Why The Creators Of Breaking Bad Don’t Deserve Our Money
The free economy isn't such a bad thing. In fact, it's a little overdue.
In March of this year, Junkee published an article by Elmo Keep, called ‘The Case Against Free‘. It generated so much discussion that Elmo followed it up with another: ‘Combating The Cost Of The Free Economy‘. The article below comes from the opposing camp. Be nice to each other in the comments, please.
I feel like I’m having the same conversation about Breaking Bad six or seven times a week. I talk about the show with my mates, my students, my family, and with other artists. We talk about what happened in the latest episode, and what we think might happen in the next one. We try to predict who it will be that gets to put a bullet in Walter White’s horrible pruned head. Then, almost invariably, we talk about our own petty foray into the realm of justifiable crime. We’re so obsessed with Vince Gilligan’s story that we watch Breaking Bad on the day that it is released in the U.S., and most of us watch the episode without paying for it. These days we use bit-torrent technology to get shows like Breaking Bad, Girls, or Game Of Thrones into our lounge rooms. Sometimes we pay, but mostly we don’t. We’re dirty thieves.
At work there’s a big discussion going on in the lunchroom about this sort of stealing. There always is when a new technology arrives, and starts to wobble the needles of our moral compasses. Some people in the lunchroom think it’s completely wrong to steal TV shows. They abstain, and they take pride in abstention. They’re the first to weigh in on the issue. Others smile at the abstainers and nod amiably, while back at their desks they have uTorrent running on their laptops, taking full advantage of the office broadband. A lot of the boomers are busting to stick it to the man; they want to get into these new edgy shows that all the kids are on about, but they can’t figure out how to “get on the torrents”, so they go home and watch Packed to the Rafters instead.
Nobody in the lunchroom wants to talk about Packed to the Rafters,though. We want to talk about the handful of long-form film projects that are emerging as some of the most important stories of our time.
Every Time You Log On To Pirate Bay, A Screenwriter Somewhere Misses Out On A Sandwich
Any time the talk around the ethics of intellectual property theft via bit-torrent technology starts to get interesting, there’s a rhetorical smoking gun that starts popping off all over the place. Someone always brings it up in the lunchroom. Here’s how it goes: when we steal content, we are stealing royalties from the content creators. This argument, known in the early part of last decade as The Metallica Whinge, is one best delivered by an artist. And lately the artists who are delivering it are less like Lars Ulrich from Metallica, and more like Pat Grant from Marrickville.
Australian author and commentator John Birmingham wrote a fantastic rant in the Brisbane Times in April, called ‘Why Are You Still Stealing Game of Thrones?’ Predictably, the piece led to a wonderful flame war, and Birmingham followed it up with a more measured response that compared the future of content manufacturers to the future of workers in the manufacturing sector. Economies are changing, story factories are closing, and soon people like Birmingham will be out of a job.
Elmo Keep wrote a piece in Junkee in March: ‘The Case Against Free‘. Here, the argument is based around the way that cultural content is valued in the digital space. For Keep, we are disrespecting the talented and hardworking artists who write songs and tell stories when we expect to consume the fruits of their labour for free. In Keep’s world, a story or a song has real value, and by downloading it we’re undermining that value, and creating a false cultural economy based on free content.
Neither of these arguments feels quite right for me. As you’ll see, I’m definitely one of those people who Birmingham refers to as a “freetard”, but I don’t think my discomfort with the Pay The Artist argument comes from a sense of entitlement. I don’t believe that I have a God-given right to watch Breaking Bad without having to pay for it, but neither do I believe that the creators of such shows have a God-given right to be paid.
Storytellers Don’t Deserve Your Money
I am an artist. Last year, the year that I self-published a graphic novel, my taxable income was -$5000. Negative. So I’m probably among the few who can get away with this heretical statement: artists do not deserve money for making art. Not Lars Ulrich of Metallica, not Pat Grant of Marrickville, not Vince Gilligan of AMC’s Breaking Bad.
For rhetorical ease, I’m going to refer to the creators of content as the storytellers. This includes the writers of books, the singers of songs, the showrunners on large television productions, the tellers of jokes and the writers of online articles. You get what I mean. And for similar rhetorical ease, I’m going to refer to the people whose job it is to carry this content from the storyteller to the audience as the delivery guys. This includes record companies, publishers, distributors, retailers, streaming music services, Apple, Amazon, Google, and the faceless bit-torrent swarm.
