David Lowery is a veteran rock musician known for his work with the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. Over the last quarter decade he’s had plenty of experience with the music industry, both independent and major labels, and has recently expressed strong criticism for the way services like Spotify compensate artists. On Monday he issued a stinging rebuke to NPR intern and blogger Emily White who wrote about how although her iTunes library “exceeds 11,000 songs” she “never owned any music to begin with,” having “only bought 15 CDs” in her lifetime. White is also the general manager of online college station WVAU at American University, which she says also has no CDs any longer, saying that the “station’s library is completely digital now.” According to her piece, most of her collection came from ripping CDs in the station’s former library.
Lowery deftly deconstructs White’s assertion that
"I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.
“What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices.”
He examines the harsh economic reality of Spotify for artists, while also taking on the legitimate value of those 11,000 songs in her library. Taking head-on the oft-heard argument that “It’s OK not to pay for music because record companies rip off artists and do not pay artists anything,” Lowery does a little math to demonstrate that under a typical major label contract and royalty rates the artists represented on her hard drive would still be in line to receive $2139.50 had those songs been purchased.
It’s obvious that the issue is personal for Lowery not just because he is a working musician, but because he has watched the poor health and decline of independent artists like Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous, who “saw their incomes collapse in the last decade.” He argues that, “there is no other explanation except for the fact that ‘fans’ made the unethical choice to take their music without compensating these artists.”
But Lowery doesn’t just single out Millennial generation music fans for their downloading and ripping. He also targets what he calls the “Free Culture movement, which is funded by a handful of large tech corporations and their foundations in the US, Canada, Europe and other countries.” Lowery points out how plenty of companies profit from this activity, from sites like The Pirate Bay and Google which profit from ads served around download search results, to the network and technology companies that provide all the underlying technology.
He also argues that all of these “free” music downloads aren’t actually free, since the aggregate cost of the technologies and services required to access music online–like laptops, internet access and smartphones–greatly exceeds the cost of buying CDs. This leads him to ask, “Why do you pay real money for this other stuff but not music?”
Lowery’s response to Emily White is perhaps the best concise critical analysis of the current online music industry from an artist’s perspective that I’ve read. When Kim Dotcom, the outlandish CEO of the file sharing site MegaUpload, was arrested in January, I didn’t view him as a victim precisely because it seems pretty obvious that his fortune was raised on distributing and profiting from other people’s content not by accident, but pretty much by design. But I’m also not ready to throw the whole Free Culture movement out with the infringers’ bath water.
I support a strong Fair Use regime which permits the truly fair use and reuse of culture for criticism, commentary, education and creating new works. As well, many emerging artists have taken advantage of free culture principles and networks to distribute their work to new audiences and develop ways to make a living. Yet, at the same time, the choice to give away some or all of one’s work should be the artist’s decision, no one else’s.
I also think that it is both practical and ethical for fans and listeners to trade music in a limited fashion in order to share discoveries with others. So many formerly underground artists over the last twenty-five years grew in popularity in part due to tape trading, mix tapes and CD-Rs. But I also agree that it is unethical to simply copy and download artists’ work en masse in lieu of purchasing it. It is probably unrealistic to expect a contemporary music fan’s iTunes library to be filled only with files ripped from her own CDs or purchased online. But I also agree with Lowery that a ratio of 15 purchased CDs to 11,000 tracks ripped or downloaded is not defensible.
Finally, I find it interesting, but vexing, that Emily White is a college radio DJ who doesn’t buy music. I wonder if that’s more generally true for today’s college DJs as a whole. Certainly when I was in college radio it was very common to have a ready supply of blank cassettes to tape the newest releases or make mix tapes at the station. But like Lowery, I also spent a significant portion of my tiny disposable income on records and CDs every month, because I was constantly being turned on to exciting new artists and albums and owning the actual article always seemed better to me.
With one-click CD ripping it’s even easier for today’s college DJs to inhale a half-dozen CDs in the time it would have taken me to tape just one album in the 90s. Does this ease, combined with the apparent change in popular attitudes meant that most college DJs are more like Emily White than David Lowery or me?
Unlike WAVU the college station that I advise still maintains a large CD and LP library, and it certainly seems to me that the student DJs still spin lots of plastic and vinyl, in addition to streaming from their iPhones and laptops. And, certainly, we hear about it quickly and loudly whenever a turntable stylus needs replacing. But I have not actually surveyed the students to find out if they’re actually spending their own cash on music.
It’s important for this debate and discussion to happen, and especially vital to hear from artists who are or are attempting to make a living with their music. Like many others, I was also a little surprised that White’s piece was published on NPR’s All Songs Considered blog, which is ostensibly a very artist-friendly and supportive venue, that is also directly supported by music label advertising. But, perhaps the editors were interested in airing this viewpoint in order to spark debate, in addition to providing an example of how many young adults regard and consume music.
I will be curious to see if All Songs Considered publishes a follow-up or response to Lowery’s critique.
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