Your voice—it sounds famously handsome.
To me it’s just nasal.
Fascinating. So, how was your recent sold out event at the New York Public Library with David Byrne?
Great! My head didn’t explode, which was a plus. There will be video of the event online soon. I’ll post it via one of my many online presences-es.
And just how did that come about?
My publisher sent out an early proof for Byrne to possibly blurb; that was sometime last summer. I was just excited to know he might read it. Even if he’d hated it, was still cool to think about on a certain level. Then, last October—I was planning an event where I read the entirety of Freeloading in one day at WORD, a bookstore in Brooklyn.
I know for a fact that Brooklyn is a pretty happening place. I read about it in a magazine. Multiple ones, in fact.
It was appropriately called Chris Ruen’s Terrible Idea. There was free booze, too.
Ah, the universal solvent. And how did the reading turn out?
Went fine. My voice was surprisingly okay, though breathing became quite difficult towards the end. Not a healthy activity by any means and I definitely didn’t eat enough as the day went on.
How long was that?
Ten hours. I started reading to an empty room at 10:15 in the morning and finished at around 8:15 at night. I did have some guest readers to give me a break, but I still read for eight hours or so… Anyway, planning that thing was a total nightmare. It “got gnarly” as my west coast friends might say. As I was approaching peak insanity-slash-exhaustion two days before the event, rushing around my apartment, I get a call from my publisher. And he tells me that David Byrne likes the book and is inviting me to appear with him onstage at the New York Public Library. I knew it was fantastic news, but I couldn’t really process it at the time. Still, the best thing about it is just that Byrne himself enjoyed the book and that what I wrote resonated. He has been very supportive of Freeloading, which I deeply appreciate. And I highly recommend his book as well, How Music Works. He manages to cover just about every aspect of music, from history to technology to his own experiences as a performer and songwriter. It’s very good.
I’ll have to check it out. Is there a question you wish interviewers would ask you more often?
Nothing comes to mind.
I have to admit… I read your book. But I didn’t like it.
I find that a little hard to believe.
(cackling) Kidding, I’m kidding. No, actually I enjoyed it for the most part.
Can I use that as a blurb? “I enjoyed it for the most part.”
Let’s try this: “Of Freeloading, by author Chris Ruen, interviewer Chris Ruen, whom is also author Chris Ruen, raves, ‘I enjoyed it for the most part.’”
Right at the top of a rustically-embossed cover page. I can see it. People wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. Which I’m guessing means they wouldn’t buy it.
On the other hand, you would become a surrealist author-god.
Hey man… Though I strongly believe that interviews should have nothing to do with anything in particular, maybe you should ask me something about my book at this juncture?
Whatever you say, boss. So, what’s up with this book of yours, Freeloading?
A few years ago while living, working and writing in Brooklyn I began to question the assumptions I’d grown up with about the digital revolution, relating to digital piracy of music specifically. The book is my attempt to clarify people’s thinking a bit, to recognize, as I say in the book, where our blood stops and the bits begin. Digital technology is a great new tool, but that doesn’t mean we should accept the knowing exploitation of artists or violation of their rights online. If we can use the internet to amplify copyright’s benefits, we may be in for an era of incredible social progress. That seems a more than worthy goal to me. But there are people out there who believe copyright is hindering the progress of the Internet—in which an interesting philosophical war of rights develops between the “technology”—and its perceived right to progress—versus the individual, human rights of creators. Which right is more important? Which right even exists? The answer is obvious. Tools, digital or otherwise, don’t have or deserve rights, so we are left to examine our own choices, behaviors and policies which may or may not be in violation of creators’ rights, or those of the Public.
The book is a combination of personal narrative, history, analysis and ethnography. For music fans out there, I interviewed members of TV On The Radio, The Hold Steady, Yeasayer and important voices from labels like Beggars Group and Secretly Canadian. Everyone was bluntly honest with me about the realities of professional music today. It’s very interesting to hear people’s reactions to the book. I felt the structure was unconventional and didn’t know for sure if it would “work.” But the early feedback has been incredibly positive. I just need to keep grinding, trying to get the word out as best as I can.
Got any good sales pitches?
“Freeloading: the perfect gift for that music-obsessed young person in your family that you’re sort of struggling to relate to these days.”
