Stevecombsmusic on 05/06/2016 at 02:03PM
Hey FMA'ers. I've had an interesting day.
I'm used to people using my music in their projects. In fact at this point, I expect it. It would be weird if they didn't. Out of the roughly 250k downloads my songs have gotten, I'd bet at least half of them were for use in a video, on a podcast, or for a school project. And I love and am so grateful to everyone who does this because without it, I probably wouldn't be doing this anymore. To be honest, I think the FMA made my career what it is, and I owe it and the whole free culture community so much. That said, there is a limit to the freedom of my culture.
I woke up at around 11am this morning, because I'm a college student, and saw a couple of Twitter notifications (@stevecombsmusic, by the way). A German fan, @ruhpkid, tweeted at me to say that some guy named Big Juan put a copyright claim on a YouTube video of his in which he used my song, More Or Less OK, from my new album Riot, which is available here on the FMA. Ruhpkid gave me credit and was generally wonderful. But Big Juan was claiming that my song was his song, Equalizer. At first I didn't think anything of it, that it was just a misguided attempt at stealing royalties or something. The joke would be on him, of course, since I don't get any kind of royalties. But I did a Google search for "Equalizer by Big Juan" and found the song on YouTube.
That's when I got angry.
I hear the first three seconds, which is the same opening drum fill as my song, and think "Well, maybe he just sampled it and forgot to give credit." But it quickly became clear that that wasn't the case. This wasn't a sample, this was a theft. Big Juan literally downloaded my song, changed the title, and put it on YouTube as his own.
What. The. Fuck.
First of all, it's exceptionally lazy. If you're going to steal someone's music, at least take a little bit off the ends or add an overdub. This is like if Vanilla Ice just put out Queen's recording of Under Pressure as Ice, Ice Baby. Like at least he did some shitty rapping over it. Big Juan didn't even try, and that's a tragedy in its own right.
Then there's the big problem. This blatant theft of my intellectual property is apalling, for all the reasons you might expect. I work hard on my music and when I put out an album with my name on it, I'm proud of it. For someone to pass off my creative expression as their own is to deny me that. It cheapens my art and denegrates my value as an artist. I don't doubt that some people will use my music and not credit me, but that doesn't bother me. To use my music as your own though, is a deliberate act of disrespect and disregard for me, not only as an artist, but as a person. Taking credit for work you did not do is well understood to be a violation of the social contract, and that doesn't stop at music. I'm shocked and frankly outraged at what Big Juan is doing, and I hate that I have to write his stupid stage name in all seriousness as I type this. The fact that I'm writing a diatribe against a man named Big Juan is absolutely ridiculous and not something I ever thought I'd be doing with my life, but here we are. But what's he's doing is wrong, and I feel deeply compelled to stand up for what's right, not only for me, but for everyone in the free culture community. I say that because I think Big Juan is indicative of a larger problem with how we, as free culture artists, are perceived and treated by the music industry at large.
No major record label releases music under Creative Commons licenses, and almost no major artists do. Nine Inch Nails is the only one I can think of, and more niche artists like Jonathan Coulton have found success with CC licensing, but these are exceptions. Because of this, at least in my experience, those of us who do release our music for free or under CC licenses are often not seen as "real" artists, and our work is devalued as a result. The fact that there's no BMI or ASCAP for CC music also means that we lack some level of credibility, as it is defined by the industry at large anyway. The combination of this dismissive perception and the actual incompatibility of the industry with free culture means that artists like us are, I believe, marginalized creatively and commercially (for those of us who actually do seek to make money). I think this is wrong for a number of reasons. Just because my albums are not on iTunes doesn't mean that they are any less an expression of artistic creativity than, say, an album by Beyonce or Drake. Just because I want to allow people to use my music however they want to doesn't mean that I have any less right to expect credit than Beyonce or Drake do. If a major artist's song gets used in a movie, they get a nice little line in the credits (as well as a large amount of money in licensing fees). I think there is a perception that just because I don't want the licensing fees means that I don't deserve the credit. I do. We do.
I don't think many of us want to be pop stars, but none of us want to be ignored. I think what my battle with Big Juan illustrates is the way that free culture artists are disregarded, and it highlights the prestige gap that exists between us and the all-rights-reserved crowd. This is in fact very literally illustrated, as Big Juan has a charming little "(c) Big Juan, all rights reserved" in the description of the song he stole from me. So while Big Juan wronged me (say that three times fast), and I'm not going to let him get away with it, do you think he'd have done it if Riot was on iTunes for $10, or if it was all rights reserved, or both? I honestly don't think so, and that speaks volumes about how free culture artists are marginalized in the industry. It's paradoxical that we are punished for making our music as accessible as possible, just because it doesn't make money for the record companies. Maybe I'm an idealist, and this sounds cliche, I know, but shouldn't making music be more important than making money?
