Steal this album: What happens if no one pays for music?

Artists have bills. Fans want convenience. A debate between a blogger and rocker goes viral, with no easy answers

Published June 20, 2012 11:45AM (EDT)

      (Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

One of the disorienting things about technological change is the way it can take people who would otherwise be on the same side and pit them against each other. Consider the fight that’s broken out this week. In this corner: A responsible and intelligent college radio DJ who loves Big Star and Yo La Tengo. In the other corner: Semi-famous indie rocker whose career playing skewed songs like “Sad Lovers Waltz” and "Teen Angst” depends on DJs and record buyers very much like his adversary. Were this the ‘80s or ‘90s, the two might have shown up mugging in a photo tacked to the radio station’s cluttered wall.

But instead of being allies, Emily White, an NPR intern and general manager at American University’s WVAU, and Camper van Beethoven/Cracker singer David Lowery, are after each other.

The dissonance here between fan and musician emerges from one of the key conflicts of our time: How should we pay for culture in the Internet era, and if we don't pay, what happens to the producers of culture? It was only a matter of time before an exchange like this would make the terms of the debate clear.

Over the weekend, White posted a piece on NPR’s All Songs Considered blog called “I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With,” in which she explains, in a reasonable, matter-of-fact tone, that despite being an enormous music fan, with a library of more than 11,000 songs, she has paid for almost none of it. Part of what’s striking is that she is not a culture-wants-to-be-free zealot, an unrepentant pirate or a feckless, that’s-just-the-way-I-roll Millennial. She seems to suspect there’s something wrong with this picture, but is not sure how wrong, and not sure how to fix it.

Lowery, a singer/guitarist whose profile was highest back when indie rock was called college radio, in the mid-'80s to early ‘90s, responded with a long post on the Trichordist, a community blog run by “Artists for an Ethical Internet.” He argues that by taking and listening to music without paying a record store or label or Internet service like Spotify, she and her generational peers are effectively cheating musicians out of the value of their work. (I’ll shock nobody by saying that as a Gen X’er who’s worked for many years as a sometime rock critic, and runs with writers, DJs and record store folk, I’ve got my share of music I didn’t pay for. But since I turned 16 or so, a large part of my disposable income has gone to recordings, whether vinyl, CD or download. We’re the transitional generation on this count, and everybody I know who loves music practices the kind of tithing I describe.)

Lowery writes that if it’s not literally piracy, even folks who copy songs from friends, libraries or radio station collections are depriving musicians of their property. And what’s worse, he says, many of them are doing it with the assumption that the only damage they’re inflicting is to the hookers-and-blow business model of the record industry. What you’re doing instead, he says, is taking from artists – many of whom struggle – and giving it to corporations bigger than anything left in the music industry.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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!

There’s a contrarian buzz on the blogosphere toward debunking Lowery’s argument, calling him an old fogey or someone who won’t let go of the old days.

But his metaphor of the neighborhood that funnels money to technology corporations and takes it from the artists actually writing and producing the music just about sums up the state of the art in the 21st century. And that tattered, corporate-sponsored neighborhood that’s like one of Italo Calvino’s bad dreams represents more than just the record industry.

The damage to culture by digital technology, the struggling economy and changing habits can be seen in an almost infinite number of places – the film market in Spain, where illegal downloads have made it almost impossible to sell DVDs, or New Orleans, where the newspaper that gave perhaps the most courageous coverage of Hurricane Katrina just laid off half of its staff. That abstract neighborhood is as real as the bookstore that used to exist down the street from the place you live or work, or the clerks and managers who used to work there.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When you ask people why they steal music, or why they don’t care about the collapse of the record industry, the more informed ones talk about the decadence of the labels themselves. Lowery describes the point of view of his students at the University of Georgia this way: “It’s OK not to pay for music because record companies rip off artists and do not pay artists anything.” Nonsense, he says – some labels were crooked, but most allowed musicians to make a living making music. As bad and wasteful as the labels could be, he’s essentially right about this, and our new model, with its mix of iTunes and piracy, is no improvement.

