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The Indie Rap Economics of SOPA

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On 20 January, the House Judiciary Committee postponed plans to proceed with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill. As a response to national protests, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith stated that, "The committee remains committed to finding a solution to the problem of online piracy... (but) will postpone consideration of the legislation until there is wider agreement on a solution."

Under the original proposals of SOPA and PIPA (the senate's version of SOPA), sites would have been shut down simply on allegation (not proof) of distributing pirated material. Whether hosted knowingly or unknowingly, unapproved streaming would have resulted in a felony, ignoring the 30-day due process waiting period of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), with a potential five-year prison term. There was also the potential of the attorney general being able to blacklist certain sites, resulting in a government precedent for censorship. This power would be antithetical to the beauty of the openness and freedom of the Internet to inspire and maintain innovation and development.

What the government needs to realise is that free distribution of content is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the people who produce it can find out how to be compensated in other ways, as I discuss below. I'm not saying that artists, musicians and writers should all need day jobs, but quite the opposite; they should use the Internet as one of the tools available to them for bringing change and for profiting from new media economics in the real world.

Personally, I use hip-hop as a tool for education and activism. In addition to my university, library and school education tours, I have teamed up with organisations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American Heart Association to use hip-hop to educate and motivate. The internet is an essential tool that promotes my work and message. It is an important source of income to me, but I don't make my living through digital sales of my music alone. I'm on tour or in the classroom, merging the digital with the real through creative branding and teaching.

In last week's State of the Union, President Obama stressed the importance of creatively revitalising our nation's economy. He called for "an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values," the blueprint for lasting domestic prosperity. There are some parallels to this shift in thinking in today's indie rap game, specifically in application of sustainable new media economics.

In 2006, I read a book by Berklee College of Music professor David Kusek, The Future of Music. He described a "music as water" paradigm that has come to fruition in 2012 with cloud services like Spotify, Google Music and iTunes Match. My track Download This Song summed up his concept that music, once a physical product (such as an Evian water bottle or the CD), is now a service (such as the utilities of water or services like Spotify). Since then, I've been an advocate of free downloading and streaming.

What this means then is that in order for artists like me to survive, I must be creative with how I let people hear my music. A primary means of distribution in 2011 was my USB robot, a two-gigabyte hard drive keychain that housed all of my albums digitally. I also sell t-shirts with cartoon characters I draw myself and I try to print on shirts manufactured domestically when I can. 47% of my income comes from merchandise, 40% from ticket sales, and 13% comes from iTunes, Spotify or other paid music services through the internet. I used a crowdsourced funding site called Kickstarter to produce my last album, with added bonuses of drawings and personalized songs to the highest contributors.

If the internet were compromised or regulated to the point where the 13% of my traditional digital income (from iTunes, Spotify, and others) were to disappear, it could likely mean that people would turn to getting my music for free, which would then mean that I would need more ticket and t-shirt sales in order to maintain my income level. (My income, by the way, covers my expenses, taxes, and health insurance, and that's it.)

Economically, we are living in an era that takes us back to the punk and indie roots of the 70s and 80s. Musicians must be able to go out and perform for years in small clubs to tiny crowds; it's the way one perfects his or her craft and pays his or her dues. It's how bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat became legendary, they had explosive, powerful shows and were willing to sacrifice everything to make their music heard. Henry Rollins of Black Flag tells his story in his classic book of journals, Get in the Van, an important read for any indie musician today.

We live in an era of innovative fusion of old and new. Being a musician no longer means simply being a songwriter and performer. One must also know a little bit about business, branding, t-shirt design, social networking, production, publicity, accounting and tour managing.

Ultimately, what this is means is that if you own and run your own business, no one can take that away from you. (The MPAA and RIAA exist to maintain the status quo of the entertainment industry, but I don't need someone with a large salary lobbying for my interests as an artist when that person is disconnected from the reality of new media economics that I've described above.)

The internet in its current free and open format is important to me as an independent indie rap musician and artist. In fact the internet is essential to me and to all of the other artists who are like me. The government's harnessing and regulating the internet and its free flow of information would be a dangerous thing in that it could lead to government control of a very important channel of a portion of the income that I earn - and through which I express myself freely, exercising my First Amendment rights as an artist.

I therefore plan to keep an eye on the development and revisiting of SOPA and PIPA in the months to come, and I urge others to do so, too. It is essential that the Internet not be compromised and regulated by the state. The issue of maintaining the integrity and unfettered openness of the Internet will become increasingly important as this century unfolds.

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