The Internet Could Not Care Less About Your Mediocre Band

Dave Allen

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You can’t litigate human behavior. In defense of NPR’s Emily White.
Last week I read with fascination the outcry of the self-appointed, self-centered “defenders” of musicians vs the Internet. i.e. musicians. The brouhaha had been kindled by a 20 year-old intern at NPR, Emily White, who made a confession that upset the maudlin, mildly-talented David Lowery and grownups in general who can write. They piled on trying to savage her, but not to worry; as UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher most famously retorted after being criticized by Geoffrey Howe, a member of her cabinet – “ was like being savaged by a dead sheep.” So yes, bring on the dead sheep.
Why were people jumping all over Emily? Her post was titled: I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With. Here’s the first part of her post:
A few days before my internship at All Songs Considered started, Bob Boilen posted an article titled “I Just Deleted All My Music” on this blog. The post is about entrusting his huge personal music library to the cloud. Though this seemed like a bold step to many people who responded to the article, to me, it didn’t seem so bold at all.
I never went through the transition from physical to digital. I’m almost 21, and since I first began to love music I’ve been spoiled by the Internet.
I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric. I’ve only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs.
I wish I could say I miss album packaging and liner notes and rue the decline in album sales the digital world has caused. But the truth is, I’ve never supported physical music as a consumer. As monumental a role as musicians and albums have played in my life, I’ve never invested money in them aside from concert tickets and T-shirts.
But I didn’t illegally download (most) of my songs. A few are, admittedly, from a stint in the 5th grade with the file-sharing program Kazaa. Some are from my family. I’ve swapped hundreds of mix CDs with friends. My senior prom date took my iPod home once and returned it to me with 15 gigs of Big Star, The Velvet Underground and Yo La Tengo (I owe him one).
During my first semester at college, my music library more than tripled. I spent hours sitting on the floor of my college radio station, ripping music onto my laptop. The walls were lined with hundreds of albums sent by promo companies and labels to our station over the years.
All of those CDs are gone. My station’s library is completely digital now, and so is my listening experience.
This is a 20 year old student telling it like it is. My only concern is that she may have never heard the sonorous sound of a vinyl recording. Other than that she has my utmost support.
Musicians (and as a member of Gang of Four I include myself here) don’t automatically deserve to make a living. They are not a special subset of society that should be supported at all cost. If that were the case there would surely be an honest argument against the States who are laying off teachers, police and firefighters; teachers educate our children, police and firefighters protect us from harm and sometimes death. Musicians, like all artists, are part of the foundation of our cultural groundswell and music is part of our reptilian past – every living thing has a heartbeat. Yet we talk of the “music business” and that’s where The Rime of the Ancient Mariner comes in..
The constant whining by David Lowery (this isn’t the first time) proves only that, whether he knows it or not, he doesn’t understand the Internet and how people use it (more on this later in the post.) Like many, many people who have had their lives or businesses upended by the Internet, his nostalgia runs so deep he wants everything to be the way it used to be. Ain’t gonna happen. If he looked long and hard in the mirror he might confess to himself that the way it used to be was a tragedy for the majority of musicians, and probably not that great for himself either, as his bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, like Gang of Four, were not exactly in the upper echelons of fame. We scraped out a living by touring and yes, David, selling T-shirts. The adage that musicians always pay back the mortgage to the labels but never own the house is entirely true in so many cases. We can’t blame the Internet for that.
This is where Lowery outlines his case. I take issue with it in its entirety because Lowery is attempting to solve the wrong problem. He is attempting in the present to solve a problem of the past – lack of music sales; ergo, damage to musicians income levels or lack thereof since the advent of the Internet. (Oddly he doesn’t mention that the music industry is most likely the only industry to ever, ever, sue its own customers. An inconvenient truth.) He even lays out in fine detail how much Emily would owe if she’d paid for all of her music (most of which came from the labels as “promos”. Once again Lowery doesn’t mention how music writers and radio DJ’s sold those promos to record stores..just saying.) He then asks her to cough up the dough for starving musicians.
He also rather insensitively points out, while undermining his argument, that “the average income of a musician that files taxes is something like 35k a year w/o benefits.” That’s almost $10k more than the current US median wage. There are around 8 million unemployed people here in the USA, many without a place to call home, who would gladly take that income. I find him so condescending that I want to break something right now.