The storytellers are like Walter White and Jessie, alone in their RV cooking up valuable stories, and the delivery guy is like Gustavo Fring who picks up those stories, stuffs them into buckets of mayonnaise and gets them out to addicted audiences all over the place. But we don’t need the delivery guy anymore, and the delivery guy knows it. If we all refuse to pay the delivery guy for his redundant service, and in turn the delivery guy can’t afford to pay the storytellers, what does this mean for the stories that we love? How will the storytellers get their sandwiches? I want to try to answer these questions by thinking about these stories that we are stealing in a historical context.
A Short History Of Wonderful Lies
To begin, we have to go back to the old days, to a world before mass media. Before cable TV. Before the printing press. Hey, let’s go back to a world before most people could write; I wasn’t there at the time, but from what I hear people still told stories and sang songs. There were important texts in this world, like the Iliad and the Epic of Gilgamesh. There was probably blistering literary criticism, painted on walls, shouted from soapboxes and shared over cups of fermented stuff. But in this world, by necessity, the delivery of a story involved some kind of device for getting the information out of one fleshy human vessel and into another.
The device was usually a sort of performance. Storytellers spun shit by the fire, they told jokes around the classical stone water cooler, they drew caricatures on the walls, they acted out wonky lounge room performances of famous myths, or they riffed on theological yarns to make sense of whatever moral and ethical morass defined their time. Now, here’s an important difference between this world without mass media and our world: in the old world, a storyteller wasn’t necessarily the one who made stories up. Often as not he was just the delivery guy. In this old cultural economy, the content itself was valueless, free to pass from storyteller to storyteller without restriction. Storytellers got paid in this world, but they only ever got paid if they did a good job of delivery.
Creating content — making up stories and inventing dumb songs and telling wonderful lies — was something that all humans were entitled to have a go at. No one made much money and hardly anyone got famous, but stories did their job and helped people make sense of stuff.
In-between the world I just described and the one we’re living in right now are hundreds of important moments when the relationship between storytellers and the delivery guys drastically changed. Usually it was because some bloke (let’s face it, it was almost always a bloke) invented a machine that changed the information business and got everyone in a tizz. Literacy was the first big one, the printing press after that, the telegraph, the radio, the TV. As we moved through the 19th and 20th centuries, the rate at which new communication technologies appeared began to accelerate. This was now a world in which stories were stamped on paper at a million words a minute, sent out along a thousand wires to a million nodes, or broadcast through invisible ether to the multitude.
One effect of mass media is that there is a divergence of the roles of storyteller and delivery guy. We no longer had travelling bards performing both roles by altering and retelling the great lays of the ancient world; instead, we had people who delivered stories and people who invented new stories. The mechanisation of storytelling removed the performing body and standardised the authored product. What pre-digital forms of mass media created was the need for a bunch of geniuses sitting in their attics making up stories for mass production.
Getting mass-produced stories out to everyone required the mobilisation of policymakers, resources, infrastructure and great swadges of capital. In this world, getting stories from storytellers to the audience is big business. The delivery guy is onto a sweet racket. He’s William Randolph Hearst. He’s Rupert Murdoch. He’s taking risks and making fat stacks, but he looks around and realises that he needs to think of newer ways to differentiate his stories from the stories that the other guy is schilling.
Here’s another key point: it is in the interest of the delivery guy to perpetuate the idea that the people who make up his stories are special geniuses.
Some storytellers were geniuses, and they quickly emerged in these new mass media spaces as exemplars of their craft. I’m thinking of the great 19th century novelists. Their delivery guys realised that, by cultivating this idea of a genius storyteller and by fiercely defending their exclusive right to deliver the stories created by these geniuses, they could reinforce their position. So you see how the net effect of some mass communication technology is the spread of the belief that the tellers of stories are special creatures with special talents, who should be paid to sit in their garrets and be geniuses all day.
OK, this kind of genius author existed before the industrial printing press and the telly and all that. “What about Shakespeare?” you say. “No one can deny that he was a genius. Or Jesus? What about Christ, for Christ’s sake?”
Of course you’re right; these guys were literary heavyweights, and of course they made up some excellent shit, but each of them had a delivery guy who had a business or political interest in the cultivation of their authorial reputation. Be it the Globe Theatre or the various Christian churches, behind these genius authors of old there was a delivery guy making fat stacks. Without the delivery guy, the genius author is just another dickhead with an imagination.
