Steal this column!

By Chuck Sigars | Jan 25, 2012

I admire the writer John Scalzi for several reasons, including his impressive body of work and the fact that he is the father of a 13-year-old girl.

If you’ve never been the father of a 13-year-old girl, then you don’t know.  You THINK you know.  You DON’T.

A 13-year-old girl, under the best circumstances, will tolerate her father because he has money to wave at her in a feeble attempt to stay alive.  Under other circumstances…let’s just say I learned to sleep with one eye open for a few years.  It’s a complicated dynamic.

It was during our snow adventure last week that I wandered over to Mr. Scalzi’s blog and watched a video he shot of his daughter.  She seemed like a perfectly normal, bright and pleasant young lady.  This is how they fool you.

At any rate, Scalzi was experimenting with culture and quite possibly dangerous hormones by recording his daughter’s reaction when she saw a vinyl record album for the first time.  

It was about what you would expect, although still entertaining.  She didn’t know what it was.  Then she was amazed at its size.  Then she was shocked that you played it by scratching it with a needle, and so on.  

Really, it reminded me of the old Bob Newhart routine from the 1960s in which he imagined a telephone conversation with Sir Walter Raleigh about tobacco.  “Then you put it in your mouth…uh-huh…and you light it on fire…”  It was funny.

I could have made it simpler, though.  I could have told this girl what that LP was in one short sentence.  It was gold.  It was money in the bank.  It was a fortune.

And it was.  There was a time when being a successful recording artist was a ticket to riches.  Barry Manilow, who hasn’t had a hit in 30 years, is probably still trying to count his money.  

But around the time that Mr. Scalzi’s daughter was born, another generation of 13-year-olds was discovering the art of stealing, although they called it something different.  As their parents, we should have said something.  Our bad.

File sharing wasn’t the only thing that transformed the music industry, but it played a huge part, and along with the emergence of the Internet it created a cultural mindset that persists: We don’t want to pay for stuff.

It’s not that we’ve become a nation of 13-year-olds, although there’s a case to be made there.  Combine a couple of generations who’ve seen low inflation, a culture influenced by technology that gets cheaper almost as soon as it’s invented, free trade agreements (like them or not), and the instant access to practically everything online and we have a perfect storm for cheapskates.  

Examine your reaction the last time the price of something went up.  Did you acknowledge the economics of supply and demand, increasing scarcity of natural resources and the costs of transportation, or did you think somebody was ripping you off?

Consider Netflix, a company that last summer split their video products into removable media and streaming titles, and immediately faced an outrage from customers and saw their stock plummet, all over a few dollars per month for a product that was unimaginable 15 years ago.  We don’t like to pay.

This is essentially what the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) legislation was all about, in case you missed this last week while you were watching it snow.  I know what you’re thinking: This Congress passes legislation?  Me too.

SOPA faced an organized resistance, most of it online, and legislators backed off, although the consensus seems to be that it’s a good and necessary idea, just not the right bill.  

It was nice to see a discussion about intellectual property rights and piracy, actually, particularly since I couldn’t get out of my driveway and had nothing else to do.  

It’s also nice to see evidence that we’re not, in fact, a country of thieves.  The music industry hemorrhaging was controlled, as it turned out, by iTunes; it seems people are perfectly willing to pay 99 cents for a song when given the chance.  And for all their current problems, Netflix and other services are enjoyed by millions of customers who don’t mind paying for their entertainment when the price is right.

And then there’s comedian Louis CK, who filmed his own comedy concert a few months ago and offered it online as a download, rather than on HBO or Comedy Central, for five bucks.  The response was overwhelming.  There’s hope for us.

And hope for fathers, too, as Mr. Scalzi will find out.  Daughters grow out of their tweener stage and their eyes stop rolling, eventually.  My daughter is now 27, and in fact I’m heading to Austin in a few weeks to visit.  

I’m looking forward to adult conversation and warm weather, and I can’t wait to arrive in Texas, no snow in sight.  

I’ll be the one at the airport waving money in front of my face, just to be safe.
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