The Narcissism of Free

Rather than seeing pro-piracy arguments through the lens of copyright policy or economic theory or under the all-purpose banner of technological progress, let’s finally view them for what they are: the arguments of unrepentant narcissists.

Not long ago, the widespread establishment of legal streaming services online was seen as a possible or even probable antidote to piracy. If legal options were available for people to access the music they wanted to listen to, piracy would become both less necessary and less attractive, and the music industry could begin a slow and steady recovery. This ideally would involve actual musicians being able to earn money from the music they created, if or when listeners want to listen to it.1

Such was the theory. In practice, legal streaming has turned into piracy’s smaller, more attractive, but still kind of icky younger brother. While this may change in the future (although no one can yet say how2), so far, streaming services have struggled with the concept of compensating musicians with much more integrity than pirates do (and pirates, of course, don’t).

The problem at one level appears to be structural—endemic to the complicated landscape of licensing and rights and things most of us don’t want to think about but which directly affect both the ability and the desire of corporate entities to compensate artists fairly.

But beneath the legalistic difficulties is something at once simpler and more challenging—the fact that great numbers of music listeners in the year 2014 don’t seem to view music as something they either want or need to pay for.

Many consider this, at its heart, a generational problem, as it does seem to be the under-30 crowd who are most committed to a not-buying-music lifestyle. But generational generalizations are tiresome and pointless. First, a news flash: not everyone who is the same general age exhibits the same behavior.3 Second, has there ever been an upcoming generation in the U.S. that hasn’t been scorned for its various and profound inadequacies? Lastly, just who was it who raised these youngsters to be such reprehensible citizens in the first place?

And even if it is younger people who are most disinclined to buy music, I still say the problem isn’t generational. I see it as an issue that digs deep into the uncomfortable recesses of human nature, and the systems we create in an effort to live together.

Vigorously anti-social

I am talking in particular about capitalism and its tetchy relationship with compassion and fairness. Because, unless counteracted via law or custom or both, the basic capitalist desire to accrue wealth has at its heart a vigorously anti-social aspect. To accumulate MY money, I must as often as possible get it or take it, in one way or another, from YOU (“you” being anyone “not me”). The easiest way to effect this successfully is to think as little about YOU as possible, and as much about ME. If I in fact can convince myself that that YOUR concerns are either nonexistent or in any case meaningless, then it’s much easier for ME to do what it takes to keep accumulating money. For ME.

Another way of saying all this is that capitalism is an inherently narcissistic enterprise.

The urge to seek the lowest prices possible on anything and everything is part of this mindset, and so, obviously, is the widespread 21st-century belief that creative output such as music and films can and should be accessible without any cost to the end user. In a way, piracy as practiced on the internet is simply the inherent narcissism of capitalism taken to its logical extreme: I don’t have to spend MY money, and I still get YOUR stuff! How cool is that?

But it’s not just piracy. Now that legal streaming has been established to satisfy the same narcissistic urges as piracy previously has, it is simply reinforcing the self-centered belief in the necessity of free, while acquiring the veneer of respectability in the process. So on the one hand it’s legal, and some people are actually paying for it, which seems positive; on the other hand, free and/or super-low-cost, unlimited streaming leaves the people who actually create the music everyone still wants to listen to poorly compensated at best. Even engaged listeners are often not paying listeners.4

The harm in the situation extends far beyond injustice to the creators. We can’t have inequity at the heart of a cultural system and not harm ourselves in the long run. No good ever comes from bowing to the petulant demands of narcissism. Music as an endless, free, all-you-can-eat buffet? Does this really seem like a good idea? All I can bring to mind are those bloated, immobile humans from the movie WALL-E, who found themselves convenienced and pampered into uselessness. Our appetites are designed to be sated, not given over to without cessation. Nourishment turns noxious without a sense of limit.

The cumulative wisdom of human history

And yet those engaged in the cultural gorging appear to feel little but entitlement. It would seem that the unprecedented appearance of items of value in an effectual state of free—i.e., songs, in digital form—flipped a switch in our collective consciousness that activated the narcissistic tendency that lurks no doubt in all of us, but which most of us are civilized into de-emphasizing. Like looters during an urban blackout, we found the free stuff too tempting. Perhaps all it ever takes for narcissism to bust loose of its inner reigns is the assurance that we won’t get caught when we give in to it.

