Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Imperfect Entertainment

Imperfect Entertainment

I made a number of bad decisions today; this is the latest one. I am operating on four hours of sleep. I am supposed to be programming for a demo I am supposed to give tomorrow, but thanks to the sleep deprivation I cannot focus. First I went to a dentist appointment that was pretty expensive and pretty worrying. Instead of going home for a nap I went on a spending spree and ate 1000 calories of junk food. Then I made the problem worse by hanging out at the library, where I surfed blogs and acted in socially awkward ways that made others feel uncomfortable. Instead of leaving the library I stuck around, because there was a free concert being put on by a brass quartet. After (finally!) coming home from the library I am stuffing my face with another 1500 calories of food, and instead of getting some sleep I am writing this blog entry. Clearly, good judgement is not my strong suit (and clearly operating on four hours of sleep is a really really stupid thing to do). Nonetheless, I feel compelled to write about the concert, so I will.

The performance was put on by a group called "Opus IV". The quartet consisted of two trumpet players, a trombone player, and a tuba player (who seemed to be the group's leader). They played a selection of Christmas music, including some obscure Medieval carols and some secular popular pieces. Given that I have been recruited into the War On Christmas I am supposed to despise all Christamas music, but for the most part it wasn't cloying. In fact, I enjoyed many of the tunes -- in particular some of the more obscure carols I had never heard before. Feeding my sleep deprivation by staying at the library and listening to the concern was a bad life choice, but the concert itself was enjoyable enough. I felt bad that the audience was so small, but I was not surprised; I would not have learned about the event if I had not been physically in the library that day.

This concert reminded me of how much I like tuba. This is hardly an objective opinion; way back in middle school I played baritone and tuba, and might have continued had I not felt anxious that playing tuba would require me to shave my beard (although given that this concert's tuba player was bearded, I needn't have worried). The rich tuba tones resonated with me, and it was nice to hear that the tuba player got lots of interesting stuff to play -- often the tuba carried the main melody. It is likely that I will never play tuba again in my life -- the instrument is big and heavy and expensive, and I have forgotten how to read music -- but listening to the concert stirred up some emotional resonance that I had forgotten about.

Here's the thing: I thought the concert was more-or-less enjoyable. I found the music stirred up my emotions. But the concert was not perfect. In particular, I did not find the concert professional. The players were not always on beat. Sometimes they missed notes. Although they did not sound bad their performance was not perfect, and would likely have benefited from more rehearsal. I am pretty sure that Opus IV is an amateur group, and maybe it showed.

Here's the other thing: I have no problem with the concert performance being imperfect. For the most part their errors did not distract from my enjoyment of their work. I feel that their performance was good enough.

It also warmed my heart to see that the members of the band were older. This wasn't some high school group performing pieces for school credit. This wasn't a professional group depending upon ticket sales to earn their livings. This was a bunch of people (maybe in their 50s? 60s?) who had gotten together to play music and perform it for others, and very likely they did not get (and probably were not expecting) financial benefit. There is a way of framing this experience that is uniformly positive: these players get the benefit of practicing music together and performing it for an audience. The audience enjoyed a live performance of music. The KPL was able to host the event in its public space, thus helping make the arts accessible to the public-at-large. In this framing, everybody is getting something positive out of the experience and nobody is getting ripped off (other than maybe the players for getting such a small audience).

However, there is way to frame this concert that makes it seem deeply unethical. If we presume that entertainers and artists deserve financial compensation for their work, then almost everything about this event is wrong. It is wrong for hobby entertainers to undercut the rates professional entertainers might charge. It is wrong for audience members (including me) to listen to this musical performance without paying the artists, since if nothing else, musical instruments and sheet music cost money. If the KPL gave the artists a small honorarium for their work, then it is unethical becaue the artists are not being fairly compensated; if they are fairly compensated then taxpayers should be mad because turnout at the event was low (and maybe should be mad because the performance itself was imperfect musically). Other than the freeloading audience, it is safe to say that every other party in this concert has some reason to feel ripped off.