I also find it disgusting that Lowery conjoins the deaths by suicide of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous to this topic. He knows very well that those two brave artists, much braver than he, suffered through circumstances that were extremely personal and difficult to control. Had they been musicians or not, had nothing to do with the incredibly unfortunate outcome of their lives. It only goes to show how shallow and specious his entire argument is if he has to pivot it on their deaths.
Jay Frank wrote a post in response to all of this. In it he points out that Lowery need not worry about people downloading his music. Frank provides us a snapshot of a Google search: “when I went to look on Google Insights to see the level of demand for free music by David Lowery’s group Camper Van Beethoven, the message I get is, “Not enough search volume to show graphs.” “This basically means, from what I can gather, that less than 50 people per month in the entire world are even showing intent to steal his music. Statisticians basically refer to this as essentially zero.”
Here’s Emily again:
If my laptop died and my hard-drive disappeared tomorrow, I would certainly mourn the loss of my 100-plus playlists, particularly the archives of all of my college radio shows. But I’d also be able to rebuild my “library” fairly easily. If I wanted to listen to something I didn’t already have in my patchwork collection, I could stream it on Spotify.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.
That last line is the most important in this context. It also spells doom for musicians wanting to make a living by just selling music. The convenience that Emily is searching for is, as she mentions, provided bySpotify – by doing so she shows us that a musician’s enemy is not the music downloader. The enemy is Spotify, MOGRdio et al who license entire music catalogs from labels at great cost. The labels (in my case Warner Bros) then pay a pittance in royalties to the artists. The winners in this vast charade are the labels and venture capitalists.
Believe me I know. I recently received a royalty statement from Warner Bros in which I found that one of our most popular songs, ‘Natural’s Not In It’ had been streamed or downloaded through paid online services, almost 7000 times. That netted me $17.35. Now that was just one song out of our entire Gang of Four catalog. The statement amount in total, my share, came to $21.08. There was a big, red-inked stamped message on the last page that read, “Under $25 do not pay.”
Lowery points out in his passive/aggressive “Letter to Emily” that people are buying less music these days. I wonder if it has ever occurred to him that maybe that’s because they are being served up an all-you-can-eat cheap buffet of music from the likes of Spotify?
Anyway, I thought that this issue was long behind us. I wrote about where music and musicians were heading back in 2008. Here’s an updated version of The End of the Music Album as the Organizing Principle. And here’s Dear Musicians, Please Be Brilliant or Get Out of the Way.
Anyway, back to the Internet.
In what may, or may not, have been a misstep, Lowery posted his rant to The Trichordist blog whose tag line, Artists For An Ethical Internet, says it all. In using that tag line they show in brilliant light how much they misunderstand what the Internet is. And by doing so they undermine the very validity of their presence on the Internet. They can yell at the Internet into infinity and it will never blink.
The Internet can not be ethical. Only users of the Internet can be said to be ethical, moral, or philosophical; they may be terrorists, kidnappers, racists, deviants; they could also be atheists, religious zealots or spiritualists; they might be gay, straight, bi, married, divorced; employed, destitute…the list goes on. Whoever they may be they are users. The Internet is its own thing. The Internet doesn’t give a damn about musicians or your mediocre band.
And finally there’s this – Lowery writes about “immoral and unethical business models.” And includes this – “..they are “legitimate” companies like Google.” What’s with the quotes around “legitimate” does Lowery think Google is not legitimate? No, he thinks Google is the problem (read Devil..) because Google in his mind owns the “Unethical Internet” because of its advertising prowess. And I quote – “Google is also selling ads in this neighborhood and sharing the revenue with everyone except the people who make the stuff being looted.” Looted! Unbelievable.
He then rambles on about the “cost” of free music downloading – the $1000 laptop, the costly iPhone or Tablet, as if people only use these products to download music! He also falls into the same trap that U2′s manager, the ISP bully Paul McGuinness, falls into – blame the ISP’s for allowing access to the Internet, where as we know, people only go to steal music.. McGuinness is so well informed about the Internet that in the Billboard article I linked to he talks about the Googles! And he also said this about Apple and Google – “They didn’t invent the MP3, they just made the best one.” Erm.., what?
Clearly this a fool’s errand. At least we know who the fools are. They are what the economist Paul Krugman calls “Very Serious People,” for only they know how to fix things. Unfortunately, everythingthey do or say has no grounding in reality.
Grownups fear youth. That’s unfortunate. By sharing her reality, Emily White shows us she is grounded.
[Update] This just in, literally. @AmazonMP3 If you wanna get 19 of Paul Simon’s solo hits for $2.99, youre gonna have to do it by tomorrow: Now who’s fooling who about the declining incomes of musicians?

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