A Place We Have Been To
AUTHOR’S NOTE: It was recently brought to my attention that this piece was published missing a fairly important paragraph, which I’ve since divided into two paragraphs because I can’t stop myself. Self-publishing is hard! – Ethan
A young student-intern at NPR wrote a blog post, suggesting that there should be a comprehensive “Spotify-like catalog,” offering the “ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?” In the article she admits to paying for 15 CD’s worth of her mostly-not-paid-for 11,000-song music catalog.
David Lowery is a musician formerly of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, and currently a UGA professor. He recently wrote an open letter in response to the blog post, challenging the student’s ideas about fairness, compensation, and asking many larger questions of a generation of pirates.
I am a Social Worker, writer, and sort-of musician. I see myself in a unique position to speak to some of these issues.
Tonight I read Mr. Lowery’s open letter and I thought to myself: this is it. This is the dialog we need. Mr. Lowery questions the way we value music and art. I will not summarize his article, because it’s truly worthy of your time and thoughtfulness, but I can’t let some of these points go without introducing some of my own questions. I will attempt to weave these questions together in the hope of reintroducing an idea that may be dismissed as radical, socialist, or unrealistic.
Yet I feel that, in spite of the potential backlash, someone needs to say it: maybe there shouldn’t be a music “industry” at all. Maybe we should think about Music itself in a different way. I hope that by asking these questions in earnest people smarter than me will have new answers, and then I will learn something, maybe I’ll change my mind, or maybe we will build something new together. Most importantly, I hope that this isn’t the end of the dialog.
One of Mr. Lowery’s first key points is that “[f]airly compensating musicians is not a problem that is up to governments and large corporations to solve. It is not up to them to make it ‘convenient’ so you don’t behave unethically.” Mr. Lowery says that it is incumbent upon “us individually to put pressure on our governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly when it comes to artists rights. Not the other way around.” While this phrasing is a little confusing, the idea that the consumers are necessary agents of change surely has validity to it. But I submit that musicians, being the primary stakeholders, must also change their own behaviors.
To be clear: I’m not saying musicians have to adapt simply because the market has made it easier to steal their music now, an argument I recognize as fatuous. I’m essentially saying that musicians exist as part of the same society as the rest of us, and together we must disempower corporate culture. Read on for more details.
Lowery reports that the average income for musicians who file taxes is “something like 35k a year w/o benefits.” Well, awesome. I have a master’s degree in Social Work and I make significantly less than that working full-time (although those benefits admittedly are a huge help for a hypochondriac like me). Yet, I’m not an “average,” social worker. I graduated from the top school in the country. I’m outstanding at working with people, I’m always on task, and I have an unusually diverse skill-set. I have a decade of experience behind me. Jesus, I once taught a hearing-impaired victim of child sexual abuse how to tie her shoes and how to play the xylophone. Is it fair that I don’t make shit for money?
Oh, I was also a musician. I self-published an album of music with my friend Jon, and then two more on my own. Very few people enjoyed my music or bought my records; I didn’t know how to succeed in the music “industry.” I paid for the experience out of pocket, and made up maybe 20% of the cost I had sunk by getting paid for my records and at shows. I always told people they could pay whatever they wanted for those records. I did it because I loved it, even when nobody (including most of the other “local” musicians) gave a rat’s ass. It was a series of stupid financial moves, but like I said, I was young and working and I could afford to do something I loved and believed in even if I wasn’t great at it. Ultimately, I worked really hard, wrote good lyrics and a couple pretty good songs. Is it fair nobody gave me money to make music?
The point is that in a conversation of “fair” compensation we need to also discuss what that compensation is for. When we buy a record, what are we paying for? The experience of enjoying it? The hard work of the musician? And for the terrible musician like myself, do they deserve “fair” compensation for their earnest effort? Are we conceding, then, that making music is simply another business (don’t forget now that half of all new businesses fail within the first five years)? And what of the numerous other underpaid professionals working hard? The languid social worker, the exhausted schoolteacher, the uninspired writer — they, too, are unfairly compensated.
Musicians aren’t the only people involved in the music industry. An album of music often features a large, shared effort from many people. What if the janitor at the studio is underpaid, whose responsibility is that to correct? Should we agree pay an extra dollar for every record? Whether it is true or fair that musicians aren’t compensated adequately, we also cannot ignore that the issue of unfairness spans numerous professions among most classes of people. Unfairness is an issue that doesn’t simply exist because the industry is married to arcane processes or musicians are being exploited by vampiric technology. Musicians are no different from that janitor at the studio who can’t afford healthcare either. Larger systems suckle a global corporate culture, and musicians must be equal partners in the effort against it.
When I hear that two of Mr. Lowery’s friends lived in poverty because people were pirating their records instead of fairly compensating them for their music, I of course am mainly saddened. Although I haven’t personally listened to the music of Sparklehorse or Vic Chestnutt, I know a lot of people loved their music and nobody deserves to feel so bad that they want to take their own lives. But I don’t believe it’s fair to imply such a strong connection between their suicides and music piracy.
