I’m back from my big European vacation and spending a fair amount of time looking for a new job, but when not wondering where the next pay check is coming from, I’ve been working on a novel about hipsters. Having lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and the Mission in San Francisco, I consider myself something of an expert on the odd phenomenon that is the American Hipster. I’ve been spending afternoons and evenings writing in trendy coffee shops and PBR-filled dive bars in order to better observe my subjects. I’m sure anyone taking a look at my disheveled appearance as I type away on my shiny mac laptop is likely to consider me a hipster, yet neither I nor any of the tight-jeaned urbanites I write about would ever admit to being one. This is the odd paradox of the hipster.
While eavesdropping on a particularly pretentious mustachioed hipster, I overheard him first blast modern youth for making his band unprofitable by refusing to pay for music and only downloading it free, then go on to vilify hulu.com for daring to insert commercials within the video content he viewed on the site. This hypocrisy got me wondering if such sloppy logic is the norm, and the more I look for it, the more I find it. In case it isn’t obvious, here’s my problem with this guy’s logic. He feels that the media he consumes should come at no cost (he won’t view ads to offset the cost of creation or pay a fee directly to the creators) yet the media he creates should be paid for (people who download his music should give him a cut). He has no qualms about using technology to circumvent advertising in his media, yet is infuriated when others do the same to him.
This self-defeating state of affairs has to end at some point if professional media is going to remain a viable source of income for those who choose to create it. The media industry, in particular the film industry, has made some pretty heavy-handed attempts at making the case that piracy equals theft, but they always seem hollow. I, personally, don’t feel guilty about ripping off some big film studio that’s been gouging me for years with $12-$14 movie tickets, or the music company that charged me $14 for a CD back when I was thirteen years old and they could still get away with it. When Lars Ulrich of Metallica, a multi-millionaire, goes up against Napster, of course I’m rooting for Napster.
However, when I go see a small act that I really like perform at some small venue, I nearly always buy the t-shirt, even if I just wind up giving it away as a gift. The reason I do this is because I know that all the money I spend on that t-shirt is going right into the band’s pockets, not siphoned off by a greedy promoter, ticket-bastard (my pet name for Ticket Master), or a record label that by design cares more about profit than producing good music.
Sipping my over-priced, hipster-approved Cafe Americano, I have an a-ha moment: what if we came up with a way to market “fair-trade” media the same way coffee sellers let us know the independent farmer down in Guatemala is getting his fair share? Some of the big players like iTunes or hulu could easily find ways to be more transparent about how the money spent on media, or time spent with advertising, directly benefits the makers of the media content. It’s easy to steal from a faceless corporation, but it’s hard to steal from a person–especially a person you like. What if I could log into my iTunes account and see a summary of how the money I spent in the last year went to each of the artists I bought from? I think it might work.