Among the many reasons I have always found the “music should be free” arguments so infuriating is the self-serving illogic of the basic premise. Freeloaders are saying on the one hand that they value music enough to want as much of it as they can cram onto their hard drives, or pile into streaming playlists, and yet on the other hand that it has no value at all, since they don’t want to pay for it.

And here exactly is where the underlying narcissism is most exposed. For a 21st-century music fan to say both “I value this so much that I am hoarding it” and “I refuse to pay for it” requires him (or her; usually him) to overlook the cumulative history and wisdom of humanity itself, all for the sake of his own personal gain.

Which is to say that since the beginning of human civilization, a basic, necessary rule has been in place when it comes to the exchange of goods and services. The underlying premise is: you want something from me, you pay for it. That payment may be in the form of bartering for goods and/or services of an equivalent value, or it may be in the form of agreed-upon currency. Yes, there have always been people who have decided to reject this system for their own benefit, and we have a name for these people. We call them criminals.

The fact that what a person may want in the 21st century exists as a digital file does not nullify the workings of civilization. A digital file is still a thing, it is still something that someone may desire to have, and, if the owner of the file is asking a price for it, then it is not up to the person who wants the file to decide that he gets it for free.

It is definitely not up to this same person to invent rationalizations to “prove” that he deserves it for free (“Piracy is not theft,” “The marginal costs of a digital file are zero,” et al.).5 But of course this is exactly what a narcissist, ever convinced simultaneously of his own entitlement and infallibility, would want and need to do. Narcissists do not tend to be shy and retiring.

A wave of narcissistic delusion

All of which is not to imply that the only people who have helped themselves to unauthorized MP3s online are full-on, clinically-defined narcissists. A sizable number of empathetic, socially-attuned people have slipped to the dark side of the issue all but unknowingly. I would bet that a lot of folks who have routinely downloaded illegally distributed MP3s not only don’t think of themselves as pirates, but barely recognize they are doing anything at all untoward.

As for those who are simply employing legal streaming services, they are quite literally doing nothing wrong at all in the eyes of the law.

But you don’t have to be a narcissist to have been addled by a collective wave of narcissistic delusion. For it is widespread narcissistic behavior that seems to have tilted the scale here. The extreme position of “everything for free” has been all but normalized—the loudest voices in the room willfully squelching the gentler voices of reason, a radical agenda hidden behind re-defined and incredibly self-serving concepts of “innovation” and “disruption.”6

What’s more, the aggressive force of collective narcissism has rushed in to fill the natural intellectual vacuum most of us would otherwise have on matters of artist rights and such in the first place. This is especially true of the generation of young people making the transition from child to adult here in the 21st century, who only know the environment in which they were born and raised.

So loud and insistent have been the narcissistic voices of “give me what I want for free” that any number of musicians themselves have been swept up in the fever. I encounter bands semi-regularly who seem proud of their determination to offer all their songs for free, because that’s how to get their music “out there.” And yet this is not the public service they seem to believe it is; it is, rather, its own sort of narcissistic misconception, grounded in the self-centered idea that everyone can and should love you, that they should gorge themselves on your music, that the only thing standing in the way of widespread adulation is the minor detail of payment.7

This is a fever that can and must break. Some of us have to have enough perspective to understand that the narcissist’s way is a cultural and societal dead end, much the way the extreme libertarianism that it often aligns with is a dead end. Civilization is impossible if driven by a philosophy fixated on the primacy and the freedom of the Self while consistently resisting any effort to extend compassion or sympathy (or payment!) to other Selves. There’s a good reason we don’t let toddlers run the day care center.

Piracy and/or free music for all is not innovation; it is a breach in the social contract. Narcissists innately do not understand the social contract. The rest of us know better. We need to start using louder voices.

1. Let us all please remember, briefly, that society does not owe all musicians a so-called living wage simply because they are musicians. What we do owe them is money for music that they make if we like it enough to want to have access to it on demand, and if they are seeking payment for it.

2. So it’s probably not going to change.

3. Surely there are plenty of younger people out there who are in fact buying music; we should be encouraging them, not insulting them with blanket assumptions.

