Like every other musician and/or music consumer on the internet, reading the fallout from the Emily White/David Lowery exchange has made me consider my own ~~IMPORTANT OPINIONS ON THINGS~~ and try to come to grips with conflicting views on the topics of music sharing, piracy, and intellectual property.
So here’s where I stand at the moment. I empathize with both sides of the argument. I understand the passions on both sides, and I even get the righteous indignation. I am a musician who wants my music to be purchased, and I am a rabid music fan who has done all of the things (aside from outright shoplifting) that Travis Morrison outlined in his recent Huffington Post response to David Lowery - dub parties, mixtapes, taping things off the radio, all the way up to torrenting music. I also have an enormous physical music collection, all bought & paid for.
There are a few important things that I believe are being overshadowed by the righteousness and generational-warfare-framing of the current discussion, and I’d like to point them out here.
First of all, I think David’s most compelling point is not from his response to Emily White, but from a talk he gave at SF Music Tech, namely - the tech industry is behaving unethically in very fundamental ways. More on this in a bit.
Secondly, music (and art generally) has specific attributes that make it different from other purchased products and services, and therefore our conversations and attitudes about it must reflect that.
Thirdly, everyone seems to be throwing their hands up in despair about ways to move forward (whether they’re enjoying the current cathartic releases of indignation or just don’t want to devote the brainpower), but I think there are a few simple, easily-doable steps we can take immediately.
1. Unethical Tech
Let’s get a few things out of the way. Read the longer Lowery piece linked above, paying attention to the ways the current Tech industry is trying to devalue the arts. Today’s tech titans are actively trying to change culture with the goal of making it socially acceptable for corporations to make money off of artists without compensating those artists. “The Man” is less the RIAA these days, as it is Google, Apple, Amazon, etc. It is unethical to serve ads on sites that exploit artistic content for profit without attempting to compensate those artists. It is unethical for Grooveshark to build a business off exploiting musicians and ignoring takedown notices. It is unethical for iTunes to rip off artists to the tune of a 30% cut per sale - I don’t care if their system is ubiquitous, or the best place for discovery at the moment - it is still outrageous. The concept of “Free Culture” is fundamentally unethical. Artists need to be able to support themselves. No one can possibly argue against this with any claim to morality. Case closed.
What we can do:
- If buying music or merchandise online, always check if the artist sells direct from their website first. You might get the same product if you go to iTunes, but it can make a huge difference to the artist. Also, if you are a superfan, actually sign up for the artist’s email list - don’t just “like” them on Facebook.
- Support ethical music tech. Companies like Bandcamp and Tunecore have built sound business models that treat artists fairly and respectfully, with the ultimate goal of adding value to the world, not just making money. They clearly start from a position of love for music. What makes a company ethical? In my opinion, three things: 1) They offer a product or service for a reasonable fee (they aren’t out to rip you off), 2) They treat their users - both creators and consumers - respectfully, and 3) They aim for sustainable practices.
- Support your local record stores! Nothing beats tactile interaction with physical products. And many of us (including me) seem to have forgotten what a great central community meeting place record stores can be. By and large, the people that run record stores are die-hard music fans with deep and abiding love for the arts. It feels good to support that.
2. Ways In Which Music Is Different
Music (and the arts, generally) doesn’t fit neatly into a typical capitalistic model of exchange. It has attributes that complicate the buying process. Steve Lawson (link below) wrote a great post called “Music Is Worthless” where he argued that music is “not a saleable commodity”. I wouldn’t go that far, but let’s look at some of the attributes of music:
- Value is subjective. Buying music is not like buying a sandwich or a vacuum cleaner, where value is much more easily measured objectively. It is a highly individual determination, and is tied to emotion and emotional associations and memories. Friends that share similar tastes might inexplicably disagree on a particular band or album. You might even disagree with yourself regarding the same piece of music depending on your mood, or if you’re in a different place in life from when you first heard it. Due in part to this:
- Purchases are inherently risky. Over the years, I’ve often found myself wondering why, when I love all kinds of experimental, genre-defying music, the purchases I do make are often albums that have a broader appeal. And I could easily copy a Radiohead album from friends, or download it for free virtually anywhere. I think gravitational attraction towards “safe” purchases is a deeply rooted human trait. We have limited resources to spend, especially on the arts, so we want to maximize value. It feels safer to purchase something we know more about, or that we think will hold up over time - also something that is more likely to more consistently appeal to our own subjectivity! Another factor in this is:
- Art and music is profoundly social. What we like (and purchase) is highly influenced by what our friends and social groups like. We’re compelled to purchase many of the same albums to feel like we’re part of a larger social conversation or zeitgeist. Studies have shown that music preferences are the strongest determiner of compatibility - more than books or tv shows or political preferences. We go to concerts, we talk about music with friends, we share music online and offline…all of which leads to:
- Music thrives through sharing. Music-as-culture advances when sharing is vibrant. Sharing can take nearly any form - dragging a friend to a concert, loaning an album, posting a link to a Soundcloud, bands recommending other bands on Bandcamp, even someone posting an album to a torrent site - these are all sharing. Music consumption is additive: the more you engaged you are, the more you want to be engaged. Being actively engaged in a music scene also inspires new musicians to produce their own music, and the cycle continues. Keeping all of these aspects in mind, here are my thoughts on a way forward:
3. A Way Forward
“Consume all the music you can, purchase all that you can afford" - someone on Twitter yesterday.
