Music Industry Idealism vs Democratization of Technology: A Response to A Letter To Emily
David Lowery’s letter response to NPR Music intern Emily White’s admission that she has only bought 15 albums, even though she has over 11,000 songs in her library, has spread across the internet today. Lowery and White have similar goals, but Lowery’s generation just doesn’t fully understand the internet and the way it is slowly transitioning everything into a post-physical age.
While I agree with his general sentiment, I have some issues with his letter.
Also, you must consider the fact that the vast majority of artists are releasing albums independently and there is not a “real” record company. Usually just an imprint owned by the artist. In the vast majority of cases you are taking money directly from the artist. How does one know which labels are artist owned? It’s not always clear.
It is clear that Lowery’s issue is not that people share music, but that people can easily share music. He was raised in a paradigm when sharing music took more effort than it does today. There still were people recording songs from the radio on tapes, it was just crude in comparison with copying a few folders from somebody else’s laptop.
This Also brings into question where “impassioned amateur” ends and “professional singer” begins. The vast majority of musicians are independently releasing music, but how are they significantly different from the YouTube sketch comedy group or a hyper-specific blog? I’ve been doing comedy for almost five years, but I don’t call myself a “comedian” yet because it is not my primary means of supporting myself.
Lowery follows up useful statistics on music industry shrinkage with two anecdotes about musician friends who met unfortunate ends.
On a personal level, I have witnessed the impoverishment of many critically acclaimed but marginally commercial artists. In particular, two dear friends: Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Chestnutt. Both of these artists, despite growing global popularity, saw their incomes collapse in the last decade. There is no other explanation except for the fact that “fans” made the unethical choice to take their music without compensating these artists.
Shortly before Christmas 2009, Vic took his life. He was my neighbor, and I was there as they put him in the ambulance. On March 6th, 2010, Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart. Anybody who knew either of these musicians will tell you that the pair suffered from addiction and depression. They will also tell you their situation was worsened by their financial situation. Vic was deeply in debt to hospitals and, at the time, was publicly complaining about losing his home. Mark was living in abject squalor in his remote studio in the Smokey Mountains without adequate access to the mental health care he so desperately needed.
I present these two stories to you not because I’m pointing fingers or want to shame you. I just want to illustrate that “small” personal decisions have very real consequences, particularly when millions of people make the decision not to compensate artists they supposedly “love”. And it is up to us individually to examine the consequences of our actions. It is not up to governments or corporations to make us choose to behave ethically. We have to do that ourselves.
His assertion is clear: Illegal file sharing killed these two musicians. Not the unfortunate combination of drug addiction and depression. Got it.
What the corporate backed Free Culture movement is asking us to do is analogous to changing our morality and principles to allow the equivalent of looting. Say there is a neighborhood in your local big city. Let’s call it The ‘Net. In this neighborhood there are record stores. Because of some antiquated laws, The ‘Net was never assigned 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?
I’ll let Mindy handle this one.
Physical goods are not digital goods. Physical goods are much more finite.
4. Lowery ends the article with this:
This is a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the point. But it’s as if:
Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!
Hardware: Giant mega corporations.Cool! have some money!
Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class.Screw you, you greedy bastards!
But earlier, he says
Who are these companies? They are sites like The Pirate Bay, or Kim Dotcom and Megaupload. They are “legitimate” companies like Google that serve ads to these sites through AdChoices and Doubleclick. They are companies like Grooveshark that operate streaming sites without permission from artists and over the objections of the artist, much less payment of royalties lawfully set by the artist. They are the venture capitalists that raise money for these sites. They are the hardware makers that sell racks of servers to these companies. And so on and so on.
Those sites are hurting the “Giant mega networks” too. All traditional forms of media are falling away because people never wanted to pay and now they don’t have to. The question is not how to fight against the rising tide, but how best to ride it out. We see this over and over: Old media (music/film/tv) rail against piracy and long for the days of 21.99 physical albums.
The content can still be monetized, and White’s idea of a music streaming service, similar to spotify, but with better funds for the musicians, would be ideal. As a society, we are slowly shedding the physical and constrained for the digital and convenient. Working pro-actively to monetize the new content production model is much more useful than making normative arguments. People shouldn’t buy illegal drugs, but they still do, so it makes more sense to monetize it, than waste money fighting it, like the RIAA and MPAA do when they sue teens for accessing content the way they have most, if not all of their lives.