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Teaching Young Music Fans to Be Ethical Consumers, Creators

June 26, 2012
Sarah Jackson
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Citizenship, Students

We’ve been following with great interest last week’s online debate about how young people understand ethics in the music industry.  In case you missed it, Emily White, a 20-year-old intern at NPR’s All Songs Considered published a blog post, “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With,” in which she describes how she acquired 11,000 songs in her iTunes library, but only paid for 15 CDs in her life.

White described how she got her music from various sources, including ripping them from her college radio station. She concludes with her hopes for what new technology may bring for the future.

“As I’ve grown up,” she writes, “I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.”

The post sparked a vigorous discussion about the behaviors of young music fans, how we all acquire music, and how to fairly compensate artists and record companies for their work.  Many of the comments slammed young music fans. Some readers felt that fans, in their quest for convenience, were blind to how new technology and their own behaviors are affecting artists.

One of the most read and eloquently written counter to White’s post came from David Lowery, a songwriter who also teaches about the economics of the music business at the University of Georgia's music business program.

Lowry says it’s the responsibility of White and her peers who care about music to come to grips with their own ethical decisions and to understand how their actions affect the rift between artists and powerful commercial interests.

“[L]ike so many other policies in our society,” he writes,  “it is up to us individually to put pressure on our governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly when it comes to artists’ rights. Not the other way around. We cannot wait for these entities to act in the myriad little transactions that make up an ethical life. “

By not paying for music, he argues, young people value technology of the corporate media at the expense of musicians. 

But most important perhaps, this debate has focused attention on how we educate young people about their responsibilities as citizens in the digital world.

Writing about the controversy in the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog, Ben Sisario says:

Educating young people about the consequences of their economic decisions is a vital part of living in a free market and a democratic society. But history has shown that heavy-handed moral arguments about music — or any other form of online entertainment, for that matter — are seldom effective. That is largely because convenience trumps any other consideration. Also, as the NPR story demonstrates, the moral dimensions of copyright law aren’t always cut and dried.

We couldn’t agree more. That’s why our free Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum includes a unit on Respecting Creative Work and understanding the difference between public domain, fair use, and copyright. Our lesson “Rights, Remixes, and Respect,” for example, asks high school students to role-play different stakeholders in the music industry in a case study that centers around the ethics of downloading music by a popular band. Students debate the ethical and legal issues involved, while applying concepts of copyright law in the world of new media.

Led by a member of their generation, White’s post and the surrounding controversy is a great opportunity to get high schoolers thinking about this debate and how it affects their lives.

“Kids today are used to the idea that anything on the Internet is free for the taking,” our own Education and Strategy Officer Linda Burch says in this video. Do your students agree?  How do they see their own responsibilities as consumers and creators in the new media world? Do they understand how their decision to purchase or rip music from their college radio station (as White did) affects tomorrow’s generation of musicians?

Burch says it’s the job of parents and teachers to teach children to be responsible and respectful digital citizens, including that giving and getting credit and compensation for creative work are signs of respect, and that illegal downloads undermine creativity.

You can download and use these lessons with your own students. Browse lessons in our Respective Creative Work unit here. And if you’re teaching this summer, see what your students think about the case of Emily White. We’d love to hear how it goes.  Let us know in comments.