In reality, I have no clue what a story meant to an Edwardian farmhand or a Roman bookkeeper. These are broad strokes with a clumsy historical brush. What I am trying to suggest, however, is that the arrangement we had in the 19th and 20th centuries, in which a small number of genius storytellers are paid for sitting in their rooms and making up stories, may not be the natural state of things. Actually, it is more likely that the rise of the genius author is a historical quirk of this period; a by-product of the mechanised systems that were used to deliver stories.
This being the case, there is no reason for the genius authors of the 20th century to expect the arrangement to be renewed, as we move into the era in which stories are delivered digitally. The sweet life of the well-paid storyteller is entirely contingent upon the business model of the delivery guy, and in the digital age neither of these things need exist. In the 1940s Ray Bradbury needed a publishing house to deliver his stories to swooning nerds in Sydney. In the ’80s and ’90s, William Gibson needed a publisher to deliver his stories to teenage cyberpunks in Holland who weren’t yet cyber and probably wouldn’t ever be punks. All of the money, labour, marketing, and retail infrastructure needed to tell stories like those are now no longer needed. Neither, I’m afraid, is the genius author.
The Age Of The Unprofessional
Right now, in the city where I live, there is a kid riding the train home from his hospitality job. He’s writing a story on his iPad that can be uploaded and find an audience before the kid’s train pulls in at Redfern. That story might be as good as John Cheever’s The Swimmer and it might very well change someone’s life, but it will probably never reach as many readers. The mass media market has been shattered. Pop culture has been popped. Audiences for most mainstream stories have become and will continue to become smaller; so must the ambitions of the delivery guys, and so must the paychecks of the storytellers. There will never be such a powerful nexus of creative talent and commercial interest as there was in the 20th century. In a lot of important ways, things are reverting back to the way they were before the printing press.
Elmo Keep writes in her article that by stealing stories we are devaluing the hard work of creative practitioners. I believe the opposite is the case. In the 20th century, audiences paid good money for stories, but it wasn’t a very good world for most artists. The concept of professionalism plagued all storytellers. If you revealed to a stranger that you were a writer or a musician or a comic book artist, then invariably the stranger would ask, “Is that what you do for a job?” People made judgements about the value of a creative practice based on the size of an artist’s paycheck. In the era of mechanised storytelling, you were either paid a full-time wage to sit in your bedroom all day making shit up, or you were a hobbyist to whom no one paid any attention at all. You made art as a professional or you didn’t bother. Some stories were highly prized, but most stories were so heavily devalued that they didn’t even have an audience.
The Value Of Those Things You Steal
Keep is right about one thing: we are devaluing the shit out of episodes of Breaking Bad. We are stealing Vince Gilligan’s hard-earned money. But the corollary effect is that, at the same time that Gilligan is getting shafted, normal people who don’t have the advantages of US citizenship or TV network connections are empowered to develop storytelling practices on a smaller scale. The value of some stories has plummeted, but the net value of all stories has risen. We all get to have a go at making meaning of our world, and the price we pay is that a handful of geniuses don’t get paid.
John Birmingham is right. Freetards are annoying. They claim, with the smug tone of someone who knows they are saying something profound, that “information wants to be free”. I’m a freetard, but I don’t really agree with that. I’m more inclined to agree with my design hero Pat Armstrong, who says “information doesn’t want shit”. Some kinds of information, stories included, have always been free. When we paid for them in the past we were only ever paying for the packaging and delivery.
Birmingham equates the information bound up in an episode of Game of Thrones to the proprietary information contained in the secret recipe for fried chicken owned by a fast food producer. His idea is that the value of some information is eroded when that information is shared. This is certainly the case with the information contained within a secret recipe, but it is a mistake to believe that all information works this way.
In 2002’s The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the value of a fax machine. If there were only one fax machine in the world, that fax machine would have no way of sending and receiving a fax. It would have no value. If you made an exact replica of that fax machine and you had two machines that could talk to each other, then you’d have something that might be useful for your awesome 1980s business. Instead of halving, the value of each unit would increase significantly through replication. If you made a thousand replicas, and each was capable of talking to another, then you’d have the beginnings of a game-changing communications network, and the value of an individual unit would be further increased. Make one hundred million replicas and the fax is no longer just useful, it’s like cocaine: an essential tool for doing business in the ’80s.
