Let's Play Starving Artist

By Richard Menta 9/27/03

I could not help but be stunned when I first read about it in the New York Times. It was surreal, even comical, but delivered in a distorted seriousness that begged my concern. A campaign aimed school children through the schools and lead by the entertainment industry with the help of Junior Achievement.

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You can read the details in the above Times article, but essentially the film and record industries (mostly the film industry) have orchestrated a school-to-school tour to "educate" 5th through 9th graders about the evils of file trading. A program designed to reach 900,000 students that is offspring of those ancient industrial films regularly parodied on the Simpsons (smokestacks are your friends kids).

One of the key activities of this program - and what caught my eye - was a game called 'Starving Artist' where students come up with an idea for a record album, cover art, and lyrics. After this exercise is completed a volunteer teacher drops the supposed bombshell, that the album is already available for download for free. From the Times article "According to the lesson, the volunteer would then "ask them how they felt when they realized that their work was stolen and that they would not get anything for their efforts."

All I could think of when I read this was what a wonderful opportunity this was for the record industry in particular to use file trading to its advantage. Not as a promotional tool as we have written about so many times in these pages, but as an entity to take the rap for their past actions. Something to take the blame for the record industry's decades-old systematic exploitation of artists through their audit departments.

Rock Historian Dave Marsh once described being an artist in the record industry as the equivalent of sharecropping. In sharecropping, the farmer doesn't really own the vegetables they raise, the landowner does. The landowner pays them a fee for the amount of produce they create, but charges back the cost of the feed, fertilizer, use of equipment, even water - all at inflated prices. In the end, the sharecropper makes the minimum it takes to keep them and their families alive so they can work the land the next year and the next. As the sharecropper suffers in poverty, the landowner garners excess wealth.

This fact has become very clear to the music buying public. Several months back another NY Times reporter queried a few 13 year-old boys about file trading and if they thought there was anything wrong with it. The boys, who were active traders, told the reporter that the record industry steals from the artists they idolize anyway, so they felt they were doing nothing wrong. I am going to assume these kids do not regularly read the Times, yet the message that the record industry cheats artists is reaching them. Whether one thinks this message is accurate or not is beyond the point. This is the consumer perception and one that extends not just to adults but to children.

To me this was evidence of the bad PR the record industry has generated over the last few years, bad PR coming from the public dissection of industry practices in the wake of the Napster trial. The original Napster is gone now, but its specter is still there and still changing the music industry dramatically.

The media companies in a savvy twist are looking to change the perceptions of children who have yet to reach any such conclusions about them. If kids hear artists are starving no less than their own teachers will collectively point all the blame on KaZaa, iMesh, and the various Gnutella clients.

I say, if our schools are going to allow industrial propaganda like 'Starving Artist' in our school, if we are going to allow the teachers we pay to be shills for the record industry, then let's do it right.

Let the game represent Marsh's reality, not the RIAA's version of it. Balance this game by also letting Courtney Love and Janis Ian and Pearl Jam tour these classrooms and give them THEIR reality of the record business. That the only ones taking their livelihood from them and taking the foods from their mouths are the record companies who claim ownership of the music they create and the ticket and venue monopolies who collect their concert receipts.

Do that and then you have a more accurate program called Starving Artist.

Good lord, my taxes go to pay school boards that would allow this? What's next, a school tour by the Christian right warning of the temptations of Islam and Judaism?



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