01 June 2012


an NPR intern named Emily White wrote this, then a musician named David Lowery wrote this in reply, so we wrote what's below. comments welcomed.

Musicians are not entitled to a certain level of profit - that's somewhat arbitrarily determined by the state of our technology at a given time - any more than buggy-repairers were entitled to their same profits after the invention of the automobile. Time was, it was the sheet music that sold - not the recordings. Should guitar tabulature websites be outlawed too, since they take compensation away from the authors of tab books? Lowery's historical naivet√© here is profound, as he spins idyllic yarns: "The accepted norm for hudreds [sic] of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time. ... By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists." Leaving aside the question of whether artists have been fairly compensated throughout all of Western history until this very moment, what of that Pandora's box called RADIO which once promised to forever destroy the lives of working musicians? After all, why on earth would anyone buy the record if they could hear it for free on the radio?... Yet can one imagine the history of Rock 'n Roll or Jazz without this pest? And might how we over-reacted to that change in technology give us a clue about how to approach this new one, the Internet? Because, in point of fact, radio has been shown to have a negative impact on record sales [www.ftc.gov] and "illegal" file-sharing has been shown to have a neutral or slightly positive impact [www.unc.edu]. So perhaps radio DJs like ourselves are the real thieves and Lowery has simply misdirected his indignation.

Amidst all the Ayn Rand-like focus on the individual creator, what's most lacking in Lowery's perspective and those who share it might be a basic respect for the music commons and the community of listeners (or "looters") who make artistic creation worthwhile and who mold the shared cultural context which enables individual creation. Yes, the golden era of CD sales has come and gone. This isn't a "social injustice" and 14-year-olds aren't to blame for it. It resulted from amazing innovations, and thanks to them, more people today are better able to listen to more music than ever before. For those of us interested in spreading music foremost and profiting from it second, that's an unqualified societal good. Guilt-tripping listeners into unnecessarily limiting their capacity to appreciate music so you can try (and fail) to preserve some out-dated business-model, to us, puts one squarely on the wrong side of both history and morality.

Look, if someone were to loot a record shop, they'd deprive anyone else of buying those records. That's theft or destruction of private property. However, when someone copies a file, they do not similarly deprive anyone else. It's as big a difference as stealing a sheep and cloning one. The above article ignores this obvious distinction, not to mention sweeping the vast gray areas of copyright law under the proverbial rug, when it labels listeners "criminal" simply because they share.

Tell us, in Lowery's utopia, are we still allowed to hum a tune in our heads, or should we compensate musicians for that duplication of their copyrighted work as well? Can we sing along by ourselves, or will ASCAP and the RIAA come after us for that too, as when they attempted to shut down karaoke bars and prosecute middle school students? Can we lend a record to a friend, or does that abuse the artist by not making our friend buy their own? 'No listening while in the record shop!'. 'No copyrighted music in public libraries!'. 'No taping the radio!'. 'No DJing!'.

Imagining that if someone has however many 'illegally' downloaded songs on their computer they've somehow stolen the equivalent amount of cash out of the musician's pocket is to waste one's time counting fantasy dollars, because there's often little reason to believe that someone would've (or could've) paid for those songs anyway. Given declining sales (for which peer-to-peer file-sharing was NOT the primary cause), the choice isn't between well-compensated musicians and broke musicians but between broke musicians whose music isn't heard and broke musicians whose music is. Listeners are not the bad guys here.

For someone so concerned with rights, Mr. Lowery doesn't seem to value newfound freedom. Had a buddy not linked us to Napster in 1998, we still might be listening to only classical music and Billy Joel. The diversity of music we were exposed to via that site blew our underwater doors open. As broke teenagers, we would've never been able to afford all the life-changing sounds we heard by browsing people's libraries from all over the world. We're now musicians and radio DJs and we're morally certain that we would be neither had it not been for this unregulated 'criminality'. And we certainly haven't stopped. From Napster, we went straight to Soulseek and have never needed another file-sharing program. [Soulseek, incidentally, seems ever on the verge of failing to cover its operating expenses and funds itself through user donations - not exactly the "powerful commercial interests" Lowery waxes conspiratorial about.] We typically purchase our top three or four albums of the year (from San Antonio's lone local record store, Hogwild Records), but only after we've listened to them all year long at no charge. When money is tight, it doesn't do to gamble. The last CDs we bought were St. Vincent's 'Strange Mercy' and Radiohead's 'King Of Limbs', but we've likely listened to a 100 or more albums since then. We do convince others to buy albums due to our DJ-ing gigs, and we also have access to the radio station's library (copying from which isn't illegal, despite Lowery's accusations directed at Ms. White), but we won't hide behind these caveats. We attend at least one concert a month, and most recently saw Here We Go Magic at our favorite Austin venue, The Parish [which was amazing!].

