June 21st, 2012

Money & Music

We live in complicated times. Technology has put the whole history of recorded media at our fingertips. For more than a decade, fewer and fewer people have been paying for music and those that do use services, such as Spotify and iTunes, that have been shown to do very little in the way of providing substantial revenue to artists. The problem this creates - that artists are making increasingly less and in some cases effectively nothing from their work - is one that I (and I believe many others) struggle with morally and philosophically.

In a recent post for NPR’s All Songs Considered Blog, Emily White vocalized this struggle, admitting that while she longs to support the artists she loves, she has only ever paid for a handful of records in her life. Shortly after, David Lowery (front-man of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, as well as professor on the business of music at the University of Georgia), wrote an open response to White for the blog Trichordist, illuminating the dire straits many artists now find themselves in and boiling down the reality of getting music “for free.”

As you might expect, quite the debate has begun to rage across the web in the days since the exchange. Writing on the issue for Salon, Scott Timberg looks at both sides of the argument and illustrates just how important this conversation is to keeping the arts alive.

So who’s right? In the broad sense, they both are: White is describing the way music sharing works among her generation, one that came of age after the fetishism of cover art, liner notes and the physical qualities of records and CDs. (It would be interesting here to look at the generational makeup of the vinyl revival, which is driven in part by a longing for sound vastly warmer and more expansive than that on MP3s but also by the old-school ritual of a brick-and-mortar shop, an informed and/or forbidding clerk, and the tangibility of the physical object.) She comes across as wanting to do what’s right.

But Lowery’s argument – despite a few misspellings and the jumble of well-considered and rushed thoughts that the Web all but requires – is one of the most important meditations on the state of music in our time. He drops some crucial statistics here, among them that “Recorded music revenue is down 64 percent since 1999,” and that “The number of professional musicians has fallen 25 percent since 2000.” He refers indirectly to something equally important: The money being spent on music is not ending up in the hands of musicians, or even labels, or members of the creative class, from the record store clerk to a label president. It’s going to Apple – which could, thanks to iTunes, buy every surviving label with pocket change – and other technology companies.

Perhaps the most effective argument of Lowery’s is an extended metaphor about a lawless urban neighborhood – shades of the strange days during the L.A. riots — that never raised a police force.

So in this neighborhood people simply loot all the products from the shelves of the record store. People know it’s wrong, but they do it because they know they will rarely be punished for doing so. What the commercial Free Culture movement (see the “hybrid economy”) is saying is that instead of putting a police force in this neighborhood we should simply change our values and morality to accept this behavior. We should change our morality and ethics to accept looting because it is simply possible to get away with it.  And nothing says freedom like getting away with it, right?

But it’s worse than that. It turns out that Verizon, AT&T, Charter etc etc are charging a toll to get into this neighborhood to get the free stuff. Further, companies like Google are selling maps (search results) that tell you where the stuff is that you want to loot … Further, in order to loot you need to have a $1,000 dollar laptop, a $500 dollar iPhone or $400 Samsumg (sic) tablet. It turns out the supposedly “free” stuff really isn’t free. In fact it’s an expensive way to get ‘free’ music… And none of that money goes to the artists!

Read the full article here.
Read Emily White’s piece for NPR here.
Read David Lowery’s response here. 

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