Birmingham says “The value of anything divided by infinity is zero”, but there are some things, like fax machines, that exponentially increase in utility and value the more they are replicated and shared. A story is one of these things. If a story is kept secret then it has very little value to anyone. Every time we share and discuss these great narrative works of our time, we are increasing the value of those works. Now, it’s important to be precise here: the value of an episode of Breaking Bad is vastly increased when people like me steal it, but this does not apply to the value of the exclusive right to deliver the episodes. This delivery right is suddenly worth sweet fuck-all.
We Just Can’t Seem To Stop Making Stuff Up
To sum all of that up: in this digital age that we’ve just entered, storytellers should no longer expect to get paid for having ideas and making stuff up. Nor is there any natural law of the universe that says they deserve to be. The delivery guy no longer serves a purpose, and so everyone on his payroll can expect some bad news sometime in the next decade.
But what are the ramifications of all this for those of us on the receiving end of the data-pipes? What will the world look like when there’s no money to be made in making up stories? Will writers stop writing? Will painters stop painting? Will musicians stop plucking strings? Will game designers stop pushing pixels?
The answer to all of these questions is, of course, no.
The future is uncertain, but there are some things that we know. For starters, we can assume that audiences will always pay to go into dark rooms to watch spectacles. But filmmakers have known that for ages. Everyone in Hollywood knows that the stories that filmmakers tell need to either be scaffolding upon which to drape spectacle, like, say, Pacific Rim, or important enough to attract the passions of hobbyists, like Shane Carruth’s fantastic time travel movie Primer (which cost exactly half as much to make as my last graphic novel). The middle ground between these two kinds of movies is quickly vanishing, but people like me will still go and see Pacific Rim at the local megaplex and Primer at the local wankerplex.
Television is more difficult. Television is not a spectacle. Television is made to be watched on a small screen in a lounge room, or on a smaller screen in bed. Television is the result of great writers like Aaron Sorkin or David Milch engaging with episodic production schedules and limited budgets. I would argue that, on a literary level, television is more dependent on an authorial voice than most film projects of similar budgets. When a company like AMC sells a television show like Breaking Bad, they are selling a delivery service. Part of the appeal is that the story arrives in our homes at 9pm every Sunday. But AMC is also a storyteller. It is paying for the iconic RV meth lab and the sickening graphic design on the logo for Los Pollos Hermanos. What goes on in the boardroom influences the creation of content. The delivery guy is in the manufacturing business as well.
Birmingham’s initial piece finishes by pointing out that if we keep stealing Game Of Thrones and HBO starts losing money on the production, then it is likely that Game Of Thrones will be canned and we’ll never get to watch a dragon wrestle a White Walker over Joffrey Baratheon’s twisted corpse. I think Birmingham might be right. In refusing to pay for some stories, we risk breaking the story itself. But if these shows are really to become part of our cultural canon, then is undermining the business models of AMC and HBO the same as burning down the Globe Theatre at the height of Shakespeare’s career? This is a different argument to The Metallica Whinge. Here we’re not concerned about the life of an author; rather, we are concerning ourselves with the life of a story. The argument is predicated on the idea that stories are fragile. The reality is that they are not. Important stories like A Song Of Ice And Fire always spill out of the containers that delivery guys stuff them in.
Stories are like E. coli bacteria or pigeons: you find them wherever you find people living in big groups. There’s an argument that suggests that stories are the one thing that makes us human. In Scatter, Adapt and Remember, Annalee Newitz writes that one of the key differences that allowed Homo sapien to succeed while Homo neanderthalensis went extinct was the ability to tell stories. Stories, possibly the original information technology, helped our ancestors better understand abstract information about places and things they hadn’t yet encountered. They helped us survive disasters and migrate across continents. The ability to make shit up, and the ability to share shit that other people made up, is an essential human quality, and, I would argue, an essential human right. This is the philosophical jump that makes me a freetard and a thief: I believe that stories, even the ones that cost millions of dollars to make, belong to all of us. Not to their genius creators. And certainly not to the delivery guy who paid for the genius’ breakfast.
Hey! Who Let Zack Snyder In Charge Of Our Mythology?
The example that I always return to to demonstrate this is the superhero story. There is something about superhero stories that help some people make sense of power, identity, masculinity, and human agency. As several academics will tell you, superheroes are modern myths, a continuation of thousand-year-old epic storytelling traditions. The way Marvel and DC comics tell superhero stories is that they let the characters, settings and themes be passed among their staff from author to author, allowing for constant revision, recreation and re-imagining of the superhero concepts. This allows the mythologies to evolve, mature and remain relevant. In the same way that an ancient poem or a theological fable morphs and changes as it is passed from bard to bard, the superhero story gains value by being shared among and changed by a legion of hardworking artists (who are usually working for page-rates). But the thing that makes the superhero a modern, mechanically-produced mythology is that we have to be on the payroll of Marvel or DC if we want to tell these stories.