That's us. So when anyone starts treating listeners as criminals, we get upset. When anyone starts reducing something we consider sacred to a mere commodity, we get upset. A song is not just a sellable good; it's a bit of magic that, when let out into the world, belongs to everyone. Music is not just entertainment; it's an integral part of culture. A 14-year-old in Texas, via a file-sharer in California, listening to Blackalicious for the first time when *they wouldn't have otherwise* ...shouldn't THAT moment be the non-negotiable part of this entire equation? Yet somehow the priceless quality of music gets lost in the numbers, especially when one presumes, by some holy writ we've yet to examine, that 11 tracks deserve no less than $19.99 plus tax from every consumer, from this point forward until eternity (adjusted for inflation). When someone says they have a superior compensation model, first they must demonstrate there won't be a loss in our exposure to as much music as manatee-ly possible. For us, that goal takes primacy. If we all agree that no one ought to have to put a quarter in their car radio to hear something new, then let's please think of the internet as one gigantic car radio.

So, Mr. and Ms. Musician, yesterday you made a good living selling a product that today not as many people want to buy - or, more often than not, can afford to buy. Why did you ever feel you were entitled to that standard of living? Why did you not prepare for the eventuality that it was a fluke or a fad? The vast majority of musicians have never been paid the big bucks, and this obviously didn't start with the mass migration away from cassettes and CDs. Why does every musician at every awards ceremony say, 'It's all about the fans' or 'It's all about the music', if they're so willing to exclude people from hearing their music in order to drive its price up? Since the tone of lecturing the young resonated throughout Lowery's piece, maybe it's the younger generation who will have to lecture the old guard: 'life doesn't owe you anything'; 'nothing was promised to you'; 'get a day job'; 'life isn't fair'.

A crucial confusion in Lowery's argument is his appropriation of anti-corporate rhetoric at the same time as he writes "in the case of corporate record labels, shouldn't they be rewarded for the bets they make that provides you with recordings you enjoy?". To present oneself as struggling for "the artists" against "powerful commercial interests" is laughable because it really masks a conflict between two sets of powerful commercial interests, with us - the musicians and listeners - caught in the crossfire. Of course making a living as a musician remains difficult, and we could use more monies from the Baby Boomers - whether through municipal grants or kickstarter campaigns - and less derision directed at Generation Ys: the very people who actively sustain the culture of music through their appreciation/participation, the very culture that folks like Lowery would rob. And what if someone is even more impoverished than the artists they can't afford to compensate? Should there be no music for the poors? How's THAT an anti-corporate stance?

The truly disheartening feature of this debate is the presumed absence of a people's movement and the concomitant de-politicization of music advocacy. It may seem like arguing for the plight of the starving artist is as a-political as it gets, but it disguises the fact that we're so used to settling for crumbs we've neglected to protest for a guaranteed income for *all* citizens and a robust endowment for *all* of the arts. Why does Lowery not suggest these solutions when faced with under-incomed musicians, instead of asking Ramen-nourished, in-debt-up-to-their-eyeballs college students to foot the bill for the enduring greed and short-sightedness of their elders? He writes that this ordeal is not the fault of corporations, that it's our generation's fault, and while that's factually just wrong, what of musicians' ethical obligation to resist a world ruled by corporations? Isn't protecting that industry a dereliction of our duty? We should use technology together to make the dominant players in the music industry obsolete, not cozy up to them as they try to squeeze the last drops of capital from a decreasing market share.

In sum: *we ought to make the pie bigger instead of pettily fighting over increasingly smaller slices of it*. That means letting as many people as possible into this big concert called the Internet. The old way of marketing music isn't the only option, but, crucially, if music loses its higher aim, it risks becoming just another profit-seeking enterprise. That's why, even for those who don't like to think about it, the tasks of art and politics are inextricably linked. And perhaps that at least is one point of agreement.

1 comment:

pop-analysis said...

for a well-argued though diametrically opposed perspective, see Jana Hunter's essay here: http://lowerdens.tumblr.com/post/34308869231/on-spotify-and-music-consumption.