Piracy and piety
I’m small-time compared to some of you folks. Still, it’s all I can do to hold my tongue when someone stands at our product table and says to his buddy, “You buy that one and I’ll buy this one, and I’ll burn you a copy of mine.” I know it goes on but I don’t want to hear the transaction being made right in front of me!
This is a common and understandable frustration among professional musicians (the most reliable way to get rapturous, thunderous, architecturally-destructive applause at an awards show is to give a shout out to anti-piracy initiatives and ask everyone to respect artistic rights etc). But in the context of southern gospel, I wonder if the piratical tendency isn’t at least partly an unintended byproduct of the ministry-mindedness so prevalent in the industry.
Here’s what I mean: In most other genres (Christian and secular), the purchase of concerts tickets and other music product is treated as a necessary means to a more important end for the consumer. But southern gospel frames consuming the music as a ministerial experience and this bidness transaction as support of a ministry and minister.
There are all sorts of things one could say about this. But I’m particularly interested in the moral or ethical effects of ministry-minded rhetoric, particularly this rhetoric’s tendency to weaken the link between business transactions and the values of the marketplace. Telling people that southern gospel is a ministry, not a business, is an effective way to cultivate die-hard fans who equate purchasing your product and concert tickets with advancing the kingdom. Taken to its logical conclusion, however, this approach could easily have the effect of decapitalizing the artist’s creation to the extent that a whole new ethical or moral framework comes into play.
Instead of reinforcing the idea of music as a saleable product – to which attaches notions of intellectual property, artistic copyright, and legal protections afforded original creations in capitalist economies – ministry-minded rhetoric encourages fans of music ministries to think about the music, not as a commodity, but as a powerfully concentrated statement of faith, an easily transmittable catalyst for religious experience, and a conveniently packaged tool for evangelism.
Should it surprise us, then, when fans see the duplication of copyrighted gospel music as an act of evangelism? Here’s how one commenter put it in response to Gerald Wolfe’s piracy post:
What if I copied your latest CD to my computer and make 100 copies. Then I take those 100 copies out with me to witness to the lost. I give away these 100 copies and out of this 20 or 5 or even 1 soul comes to know Christ as his savior, aren’t you happy??? Besides, this scenario doesn’t take a dime from your pocket because none of these 100 people would have bought your CD otherwise.
In this commenter’s mind, “burning a copy” isn’t a violation of the law but a fulfillment of the scriptural exhortations to lift up one another in the Lord, and, as the title of one recently popular song puts it, “preach the word.”
I’m sure someone will write in to say that thou shalt not steal (this is more or less what Wolfe said in reply to the commenter), and thus piracy is clearly wrong both from a capitalist and Christian perspective. Except this begs the question by assuming the status of the act itself is ethically or morally stable. But of course it’s not, whether viewed capitalistically or religiously: one person’s music piracy is another person’s file sharing. And one person’s file sharing is many a Christian’s spreading of the gospel. (Sometimes, I guess we DO have to make this a hermeneutics seminar … sorry CVH).
My point is not to defend or condone piracy. I probably tend to interpret the “personal use” rights that come with buying music more liberally than most artists or industry types might. And I think blaming the decline of the music industry on piracy is mostly counterfactual victimology. But piracy is obviously a problem, even if the origin of and solution to that problem are less obvious.
Rather, my point is that southern gospel artists have a personal and professional interest in insisting that their work is a ministry whose aims transcend worldly acquisitiveness – except when they don’t. So in addition to vigorously defending their rights as artists in the religious marketplace, southern gospel performers might want to examine how their (ab)use of ministry-minded rhetoric may be inadvertently contributing to the piracy problem they bemoan.Email this Post