How Our Insatiable Appetite for Free Content Starves Creativity


“A wonderful book that catches an encouraging shift in the zeitgeist. Ruen’s epiphany regarding the effects of his own piracy and freeloading of the bands he loves was eye opening.” — David Byrne, musician and author, How Music Works

"The original slacker's dream of free everything may have been realized by the Internet—but along with it came the slacker's nightmare of never getting paid for one's creativity. Freeloading seeks—and to a large extent succeeds—to wrestle with the collapse of the commons and the possibilities for a renewed social contract." —Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist, author of Life, Inc. and Program or Be Programmed

"With a critic's eye and a music fan's passion, Ruen shows how piracy affects artists and lays bare the corporate agendas on both sides of the debate. An essential read for anyone worried about how artists will survive in the online age." — Robert Levine, author of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back

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About the Book

Named a “favorite music book of 2012” by the Future of Music Coalition.

As the battle rages over piracy, copyright, and the future of the Internet, which group argues on the right side of history? Searching for the truth, Freeloading roams the spunky streets of Brooklyn to glean real world consequences of digitization for today’s musicians, indie record labels and fans; then re-evaluates the pivotal controversies and ideas that have long dominated file-sharing debates, with a keen eye for practical solutions.

Freeloading ranges from Napster to the SOPA blackout; Marshall McLuhan to Adam Smith; and the pitfalls of social media to how corporate patronage of “indie” music spread as record sales sunk. It takes a critical, cool look at a near-pervasive phenomenon that involves almost everyone who taps a keyboard: beyond that, it’s a reminder of the truism that for every action there are consequences. What happens when we pirate a favorite work of art—a song, book, or movie? And as importantly: what, if anything, can or should be done about it?

Internet piracy has created unlikely allies. On the one hand, there are original creators of content, including artists and corporate copyright holders—on the other, legions of freespirited consumers who see themselves in the hacker/OWS tradition.

Author Chris Ruen, himself a former dedicated freeloader, came to understand how illegal downloads can threaten an entire artistic community after spending time with successful Brooklyn bands who had yet to make a significant profit on their popular music. The product of innumerable late-night, caffeine-fueled conversations and interviews with contemporary musicians such as Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, Ira Wolf Tuton of Yeasayer, and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, Freeloading not only dissects this ongoing battle—casting a critical eye on the famous SOPA protests and the attendant rhetoric—but proposes concise, practical solutions that provide protection to artists and consumers alike.

Publication December 2012 • 270 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-935928-99-7 • Ebook ISBN 978-1-935928-02-7

About the Author

Chris Ruen, a Brooklyn-based freelancer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Slate, is a former contributing editor for Cool ’Eh magazine. He has covered music culture for Tiny Mix Tapes, a Minneapolis-based online music magazine. Follow him on tumblr.

In the Media

New Statesman, July 16th 2014

Billboard, February 26th 2014

New York Times, February 25th 2014

Newsweek, February 19th 2014

Salon, December 3rd 2013

The Guardian, October 11th 2013

n+1, May 1st 2013

Billboard, April 19th 2013

Tiny Mix Tapes, April 11th 2013

VICE, April 1st 2013

Illusion of More, February 16th 2013

MAGNET Magazine, February 1st 2013

The Nervous Breakdown, January 12th 2013

Future of Copyright, January 8th 2013

The Nervous Breakdown, January 5th 2013

Future of Music Coalition, December 22nd 2012

Copyhype, December 19th 2012

Seattle Weekly, December 19th 2012

The Village Voice, December 5th 2012

LIVE from the NYPL, December 5th 2012

Seattle Weekly, November 27th 2012

Stereogum, November 20th 2012

Future of Music Summit, November 15th 2012

Volume 1 Brooklyn, October 18th 2012

Read an Excerpt

On a January morning in 2010, nervous congregants gathered in a San Francisco auditorium. They awaited revelation, if not rapture. Silicon Valley’s far-flung diaspora joined the revival from afar, holding virtual vigil. With bent backs and glazed eyes, they stared at the live video feed streaming across their computer screens. Soon, the prophet of the information age would reward his followers and offer a new vision unto the people.