The key difference between these two ways of framing the concert is the expectation of payment. Do entertainers have the right to make livings from their work? Is it unethical to set up situations where artists are not compensated for their work? We have this debate again and again and again, and we don't get anywhere productive.

I don't know that I have useful opinions to add to the debate, but I have opinions, so let's continue this day of poor judgement by fanning the flames.

Firstly, I believe we live in a world in which copying is cheaper and easier than ever before. We routinely record audio, and (technologically speaking) it is trivial to copy this audio. Every time you listen to music over the Internet (even streamed music protected with DRM) that music has somehow been copied to your computer.

Secondly, I acknowledge that art is difficult to make. Even the concert I attended represented hours and hours of work by the performers. Creating original works of art are even more time-consuming.

Thirdly, I believe that consumer expectations of art and entertainment are unrealistically high. We want our music -- especially our recorded music -- to be perfect, in tune, without glitches. And it is possible for us to refine our aesthetic senses so that we find imperfect entertainment painful to consume. I suffer from this snobbishness with respect to Hollywood movies, for instance: I expect plots to hold together with some consistency, and when that consistency is broken I find it difficult to "just enjoy the movie". Having said that, I assert that our entertainment need not be perfect in order for us to find that entertainment enjoyable, and if the purpose of entertainment is to distract and entertain us, even mediocrity can serve the purpose.

Fourthly, for the most part I feel that we have alienated ourselves from the production of art, and I feel that some of that alienation is a result of the high expectations we have set for ourselves by professionalizing art. Many of us are afraid to play musical instruments or sing out loud, because we know we cannot produce music with the perfection we hear in our recordings. In other words, we cannot compete with the best musicians (and the best audio editing) in the world, so many of us -- including me -- feel shy about trying.

(Oddly, the one art I can think of that we have not professionalized in this way is dance. Professional dancers exist, and it is true that people feel shy about dancing in public, but it is socially acceptable to dance at parties even if you dance poorly.)

Fifthly, I believe it is natural for humans to create music. I remember listening to a Quirks and Quarks episode called "Apps for Apes", which mostly discussed giving iPads to orangutans. One researcher from York University claimed that orangutans did not have an ear for music, because they did not prefer music that sounded good to humans over sounds created by chopping up human music and playing the bits in a random order. If this study is true, then it would suggest that musicality is fundamental to humanity. At the very least, it is hard to argue that people are not innately musical. We might not be willing to sing in public, and we may not be trained to sing in tune, but we still feel the urge to sing.

This leads to my sixth opinion: music and other forms of entertainment will continue to exist even if they are not professionalized, and furthermore this entertainment has the capacity to entertain us sufficiently even if it is not the best entertainment that humans are capable of producing (by pretty much any non-circular metric by which you measure "best"). Large entertainment industries wield implicit (and sometimes not-so-implicit) threats against us: that if we freeload instead of purchasing Big Entertainment, there will be no entertainment left. I might believe that certain forms of entertainment -- maybe expensive Hollywood movies and top-tier video games -- might cease to exist, but I do not believe that entertainment will cease to exist. People naturally create art without realistic expectations of financial compensation; and today's technology makes it easier to create and share many kinds of cultural works than ever before. Even if we throw away all technology invented after the nineteenth (or even fifteenth) century, we would still be able to tell each other stories and play music for each other.

Seventhly, it is my opinion that entertainment is fungible, in the sense that it is pretty easy for people to switch from one form of entertainment to another, and still feel adequately entertained by the new form.

As an illustration of this opinion: think of the narrative often spouted by people who get rid of their television sets. Often they find their lives have been filled with other activities, and often they wonder how they found the time to watch all of that TV before.

As another illustration, consider your favourite television show ever. What happens when that television show is cancelled? Do you pine away for the rest of your life, heartbroken and dejected? Are you forced to face the banal horrors of existence without that particular TV show? Or do you find some other television show that is good enough to keep you entertained, even if it is not as good as your own favorite? If entertainment is not fungible, why would you expect that any other television show should be able to fulfill the role of your favourite cancelled show?

