MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Culture is the aspect of life that is suffering most

Writer Donal Ryan.

Writer Donal Ryan has had to go back to the day job in order to make ends meet. Michael Clifford says that ‘culture is the aspect of life that is suffering most because it can’t sustain those who want to make a living in some of the art forms’.

EVERY now and again, somebody got their hands on a number. It might be mentioned on the site, or in one of the bars out around Jackson Heights.

The number would be passed around on torn sheets from notebooks, or, as often, on the napkins used as beer mats in US pubs.

Somebody would take the piece of paper with a grin, drain their beer and slink out to the nearest payphone to phone the mother back home.

So it went among great swathes of illegal immigrants in New York 30 years ago. (This was in the days before “the undocumented”).

The number in question was a credit card number that had been acquired from somewhere. Its value was that it could easily be used to make an expensive phonecall back across the Atlantic.

As far as everybody was concerned, this wasn’t stealing.

It wasn’t as if you were using a stolen credit card to go into a shop and buy something under false pretences.

Once it was only used for the call home — sure, you were really only doing it as an act of charity to your dear, sacred mammy — it was perfectly above board as far as any moral benchmark was concerned.

Anybody looking at it now would come to the simple and inescapable conclusion that the use of somebody else’s credit card number to make an expensive phonecall is stealing.

But groups of people, large and small, are capable of creating their own moral bubble depending on circumstances.

Those days of numbers being furtively passed around in darkened bars came back to me this week when the Irish Examiner reported that six major film and TV studios have brought a legal action aimed at stopping allegedly massive illegal downloading of their films and other products.

The studios believe that up to 1.3m people here may be involved in this theft, for want of a better word.

And the cost?

According to the studios, this amounted to €320m and 500 jobs in 2015.

That’s an awful lot of loot.

Of course, the 1.3m thieves don’t believe that they were involved in anything morally dubious. Downloading movies is a way of life, nothing more than availing of the wonders of modern technology. It’s a little innocent bonus — good clean fun where nobody gets hurt.

The same goes for streaming, the process of viewing material without actually downloading it.

This is more complicated from a legal perspective but on the same side of the street in terms of the morality. Again, no big deal.

The justification, if only subconscious, is that these movies are the property of big corporations which rule the world and know nothing of the struggles of the man and woman in the street.

What’s the big deal in relieving them of a few coppers here and there.

That is the moral framework in which huge swathes of the general public feel entitled to get their hands on works of art of one form or another.

Just because the technology avails of the misappropriation of all this material with little fuss or repercussion, it is all regarded as pretty acceptable.

There is, however, a real cost to this new dispensation.

The film studios mentioned 500 jobs — which in the nature of these things is probably an exaggeration — but on a broader scale there is also the growing cost to culture, through the narrowing of the possibilities for those who make art of actually managing to make a living.

Take music. Once upon a time, a fair to middling musician was able to get by on what he or she could earn. These days, the musician is more likely to starve.

Recently, I worked with a man who had given up attempting to work as a musician after eight years despite a modicum of success.

It just was not possible to live on what was available he told me. Creating songs has become a valueless activity in monetary terms.

Musicians have no worthwhile rights over their property.

The ease with which music can be misappropriated with no reference to the artist or any agent thereof is now taken as a way of life.

If this matter is broached in company, a common riposte is that sure they can earn a living performing, as if musicians should be glad that at least that can’t be taken from them.

Streaming devices such as Spotify do reimburse musicians but the amounts involved are a relative pittance compared to what the company itself makes off the back of the artist’s music.

It’s not as if those working in the arts would be rolling in it even without the baleful influence of the internet.

Just last week, writer Donal Ryan revealed that, despite his major success, he had to return to his job in the civil service in order to pay the bills (his book The Spinning Heart was nominated for a Booker Prize and voted book of the decade at the Dublin book awards).

“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer,” he told the Sunday Independent.

“You need to have something else on the go. You could take a chance and scrape a living through bursaries and writing books, but I’d get stressed out, it just isn’t worth it. I reckon I get about 40c per book. So I would need to sell a huge amount of books to make a good salary out of that.”

If that’s the lot of one working in a sphere which has not been devastated by the internet, what chance those whose work is open to being plundered.

In fact, despite the dark forebodings from Mr Ryan, writers have been left largely unscathed by the advent of the world wide web.

While it is eminently possible to appropriate electronic copies of books, readers appear to be far more likely to actually pay a small amount for the pleasure of reading.

This is in contrast to the experience with music.

Such is the price of this new dispensation. Culture is the aspect of life that is suffering most because it can’t sustain those who want to make a living in some of the art forms.

Instead, the wealth has transferred to those who control the medium.

A techie wizard these days has the potential to become an overnight millionaire while an artist whose work can be appropriated online has the prospect of penury.

The outcome of all this can be best summed up by the early betting on who might be in the running for the next president of the USA.

Right now, the smart money is going on Mark Zuckerburg, the founder of Facebook, and the world’s best-known techie billionaire.

Once upon a time wisdom and truth were sought out from poets and musicians, who were suitably recompensed for bringing the virtues to the wider public.

Today, just a few short centuries down the line, it has all changed. Give it up for the geeks, mapping out a new moral universe.


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