Inside the auditorium, eager eyes darted back and forth across the stage, straining to see their digital media savior. There he was! Applause thundered: dressed in his uniform of black turtleneck and blue jeans, Steve Jobs finally entered from stage left.

The oracle of Apple Inc. began to enumerate the many charms of his latest revelation: the iPad. The new tablet computer represented an entirely new category of digital device, splitting the difference between the smartphone’s elegant mobility and the laptop’s utilitarian power. Tablets took the totality of digital media consumption and made it truly mobile. Digital web browsing, email, photos, video, music, games, and books were hardly new, but having such an optimized, sleek, intuitive device with which to obtain and consume it all was revolutionary.

“Let me show you what it looks like. I happen to have one right here,” Jobs said.

Like a postmodern Moses declaring new holy law, he walked to the lip of the stage and held out the diminutive iPad for its first inspection by his followers. They gave thanks, hooting and whistling up to the stage. Jobs stepped back to detail the particular features of his new brainchild, highlighting its big, beautiful touchscreen.

“Holding the Internet in your hands,” he said. “It’s an incredible experience.”

But now that the prophet had offered the ability to hold the past, present and future of human expression in our hands—what would we do with it: create or destroy?

By 2010, the new age of digital media had already presented great confusion and pain for traditional creative industries. With the iPad charging in as yet another sentinel of chaos, could magazines, newspapers, books, television, and film reap sustaining profits from their digital metamorphosis? Some believed the industries themselves would be reaped, sacrificed to the gods of progress. But not David Carr, media columnist for The New York Times.

In a column entitled “A Savior in the Form of a Tablet,” Carr enthusiastically staked his claim to the ascendant terrain of optimism and hope. He gushed, “the tablet represents an opportunity to renew the romance between printed material and consumer” and “somewhere between the iTunes model and the iPhone app store…there may be a model for print.” In an issue of Wired magazine dedicated to the emergence of tablets, editor-in-chief Chris Anderson—otherwise an evangelist for “free” business models—proclaimed the dawn of a new age for digitized media, one where “tablets can show media in a context worth paying for.” Rupert Murdoch temporarily suspended his battles against content aggregators and Google to call the iPad “a wonderful thing…. If you have less newspapers and more of these…it may well be the saving of the newspaper industry.”

Such optimism, however, floated above an abyss of uncertainty. Would consumers actually be willing to open their wallets for content after years of getting much of it for free online? The gale-force winds of technological change had already blown many media professionals to the precipice. Now the iPad threatened to push them into the chasm.

Once the Internet became ubiquitous in the 2000’s, newsstand, subscription, and advertising revenue dropped steadily as consumers migrated to the web for free news, information, and classified listings. Total paid newspaper circulation sunk by six million from 2005 to 2008, and print advertising revenues deflated by a whopping $13 billion—a contraction of nearly thirty percent. While newspapers searched for an emergency parachute to ease their free fall, online advertising revenues offered little more than a cocktail umbrella. By 2008, merely eight percent of newspaper advertising revenues came from online content. Publishers, accustomed to the “analog dollars” of print, struggled to make due with online advertising’s “digital pennies.”

As if that stormy horizon were not ominous enough, in thundered the Great Recession of 2008.

Consumer budgets wilted and physical copies moldered in unread stacks. In the following year, overall print revenue dropped another twenty-eight percent. Even online ad revenues, modest but thought certain to grow, absorbed double-digit losses as total advertising revenue plummeted another $10 billion. Institutions of the news such as The San Francisco Chronicle and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased printing. The New York Times, once thought invincible, became so cash-strapped that they took out a $250 million emergency loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, laid off employees, and axed sections. Magazine publisher Condé Nast shuttered historic titles and slashed its total budget by twenty-five percent in the face of sinking ad revenue.

Aside from optimists like David Carr, who had faith that new digital models would save us all, another school of thought emerged. Stewart Brand’s famous edict “Information wants to be free” was its guiding light. The notion that any industry needed to be “saved” was misguided and pathetic. Technology was not responsible for anything, much less the salvation of old, inefficient industries rendered useless by the market. If historic institutions failed, even ones as important to society as robust journalism, it was their underlying industries’ own fault for not adapting fast enough or for no longer serving a purpose in the eyes of the marketplace. Institutional death was a necessary cost of progress.

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