4. In point of fact, the streaming system as currently constructed is entirely unsustainable, based on how little those who are paying are, in fact, paying. See a recent post by The Cynical Musician for a much more in-depth discussion of why low-priced, all-you-can-eat streaming is a house of cards waiting to be blown down.

5. By the way, can we put an end once and for all to the ridiculous, toddler-like argument of “Hey, I didn’t take anything, he still has his own copy!” The people who pull this one out hope you will be so dazzled by their legalistic dissection of what constitutes “theft” that you will ignore the clear fact that violation of the law and/or general wrongdoing does not depend exclusively upon “taking” something. (If you set a tent up in someone’s backyard without permission, you are still violating their rights, while taking nothing.) To take MP3s without permission is to gain unauthorized access to an artist’s work. This is a violation of the creator’s rights, plain and simple.

6. Digital ideologues routinely point to the concept of “stifling innovation” as just about the most awful crime imaginable. Never mind that the pro-piracy folks themselves continue to stifle any effort at innovation when it comes to properly compensating artists

7. I am not trying to be harsh here. I know that bands who offer their music for free are really just trying to do what they believe to be the right thing, out of the goodness of their hearts. I use this example precisely to show how mixed up the narcissistic underpinning of the “free music” movement has gotten everyone.

3 thoughts on “The Narcissism of Free”

  1. I recently have jumped over to the streaming world and am a paying subscriber to Google’s All Access service ($10/month). Honestly, I absolutely love it as a music fan – it’s the best bang for my buck. If I were putting my own homemade music up there, however, it’d be a different story.

    I used to purchase $30-$50 per month in digital music (from amazon mp3 and bandcamp mostly). That effectively has dropped to a fixed $10/month and I receive 100x more music at my fingertips.

    I’ve been going over it in my head – Am I doing the morally right thing? I mean yeah, I’m paying for it, but is it enough? If you talked to me a year ago and said that I could get the same service, but it was for $30/month, I STILL would have jumped on it. Heck, I would now, too, knowing that artists are actually being paid properly.

    I don’t know the answer to this question. I probably won’t for a long time. There’s one side of me that says – THIS IS THE FUTURE, where the other side of me is saying – YOU’RE HELPING GOOGLE SCREW OVER MUSICIANS.

    Honestly, I wish it DID cost more. I think that a possible solution would be to really have the streaming services get competitive with one another by having some differentiation on the label end of things. It’d be cool if, say, you could pick and choose to pay directly to labels and only listen to their roster on a per month basis.


    1. Mark-
      Clearly this is not completely a black and white situation, and clearly you’re not alone in not knowing the answer! No one does, although there are way too many people out there who seem to think they do.

      Whatever unfolds, I think it’s crucial to keep an eye on proper compensation, because unfettered capitalism does not have a history of compensating anyone all that well except those at the very top. And yes here in the music industry things may never revert to previously levels of compensation for musicians, but I don’t think that’s an excuse for out and out exploitation. Some creativity will be necessary here, and your suggestion is one good example.

      But this kind of creativity is not likely to emerge from the current tech environment, in which all anyone is really trying to do is strike it rich as quickly as possible.

      As for what we are supposed to do, as music supporters, in the meantime, yikes, it’s just tricky. Paying for streaming is paying *something*, and it’s of course all entirely legal. But supporting companies that aer pretty actively screwing the musicians doesn’t seem like good karma. (Of course, back in the day lots of record companies were themselves in the business of screwing musicians too. What a world.) I kind of sidestep the issue myself, as I use a streaming service (Spotify at this point) exclusively to listen to things that I want to hear before I can decide if I will buy them. If I like, then I buy. Sometimes even, still, on a CD; imagine that! Obviously I’m as yet an ownership guy versus an access guy. Which is a whole other story.


  2. Yeah, I just get super confused by what seems like misinformation pushed by the tech side. What they always seem to come back to is: “welp, the flood gates are already open, no use in holding back the tide now!”

    I go to dmn sometimes, but even that can feel like fox news. The most reliable source of info, not to mention one of the funnier blogs to read, is by the cynical musician. His no nonsense approach really makes his articles great and real readable for those not brushed up on economic theory.

    I’d love to see Bandcamp or someone come up with a streaming service that just wipes the floor with everyone else, all while compensating musicians fairly. I could probably go on for hours with ideas. We need a subreddit for ideas.


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