Anyone struggling with depression and addiction needs to seek the right kind of treatment, and if that isn’t available where they live, it isn’t because of music piracy; it is because the majority of legislators, county commissioners, city councilmembers, and voters in the area believe funds should be directed to areas outside of social services. It is because there isn’t enough development funding to support the non-profits that provide and supplement those social services. An impoverished person’s inability to access supportive services is not the fault of the unfeeling consumer; it’s ultimately the fault of voter. If one were to suggest that personal wealth cures depression and addiction, I would simply disagree; I believe there are innumerable examples within the music community itself that evince my point.
Poverty is a nightmare, but less talented people struggle with the same issues and they have no fans whatsoever to support them. I see it every day, and am despondent when a person has literally no support. I hope this doesn’t come off as callous – I would never wish to diminish the tragedy that is suicide. But I also think it is inaccurate and uncalled for to make as bold a connection here as Mr. Lowery does, and fundamentally misses the point. Undoubtedly it is sad and unfair when people pirate your music and don’t pay you anything at all. But these men needed help, and the business and profit of their music would not have been the sole answer.
Answers lie in real help. Real help comes from systemic change.
When I was in college, I took a class on musicology and it changed the way I thought about music. In it I discovered a book called Music Grooves by two ethnomusicologists named Charles Keil and Steven Feld. I’ve read this book many times, but this is the passage that continues to resonate:
“It seems to me like music could be one of the first things to be brought back into the natural world, by taking it away from copyright […] The current technologies are feeding on themselves in such a way that people can shape their own musical samples, put together their own cassettes, dub, record concerts, trade music with each other, and use music in a thousand different ways. This technology allows people to spread music around; we don’t need the big companies to do it for us anymore.” – Charles Keil, Music Grooves, p. 314.
The book was published in 1994; you know, when words like iPods, P2P, and MegaUpload would have sounded like neologisms from a Margaret Atwood novel. Keil imagines, a decade before the Internet was entrenched zeitgeist, a world free of music-as-commodity, a world of sharing, of local music, where everyone makes music, and where we value music differently.
When Mr. Lowery asks us to question our values, I think it is a necessary and vital prompt. But I ask him to question the fundamental assumption that belies his argument: music as a product, a commodity, songs as Windex, musicians as WalMart, music as a business. Can we imagine something else?
So this brings me back to some of my earlier questions. What if music stopped being a business? What would that look like?
In my most radical of visions, musicians would need to take matters into their own hands. I imagine that financial gain would have to stop being the central objective of making music. The utility of corporate music and the backing that labels provide would diminish. I don’t say this because I think musicians shouldn’t make a living, but I question how much power is ceded by treating music this way, even on a smaller scale.
There exists a possible world in which all artists are free to distribute music on their own terms, but can musicians imagine, or live with this world?
I myself imagine it would take a tremendous sacrifice: the outrageously lucrative monetary potential that exists when literally millions of people want to pay you for your songs. We would have to create a world where “monetizing” isn’t part of the equation of making music, a world we have been to.
In turn, can we as consumers accept a drastically smaller scale? It would be a world without the same kind of Gaga, Kanye, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, a world where we look to our neighbors and friends, to internet communities, to the small-scale self-distribution of these artists.
I have been asking these questions because I think there exists a middle ground that isn’t as demonstrably Marxist as their point of origin. I think there exists potential to diminish the distasteful qualities of commodification while maintaining a supportive infrastructure for artists.
The goal, then, would not be to eliminate what we know about the music industry, but to use the distributive advantages of technology to disempower oligarchy. People of privilege, people with platforms, people like musicians, are in a unique position to assess their own wealth, their own power, and ask what they can do to help people who don’t have the same opportunities as they do.
When we work to actively remind ourselves that systemic ills, those commensurate with globalization and global capitalism, exist everywhere, we are given the opportunity to recognize that issues of fairness are not unique to our own communities of interest. Maybe musicians like Vic Chestnutt, may he rest peacefully, were treated like shit not only because people pirated his music, but because most people are only given the opportunity to listen to twenty songs (hand-selected by five executives from giant corporations) at any given time. We live in a world where the marginalized have become increasingly irrelevant in popular conversations. But God, what if people in all walks of life were given the chance to listen to Black Foliage on free radio? How many more heads would proverbially explode from listening to that than Chris Brown for the fortieth time in two weeks? What are we willing to sacrifice to make that happen?
As such, I hope to encourage musicians to use their platform as an example. The internet is practically designed to distribute music. Let’s do our best to tamp down the stranglehold capitalist culture has on every facet of our lives. Maybe “major” artists could collaborate on a project that distributes certain albums of their music freely. Maybe some benevolent musical billionaire (hey wasn’t Bono once an “indie” artist?) could found a non-profit national radio station that just cycled through millions of songs that might never be on the radio. Maybe (very likely) someone smarter than me, someone like David Lowery, who has actually experienced real elements of the industry both professionally and academically, could come up with better ideas than I can to achieve this. Maybe a new model wouldn’t be a business model, but a sharing model. Maybe we, as a whole, would re-evaluate our corporate addiction. Maybe they would have less power to manipulate the larger mechanics of governance. Maybe this freedom would allow us to protect our most vulnerable a little more effectively.
What kind of example would it set if corporate influence became significantly less important in an industry as popular as Music?
Wouldn’t that be radical?