An NPR intern wrote a blog post several days ago that set of a firestorm of criticism from musicians, fans, and parts of the music industry alike. Emily White admitted complicity in a secular trend that we all know is nearly universal among the younger generations; young people don’t pay for music.
Here’s the pretty much definitive response by musician/producer David Lowery. His points are good, namely that the responsibility to support artists resides with individuals, not governments, and that by not paying for music a listener is simply choosing to patronize the technology companies who manufacture laptops and deliver broadband rather than the musicians themselves. There’s definitely something to that, though looking at his calculations of just how much Ms. White owes to her favorite musicians, I couldn’t help thinking of Steve Albini’s similar tally of how badly some record labels bilked their artists.
Yet, White is most disturbing when she writes about her expectations, even though this passage seems to have caused the least alarm:
What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices. With this new universal database, everyone would have convenient access to everything that has ever been recorded, and performance royalties would be distributed based on play counts (hopefully with more money going back to the artist than the present model). All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?
No, it isn’t too much to ask. In fact, record labels and digital music companies are trying might and main to deliver just such a thing. The concept of what she describes is known as the ‘celestial jukebox’ among people who spend way too much time thinking about this stuff; a database of any song that can be accessed on any device. And while it would surely deliver convenience–the highest of modern virtues–it also has drawbacks that fundamentally change the legal and social context of music listening. The fact that White approves of this idea also calls into question Lowery’s assertion that she’s somehow deceived by the Free Culture movement–a ‘celestial jukebox’ would be more rigidly controlled and less free than any music distribution method up to now.
To explain why requires some explanation and an answer to the perennially difficult question of whether or not music itself can be owned. When physical ownership of vinyl records existed in tandem with radio, it was easy to make the case that the radio was performing a promotional function for the record labels; the notion that stations would pay royalties to the labels or artists was downright bizarre. In a few unethical cases the cash went the opposite way, in payola from labels to crooked DJs. This is starting to change, and it looks like royalty deals for radio airplay may soon become standard industry practice.
Lowery’s response, however, latches on to an important fact about the battle lines of the copyright/copyleft debate. Noting the collusion between tech companies who rely on content-neutral use and free culture enthusiasts, he says White has been “badly misinformed by the Free Culture movement,” and those in the IT sector who aid and abet it. He overstates the collusion but not the mutual interest. (Elsewhere on the site Lowery’s article was posted at there are hysterical posts about ‘illegal’ lyric sites, so they’re a bit prone to hyperbole) There’s also a fair degree ageist ‘kids these days’ sentiment that allows a “founding member of a first generation Indie Rock band,” as he reminds us, to take issue with both the sinister machinations of big business and all those young upstarts who are ruining music.
Consider Pandora, a business model that delivers convenience for White and equitable compensation for Lowery. Until Spotify made an end run around the music industry Pandora was the closest attempt so far to realizing the ‘celestial jukebox’ model of music distribution. Labels and other intellectual property holders also find Pandora especially agreeable because no product, not even an mp3, ever changes hands. Therefore the consumer loses two key rights they had during the age of physical media; fair use and first sale (though those had already been eroded somewhat by the draconian terms-of-use restrictions imposed by digital music retailers). Also, as a musical resource Pandora is extremely circumscribed and you can’t select songs yourself.
Kids have been stealing music in various ways since the days of the cassette, as Travis Morrison of the legendary 90s DC group The Dismemberment Plan writes in the Huffington Post. It’s great to have some of that clear-headed D.I.Y. ethic injected into the conversation, because we’ve got the Free Culture folks and the copyright folks each arguing the other is co-opted by corporate interests:
So look. I was in this band called The Dismemberment Plan, that was a large-club act in the late-90s and early 2000s. We were never as big as Cracker but we did ok. I’m 39. I still make music. I make no money from it anymore. I’ve had my ups and downs. It’s all good. And I stole the f*** out of music before there ever was an internet, David, and then Napster came along and s*** got real. I’m going to take a moment to describe some of my memories and methods of wanting music so badly that I just reached out and grabbed it even before Napster made it easy and cool. Apparently, none of my cohort ever did any of this stuff; I had some majorly goody-goody friends it seems. Either that, or they are doing that generational-amnesia thing.
The point Lowery seems to be making is that file-sharing in aggregate has prevented people like Morrison from being able to play music full time with some degree of financial security (which has never, ever been a given for musicians). But I think music played avocationally, the context in which most music throughout the ages has been played, gets a bad rap nowadays. Some of the craziest Japanese noise musicians are businessmen during the day. Especially now, as the old centralized music industry is dying and ordinary people are more able to afford the tools to create it, attributing declining industry revenues only to file-sharing ignores an architectonic shift in modern music toward more small-scale production and distribution (for free or not).
Still, I suspect White is more right than wrong when she says “I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums.” The best we can hope for is that people decide to pay for some of their music. Since every piece of writing on this subject seems to include a confession, I have a digital music collection of around 24,000 songs (11,000, Emily? Please.). And I didn’t buy them all.
If there’s an equilibrium to be found here that can maintain something like the structures of the old music industry, it’s going to come through Lowery’s individual ethic of music consumption, married to the axiom that physical media adds something important to music, therefore it deserves to be paid for. The ethic of connoisseurship versus the ethic of convenience. I’m not sure most young people are going to go for it, but that might be a good thing.
Incidentally, an old Fredericksburg music buddy recently put out a 7” single of Travis Morrison and the Hellfighters on his new record label, and you can pick it up here (or listen here). Update: Said buddy, Ryan Little, weighs in at the City Paper’s ArtsDesk.