But part of the blame for the awful state of affairs that White and Lowery are arguing over goes to the record industry itself, which slept as technology changed, then responded with lawsuits against Napster and luckless downloaders rather than finding a way to accommodate new appetites and new capacities.

“The labels were the ones faced with this fork in the road,” says Steve Knopper, a Rolling Stone contributor and author of "Appetite for Self-Destruction," about the record industry’s suicide. “Come up with a new model, or ride CDs down into the ground. People on their own staffs were telling them, ‘Do something with Napster, make a deal with them.’

“The labels, from top to bottom, said, 'We are going to rely on our CD-selling model, screw all these punk Napster people.’“

And the real damage, he says, was done in a brief window of time: From the emergence of Napster, in 1999, to 2003, when the iTunes store opened. “There was almost no legal way in that period, anywhere in the world, where someone could buy a download. That four-year period killed the labels. They had a deal on the table with Napster, but that deal collapsed. The majority of the people running the labels said, ‘Screw this Internet stuff, we sell CDs. We’re big, they’re small.’"

Part of what made labels vulnerable was the insularity of their leadership, Knopper says. “You had to prove that you went to clubs, had ‘cred,’ had worked with Elvis, that you had solid-gold ears, that you could hear a hit when no one else could.” Not exactly the type given to thoughtful restructuring in the face of technological innovation.

Of course, the record industry was not alone: It resembles, among other things, the newspapers that covered it, as media companies allowed themselves to be upended by Craigslist and actually paid to transfer content to the Web, where ad rates drop tenfold.

For a long time, the model for record labels and newspapers alike involved giving away something for a larger gain. With papers, “You’d sell your content incredibly cheap – like for 25 cents – but you’d also sell advertising. For decades, in music, the model has been, you listen to the music for free on the radio, and then it becomes, ‘Oh, I love the single, I’ll buy an expensive record or CD.’”

The anger and frustration, and plummeting revenues, we get in Lowery’s blog post show what happens when life changes and the leadership sleeps through it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

So with the music industry dropping the ball, is it fair to beat up on the musicians? Of course not, and that’s why Lowery’s argument resonates. Most of our pop images of musicians – whether Zeppelin trashing hotel rooms, Ozzy Osbourne in his Beverly Hills mansion or hip-hoppers with Bentleys, bling and bottles of Chivas – involve wealth leading to irresponsibility. Rock music – unlike the folk and blues it came from – has always been aspirational and its rebel stance has often translated into materialism and narcissism. Elvis walked into Sun Studios a shy, bashful truck driver; a few years later he was before the movie cameras, in a gold lamé suit.

But rock ‘n’ roll fantasy aside, the vast majority of musicians in any genre are working hard to get by, and touring almost constantly for shrinking yields. And the Internet has, with a few exceptions – Radiohead, Amanda Palmer – not made things easier.

Lowery, who teaches the business of music, quotes a statistic that the average income of a musician who files taxes is about $35,000, without benefits. Similarly, he writes, “Of the 75,000 albums released in 2010 only … 1,000 sold more than 10,000 copies … the point where independent artists begin to go into the black on professional album production, marketing and promotion.”

It’s the kind of thing you don’t hear from Internet Utopians who crow about the “democratization” the Web encourages and the way digital technology keeps us all “connected.”

In February, the New York Times’ Eduardo Porter wrote about what all this Internet democratization means: “According to Nielsen, 75,300 albums were released in 2010, 25 percent more than in 2005. But new releases that sold more than 1,000 copies fell to about 4,700 from 8,000 during that time.” That’s selling more than just 1,000 copies.

If, writes Porter, “professional musicians, movie directors and writers can’t make money from their art, they will probably make less of it. Independent producers say piracy is already making it harder to raise money for small and mid-budget movies. Stopping piracy is about protecting creativity — and the many occupations it supports (think pop band or sound mixer). If we value what creative industries produce as much as we say we do, Congress will have to find a way to protect it without limiting speech.”

Is there a way to make government regulations satisfy Lowery – who wants artists to get paid for their intellectual property – and White, who closes by asking for “the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it”? Probably. It may take a few more public arguments – some perhaps less polite than this one -- to get there.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Art In Crisis Editor's Picks Internet Culture Music