I'm not qualified to talk about any of that, obviously, but that's how I feel, and I can imagine that others feel the same way. I encourage all of you to go through Big Juan's YouTube channel and make sure that he hasn't stolen from you as well (here's the one he stole from me: https://youtu.be/huAhc6lx0a4). As I'm writing this, Big Juan has yet to respond to either my YouTube comment or the tweets I've sent him, but I'm sure if a few FMA'ers got on his case, he'd give in. He's @realdajuan on Twitter. When I get an apology, I'll post it here on the FMA and we can all celebrate the triumph of morality and all that jazz.
Thanks for reading this, and feel free to get in touch with me if you want to talk about it further. Also feel free to ruin Big Juan's life, the thieving bastard.
UPDATE: Big Juan has taken down the video, but he hasn't apologized or admitted that he's done anything wrong. I've contacted him on YouTube, Soundcloud, Instagram, and Twitter, but have gotten no response. Maybe it's a little idealistic, but I think it's important that I get an apology out of him. It would be a moral victory for not only me, but for all of the other Creative Commons artists that have their work stolen.
UPDATE 2: So Big Juan finally gave in. He tweeted at me at around 10pm, a little under 12 hours after I discovered his theft, which I think might be a record for justice. He apologized, but I don't know if he really meant it. He claims to have misunderstood what "free" meant. Is he making excuses because he got caught? I don't know. I don't want to pick apart his apology, because at least I got an apology. He took down the video, and he apologized, which is what I wanted. In fact, he took down all of his videos, which I'm taking as confirmation of my theory that he stole from other artists here on the FMA as well. Whether he took them down because he now knows what "free" means or because he got caught and is afraid of getting sued, I don't know. He also deleted his Instagram account, which I had commented on to try to get his attention, and I'm not sure if I'm proud of making him do that, but it happened. The doubt over whether he actually made a mistake is making me wonder if I was too hard on him. But if he's only saying that to save face (because what else would you say when you got caught?), then maybe harassing him for an apology was justified. I don't feel as satisfied with this in the end. I feel more like I destroyed his career. If his career was built on stealing other people's music, then yeah, maybe that's a good thing, but what if it wasn't and he legitimately made a mistake? I'm conflicted. Sure, even if he did it unintentionally it's still wrong, but did he deserve the barrage of tweets and comments I sent him? I don't know.
I'm touched by everyone who sent me their support and I know I did the right thing by standing up for myself, but I don't know if I did the right thing the right way, you know? I mean, he's really no different from me at the end of the day. He's just a guy, making music (or stealing it), trying to make a name for himself and finding a crowd that's willing to listen. And honestly, he had a couple of nice comments on his videos. People seemed to like him. Even if he did steal the song on purpose, he's more than just a thief. Nothing is black and white. I mean, I wanted an apology, but I didn't want to destroy his career over it. To be responsible for that is a weird feeling and I'm not sure how to deal with it.
On the other hand, Big Juan's (alleged) ignorance of what "free" music is says a lot about what I was talking about above, and what other people have been telling me about their music getting stolen. Maybe there is a segment of the population that doesn't know, and doesn't educate themselves about how free culture works. Is that a symptom of our copryright-focused society that I certainly missed in my discussion above? I had considered people not respecting or appreciating free culture, but the idea that people genuinely don't understand what it is had never occured to me. If nothing else, this experience has taught me about the importance of the educational efforts being undertaken by Creative Commons and the FMA (I believe? Someone can confirm or deny that). I think Creative Commons is well-known within the community at this point and is somewhat standard for releasing music online (thanks netlabels!), but how many non-musicians and non-photographers (which to me are the primary CC mediums) actually know about it? Artists, photographers, and educators seem to be the main groups that use Creative Commons, and that's a relatively small segment of the population. And that's weird. It seems to me that there needs to be a broad educational effort to inform people about free culture. I'm sure there already is and I'm ignorant of it, but I want it to be broader! Teach kids about it! Make it a government initiative! Because I truly believe that it's better than copyright and I want to see it reach equal prevelance, and ideally come to be seen as the superior option by the industry at large.
This is a really long post. I went through a lot of thoughts today, and it distracted me from some stuff I actually had to do, but such is life. In conclusion, and hopefully this is the conclusion of the whole deal, I won. I brought the person who wronged me to justice and stood up for myself and my fellow artists. In the end, that's what matters. Did it have unintended consequences? Sure. But nobody got hurt and nobody lost any money. Big Juan may have lost face, but he learned his lesson.
Let this blog post be a lesson to all those who would steal from us what we give away.