Oof. Hits me right where it hurts. Any others?
“If you really wanna be cool, then… Oh, crap…. Totally forgot was I was gonna say. By the way, have you heard of that new anti-piracy book, Freeloading?”
Preying on psychological insecurity… Harnessing the power of suggestion… Are you in advertising? ‘Cause you should be.
You are an intelligent person. Thank you for your scintillating conversation.
How nice of you to say! I can only assume you see record labels as a plain menace to an open and thriving Internet?
No and that’s a really unfortunate sentiment that has developed in all this—that record labels are the “bad guy.” A vital truth for people to recognize is that record labels and publishers wouldn’t even exist if independent creators weren’t deliberately choosing to partner with them and extend their rights under copyright. If creators’ rights aren’t taken seriously, then publishers, labels and distributors are free to exploit any and all work of writers and musicians without having to share profits or even ask. It’s an obvious disaster for artists but it’s just as horrible for those who enjoy their work—work that requires time, energy and income. That problem, in fact, was the reason why the first copyright act was instituted in the United Kingdom in 1710—writers were getting screwed by printers so authors were given exclusive legal rights to their work for limited times.
Today it’s online distributors like The Pirate Bay which have made a mockery of creators’ rights, along with the people who use the service and, thus, support them. They are essentially black market distributors. US law is mostly settled on such distributors—Napster, Grokster and Limewire were all roundly defeated in the courts. So the issue now is trying to deal with foreign-based sites currently out of the reach of US law while educating consumers about the importance of respecting creators’ rights. Many people today don’t understand these rights or simply don’t hold them in much esteem.
I agree record labels can be a menace in some ways, though. The major labels’ mass lawsuits of individuals in the mid-2000s were just terrible. Also, the length of copyright terms are unjustly long and now that major labels are folded into these behemoth multi-national corporations it makes the goal of sensible digital reform that much harder. Wherever copyright critics have their best case, it’s when we start talking about books or albums that were published sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety years ago not being in the Public Domain—which is a public right guaranteed by traditional copyright.
In terms of newer works, though, copyright remains vital and essential. It’s fundamental to maintaining a lively, diverse, and independent creative culture that isn’t purely reliant upon state or corporate patronage. The development of copyright in the 18th Century was a huge leap forward for open societies and for humanity in general. Today, successfully adapting creators’ rights for the digital age is essential to realizing the great potential of the human race. Which, I suppose, is a fancy way of saying that it will help us to both live meaningful lives and prosper as a species.
Uh… a tad dramatic, don’t you think?
It is dramatic. It also happens to be true.
Damn. Now that I’ve dried my tears of courage… What’s been the hardest thing about this process—writing the book?
Well, probably maintaining faith in the face of endless uncertainty. When I started working on the book proposal I didn’t have a steady job, an agent or any leads in the publishing world. I barely even had clips! So I knew I was taking a big risk in putting so much into this project—telling myself it would work out when any sensible person would say, objectively, “It won’t.” It seems as though pursuing creative work professionally, unless you’re independently wealthy to begin with, is a tremendous act of faith. There are no guarantees. The whole process—researching, writing, selling yourself—has been challenging and continues to be. The main thing, though, is believing in your book enough to put your future at risk and being at peace with that decision and—on some level—not really giving a shit what anyone else thinks. But maintaining that mindset is not easy. Maybe it helps if you take some pleasure in proving people wrong—though too big of a chip on your shoulder can be as self-destructive as anything. It’s all a big, weird balancing act, I suppose. There are no rules for how these things are supposed to happen, which is maddening and fascinating all at the same time.
And the easiest part?
Interviewing myself, most likely.
Chris Ruen is an author from Brooklyn whose essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The New York Press and Sterogum. He is a former Contributing Editor for the internationally-distributed Cool ‘Eh Magazine and has covered music culture for Tiny Mix Tapes, a Minneapolis-based online music magazine. While studying at the University of Minnesota, he founded The Wake, a student magazine that went on to earn national recognition in 2006 as “Best Campus Publication” by the Independent Press Association. Ruen’s authorial debut, FreeLoading: How Our Insatiable Appetite For Free Content Is Starving Creativity, was published in 2012 by O/R Books.