Musicians: keep in mind that the more people engage with music, the more music as a whole thrives. If music fans, especially rabid music fans, were to be absolutely limited in their consumption by their budgets, the culture and community of music would suffer greatly. Don’t begrudge the kid who downloads or copies stuff from friends, the same way you wouldn’t want to be guilt-tripped for the thrice-overdubbed normal-bias-cassette parties you had with your music friends as a teenager before Napster existed. If a young music fan has a limited budget, she might buy an album one month, a concert the next, a t-shirt the next, etc. But if she is forced to stop engaging with music and her favorite scene for a period of time, you might never get her back. Let her coast on the generosity of friends and the Internet when necessary. You weren’t going to get any money from her at that time anyway, and you might retain an engaged fan who will still share your music with her friends during that period. Don’t be a pedant about the sanctity of intellectual “property” in these instances, as I said above, music is a fundamentally different animal than most other purchases.
Music fans: keep in mind that the ways in which you consume music have very real consequences for artists. I touched on this in the “ethical tech” section above, but it can’t be emphasized enough. If you have no other choice, or if you are very concerned about spending money on an unknown, by all means, check out an album for free. But choose your method mindfully! So many bands have full-album streaming Bandcamp sites, some of them even let you download the album for free. GO THERE FIRST. Even if you only stream the album on Bandcamp, the artist can see that someone was listening that day! That’s valuable information, even if no transaction occurs. If that’s not available, try to get it from a friend. Go to a megaupload or torrent site as a last resort only - most of these sites are actively screwing over artists. Don’t believe the lie that free downloading is “sticking it to the man” - you’re just enriching a new, usually worse “man”, like Kim Dotcom, who frankly gives less of a shit about your favorite artists than the RIAA does. Musicians: help by training your audience. Tell them where to purchase your music! Amanda Palmer makes more money from Bandcamp sales than via iTunes. I found this shocking, but it’s entirely due to the fact that she trains her audience so well and educates them on what’s best for musicians.
Educate people about the issues. Most people I talk to still have no idea that Spotify barely pays anything to artists. They welcome it as an iTunes-replacement, without having any awareness of where their money is really going. Hopefully someday streaming services will compensate artists fairly, but that day isn’t here yet. Encourage people to go closer to the source, be it an artist’s personal site, or Bandcamp, or even better a show or record store. The battle to get ethical music tech starts one person at a time. And by the way, let’s all agree to respect a musician’s preferences about how they distribute music. If they hate file sharing, well, keep that in mind and respect that that is their opinion! Everyone has a different perspective. You might find their reluctance to put their entire album on Bandcamp annoying, but be patient and respect their decision.
Re-frame what “success” means. This is a huge topic that deserves its own conversation, but is absolutely tied to the current one. Genius drummer and all-around exemplary human Zach Barocas views success in the arts in terms of generating an inspirational climate in a community - even one as small as a dozen people. This is an important insight! A music community can be as small as a group of friends, but if they are inspiring each other and enriching each others’ lives, that is a type of success. My own self-titled cello LP sold only 100 physical copies and very few digital copies, but the responses I got from it made it completely worthwhile. Musicians need to look at success in different ways, and keep in mind inspiration is infectious. Be happy with small successes. By all means, seize at big opportunities as they present themselves, but don’t act as if the universe owes you anything. Don’t bully people into buying your music. Don’t engage in unseemly and myopic generational warfare. And keep in mind that so much of the revenue stream for music is transitioning away from “art”-based products (albums) and towards “content”-based situations (licensing). Read Matt Lemay’s excellent article on the subject (link below).
Create spaces and communities where music can exist as art. A lot of people are uncomfortable with the whole “music as content” thing. I think it’s perfectly fine, as long as we continue to take time to actively engage with music as art too. This can be a solitary experience where you focus on a good album without any distractions, or listening with friends, or attending a concert.
Help each other. Musicians - never view yourselves as “in competition” with other musicians. More active communities breed more involvement and engagement, so don’t begrudge anyone their successes. If you’re good at booking, help friends get shows! If cooking’s your thing, find ways to weave your food into your music community or peer group. If someone is struggling, help them out. If someone wants music lessons, help them find a teacher. Support benefit shows and albums, or even better, put one together yourself. Artists are at a particular disadvantage in our society, especially with regard to health care. We need everyone involved as much as possible to help when someone needs it.
A final note about indignation and assholes.
Be mindful of the very human propensity to get addicted to righteous indignation. It gives us a rush, it makes us feel part of our “tribe”, etc. For some reason the current White/Lowery flap seems to have kicked off a storm of this righteousness. Before you engage, ask yourself if your reaction actually applies to the victims of your ire, or just the assholes within that group. Every group of people, generationally or otherwise-delineated, has its share of assholes, as well as its share of regular, basically good folks. Don’t attack a generation en-masse, because then you’re the asshole. We’re all in this together, and this is a conversation that needs to continue. There are enormous cultural, technological, and societal implications, and we have an unprecedented opportunity to actually get some things right here. Watch out for the righteousness/asshole trap. Watch out for grasping at easy solutions. The tangible solutions aren’t here yet. By having this conversation, the solutions will arise naturally from it.
Thanks for reading,
Steve Lawson: Music Is Worthless: http://www.stevelawson.net/2010/10/music-is-worthless/
David Lowery, Meet The New Boss: http://thetrichordist.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/meet-the-new-boss-worse-than-the-old-boss-full-post/
Matt Lemay: Living In the Age of Art Vs. Content: http://bit.ly/artvscontent
Travis Morrison: Hey Dude From Cracker…: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/travis-morrison/hey-dude-from-cracker-im_b_1610557.html
Ryan Little: Everybody’s Doing It, So Why Can’t We? http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/music/2012/06/20/everybodys-doing-it-so-why-cant-we-on-npr-david-lowery-travis-morrison-and-paying-for-music/#comment-149334
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