A great Portland-based cartoonist I know is working on a comic book retelling of the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. She’s allowed to do that. I, on the other hand, am not allowed to do my own X-Men story. I love the Marvel universe but I think that X-Men stories are almost always unsatisfying. I want an X-Men yarn that is as good as Breaking Bad or The Wire. I want audiences to explore these mythologies without having to put up with the politics of people like Zack Snyder or Frank Miller. But if I drew that comic book and published it, Marvel would probably sue me. They own some of our most important mythologies; they fucking own part of what makes us human in 2013.
As any self-respecting comic nerd will tell you, Marvel didn’t make up the X-Men, just like DC didn’t make up Batman. Comic book companies paid working stiffs to do it because they knew that the authors themselves weren’t worth half as much as the monopoly on a powerful myth. If Marvel comics went out of business in 1972, it is possible that the universe the X-Men inhabited would have imploded — but if in 2013 the Marvel empire collapsed (maybe because we all downloaded Iron Man 3 instead of buying the DVD), then I believe that with no one around to sue hobbyists and fan-creators like me, the X-Men might become better than they have ever been.
There was a time when we needed a delivery service like Marvel to create the conditions for certain kinds of stories to exist. That time is over.
How Can We Tell When A Delivery Service Has Stopped Being Relevant?
Litigious activity is a key indication that a business has made a transformation. Whereas in the past their job was to facilitate the speedy movement of stories from the desks of authors into the lounge rooms of audiences, their new job is to stymie that movement. They are no longer in the content delivery business, because the torrent swarm is doing a better job than they ever could. Now they are in the business of preventing content delivery, with DRM, paywalls and lawsuits. This is the point where their presence becomes a problem — not just for stories like Breaking Bad, but for all stories and the species who depend on them. When things get to this point, we shouldn’t feel bad about downloading these dead-wood delivery guys into bankruptcy.
So let studio dynasties and publishing empires slowly crumble. We can feel a little bit sorry for the artists on their payroll, because it sure is going to suck for them, in the short term at least. But I believe that in the long term we’re torrenting our way toward a better world for stories and for storytellers, in which the business case for the delivery of stories has vanished altogether, and corporations can turn their attention to the next sweet racket. Vince Gilligan and the other creators of Breaking Bad might have to go get different jobs. I don’t know what those jobs will be (openings in industrial chemistry?), but whatever it is that formerly professional storytellers choose to do for money, in the end they will find a way to tell the stories that are important to them. If we truly believe in paying the artist then we need to find a way to pay Vince Gilligan to make his next project, without having to subscribe to a cable service or give our money to Apple. This is where crowdfunding services like Kickstarter or Pozible — which cartoonist Sam Wallman hilariously calls “the Make-a-Wish Foundation for middle class art-brats” — offer possibilities.
As I write this, I can hear John Birmingham guffawing. We all know that crowdfunding is only used to pay for the production of dinky little projects like comic books and earnest documentaries about cabbage growing in Detroit. But it doesn’t stretch the imagination to see its potential for high-budget productions like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones (see the videogame business for a case in point). How many of us who have stolen three seasons of Game Of Thrones would put up the money in advance to ensure that a fifth, sixth, or seventh season went into production? Maybe a lot. Maybe very few. No one can say for sure until someone has tried it, but I do see a future in a pre-subscription model for productions of popular TV. Instead of paying for the delivery of content, we pay for the possibility of it. Instead of paying Rupert Murdoch for his redundant distribution service, we’re paying Vince Gilligan and his mates to cook us up some of that highly addictive TV amphetamine.
Series with vast production values like Breaking Bad might vanish altogether, but my guess is that they’ll stick around. They might even get better. The ingenious hive mind of the online communities, possibly even freetards like me, will find a way for these stories to exist and populate hard drives and cloud servers all over the world. The great storytellers will be famous and poor. They will make up stories that are as good as or better than the great professional artists of the 20th century, only they might not make as many because they’ll probably have to go to their day jobs like the rest of us. They will make us laugh in the living room. They will make us blubber in the bathtub. They will change our lives with their after-work hobbies.