Eighthly, it is my opinion that compensating artists for their art is not immoral, in the sense that artists should be prohibited from financial gain. But I also feel that it should not be mandatory for artists to be financially compensated for their work. This is the harshest and most contentious opinion in this essay, but I feel that it may not be that immoral to expect artists and entertainers to have day jobs, even when their true talents and inclinations lie in producing art. For the most part I have a hard time believing that many artists manage to live off the avails of their art. Some do. Those who can get enormous numbers of people to pay attention (and then money) to them can become spectacularly wealthy. But I think most artists do not make much money from their art even without cheap digital copies being ubiquitious.

Ninthly, I believe I would be mostly okay if Big Entertainment was to collapse. There are certainly movies that have moved me emotionally, and maybe I have watched movies that have changed my life. I do not deny that movies are art. But if the movie industry was to be eradicated, and all movies were to suddenly disappear, then I would probably be okay with that. Until the Calamity comes and civilization collapses even this seems unlikely. For one thing, people are still creating movies without any expectations of financial compensation. Secondly, plenty of great movies exist already -- probably more movies than any one person could consume in his or her lifetime. This is even more the case for recorded music.

Tenthly, it is my opinion that Big Entertainment does great harm in trying to protect their business models and profits. They push for ridiculous extensions to copyright laws that hurt society more than they help (if nothing else, think of all the things that are under copyright but will be forgotten in the coming decades). They lobby for digital restrictions management that makes open source multimedia software effectively illegal even when those digital restrictions are ineffective (thanks to the updated Copyright Act, it is effectively illegal to play a DVD from the public library on a Linux computer using free software exclusively, even though the copy protection on DVDs has been broken for over a decade). Therefore, my interests do not align with those of Big Entertainment, and there is more incentive for me to wish that it did not exist.

Eleventhly, it is my opinion that there is a joy in creation. Creating works of art and entertainment -- whether preparing a musical piece for performance or writing a mediocre blog post -- is engaging and meaningful to many people, and part of me wishes that we would spend more of our leisure hours creating our own entertainment rather than depending so heavily on consuming entertainment intended to produce profits for Big Entertainment.

These opinions paint a vision of the future. In this future, we might produce more of our own entertainment, and we would consume more amateur works. These works might be of lower quality than Big Entertainment can finance, but our lives would not be much worse off for the loss (and it might be better if we produced more of our own entertainment for consumption by our peers).

In this world some artists would be paid (just as some artists are paid via Patreon now) and many would not be. I believe that enough people would record their art and release it online to keep us entertained, even though much of that art would be created by hobbyists, not professionals.

I do not know whether art would be sustainable in this world. Certainly there would be forms of art that would no longer be created. In the sphere of software development, I see this as a big problem -- unless FLOSS can produce all the software that people need and use, it fails to offer a feasible alternative to proprietary software. But I do not feel that art works this way, but I could be wrong.

However, I do not believe that such a future is feasible unless we as entertainment consumers are willing to put up with imperfection and amateur effort. Unfortunately I see that our entertainment options are heading in exactly the opposite direction; we are coming to expect exactly the kinds of art that appeal to our specific tastes, whenever and whereever we desire it. As our expectations rise, our tolerance for amateur art diminishes, and we continue to play into the hands of Big Entertainment. If there is any reason for hope, it is that some people are still willing to pick up musical instruments and create entertainment by themselves. If that ever became illegal or immoral then I would worry a lot more than I do.

There are certain artists in this world who may have rare talents. There is art in this world that changes the course of history. In the maker vision of the future, maybe these people no longer make art for money. Maybe these people no longer make art at all. I am not sure this implies that there won't be other people making unique art of a different nature. Having said that, I feel uncomfortable with this tradeoff, but it does not seem to me that Big Entertainment (which is also effective at crushing artists) does that much better.