm not—not as long as the levy's out there but people are still getting sued for copying, still getting called thieves. I mean, the levy's whole purpose is to act as compensation for that stuff: to my mind, going after damages on top of it is just double-dipping. You heard about the woman who was ordered to pay $1.2 million or something for having a couple dozen songs on her hard drive? "But damn it where's my levy money too." It seems wrong; it seems unjust.
And it's all done in the name of the artist. Meanwhile if anybody was so inclined we could've gotten smart about this a long time ago, monetized P2P file sharing like radio, even kept the levy on top of it and let that lady copy her songs and keep her house. This is where the discussion needs to be, but it isn't. Instead it's hung up on some moralistic high-horse garbage that's got nothing to do with what's best for artists, i.e. what's the best way to put money in the artist's pocket, and I see a lot of that coming from RIAA spin going unchecked by rights societies. And meanwhile, plenty of artists still have to sue to get paid by record companies anyway. And meanwhile that lady needs some spin on her side, and who's going to donate it to her? Hence the silver lining: as long as I'm pushing the money on the table away from me, at least I can stick up my hand and say, "I'm not down with this whole cluster of a situation, I think it's disgusting and that's why I don't participate and by the way oh yeah maybe the people calling her a thief wouldn't mind riding to my rescue a little more directly from time to time." By which I mean: as far as I'm concerned, speaking as an artist, you can download away, go nuts. Because if there's one thing it isn't, it's skin off my nose.
ST: Do you think the ease of digital copying will ultimately help artists? Shouldn’t it hurt those, like songwriters, who don’t necessarily perform and so can’t use it for promotion?
BR: Well, this is what we have to talk our way through, obviously: this embedded idea that digital copying hurts artists, this excellent RIAA spin. So you're asking if it might not help artists instead, which is a question I appreciate hearing—a question that needs more frequent asking!—but now that I've thanked you for it, Noah, I'm just going to attack it slightly. Because it isn't just that copying might help rather than hurt, but that the idea it could hurt rests on an absurdity, and so if we really want to talk sensibly about it we have to talk about it in a much less overheated way.
And the first step towards that is: that idea about the "hurting," that's such really incredible smoke for such a little fire, because for artists getting heard and getting paid will always go together, no matter how the specific mechanics of that relationship get tweaked in response to new tools and new technologies. Right? I mean what are we supposed to do, just all stop writing and playing because computers exist? Can we really imagine a world in which as artists get heard more, they get paid less? It's nonsensical. It's like saying Elton John's going bankrupt because of all the buskers sitting outside liquor stores playing "Rocket Man," all the piano-bar guys in Caribbean resorts playing "Your Song." Really, exactly like saying that: because is it anybody else but the million-dollar earners who don't see a pretty direct correlation between being heard more, and making more money?
I'm somewhere down near the rag-end of the midlist, myself: if Pete gets another 50 people coming to each of his shows when he's on tour, by God three quarters later I feel it in my bankbook, and then it's throw out that sausage, Myrtle, and bring in the steak! So what are the odds, if illegal downloading is even a noticeable problem for me, that somebody's free listen didn't bring them into the house, and drive the future sales? Unless downloading isn't any sort of problem for me anyway; but then you can't have it both ways. And meanwhile back in the 1970s, no one even has any figures on how many mixed tapes were in circulation that started with "Sympathy For The Devil.” No one has any credible data from the 80s about how many ended with "Roxanne." And somehow, who knows how, Sting still manages to live in a castle—hey, you really have to wonder how the poor bastard scrapes enough dough together to pay the rent. Well, he can't borrow from Mick, that's for sure!
It's all just such a ludicrous ghost story: like fans sneak into your house at night and steal your money; if there's one thing in the world you can't trust as a musician it's your fans! Totally insane. But this is where I generally lose a bunch of people who are invested in some really cutthroat idea of human nature, because they think there are no people who will buy the cow if they can get the milk for free, which is a totally wrong assumption. And any musician can prove it, from the guy outside the liquor store with a guitar case full of quarters, to the guy who has a fan buy him a beer at a show he's already paid to see, to Thom Yorke—yeah, even unto the guy who has people paying a buck for his song on iTunes. Music fans support musicians and music creators even when they don't have to, because they're not in it for rational economic self-interest, they're in it for love and that's the only place money ever comes from, the only place it's ever come from, the only place it ever will come from, as far as music is concerned.
And because of that, it's hard to imagine what would have to happen for the heard/paid equation to be broken. The one unalterable fact is that you can't get paid if no one hears you! But if you're popular as hell and still not getting paid, then either you're taking an unusually low interest in getting paid, or somebody else is getting paid—directly, paid—your money instead of you. And that's simple enough, right? However it's just as simple to see that in no case can you expect to get directly paid every single time any of your songs is recorded, heard, played, swapped, because that's a dream world.
And in just the same way, it just isn't realistic to think of digital copying as some kind of standalone activity, that you can somehow separate out from the general use and general availability of digital technology enough to call it dangerous on its own. I actually think it verges on willful self-harm to think about it this way, it's so grandiose: after all, the same machines that allow people to copy stuff effortlessly are also the machines that enable artists to take recording and distribution costs that used to be really, really hard costs, and start cutting them down, and down, and down. I don't think you'll find an artist anywhere who thinks having these extra tools at hand is anything but a help, and so why are we talking about the copying? Who brought that up, and why is everybody making such a fuss about it? It's just another fact of life, that's got to be adapted to.
ST: Would you like to see copyright law changed or abolished? Or would you prefer just less enforcement?
BR: I certainly wouldn't like to see copyright law abolished, not just because it'd be a return to the Bad Old Days where any artist is just a gerbil on someone else's treadmill, but because I think what's true in fact ought to be true in law as well. When I make something, I hold the right to copy it as a simple matter of fact: because no one else has the original. I could throw it away, if I wanted to. I don't have to share it. I could send it in a letter to my mother, and transfer its ownership completely to her or I could burn it up, and no one would ever be the wiser. I think this is why we now say that copyright is inherent in the act of creation. But I do think we need to have some serious back-to-philosophy thinking on the matter, not just as far as music goes but in all spheres of intellectual property. We need to be more factual, and we need to be more fair, and we need to decide just what's in the general interest and what isn't, and how to balance those interests properly, and what our rationale truly ought to be in doing so. Just "changing" this kind of law; we shouldn't do that any more than we should just "change" a physical theory. We should instead find a better theory that explains this one better too.