Writing this 24 hours or so after I first read it, it seems like almost everyone I know has read Emily White’s ‘I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With’ post on NPR’s All Songs Considered blog. Even more people have probably read David Lowery’s reply and it is that post which seems to have generated more controversy, at least in the circles I’m aware of.
In regard to Ms. White, I must defer to Laura Snapes, who summed up much of my own thoughts on the post on her Tumblr this morning: Don’t “My Peers” Me. I feel little to no association with Emily White and her depiction of our “generation” (we are the same age), not because I don’t download music for nothing, I do, but because I feel properly guilty every time something I haven’t paid for or been given lands on my hard drive. I know it’s wrong and I’m trying to wean myself off it. It’s a slow process but I am glad to say I’m making progress. I hope that within the next couple of months, I will have stopped entirely.
Obviously a lot of this is possible because I get sent albums to listen to all the time and pretty much anything I’m interested in otherwise is streaming from Bandcamp/Soundcloud anyway. This is, as Sean Adams pointed out on his Tumblr this morning, the main perk of being involved on a very low level with the music media. Believe me, no one at the low level I - or indeed Emily White - work at is in this for the money. There’s a whole other story to be told about injustice towards interns and the amount of free work they’re expected to do (in loads of industries, not just the music biz), but this is not the time or place.
White’s entire post is, as Douglas McGowan put it, “fascinatingly naive”. McGowan’s post hits a very personal nerve for me, being somewhat in charge of an organisation-of-one masquerading as a record label. Obviously McGowan has put a lot of time, money and effort into his label and his attempt to keep it going is serious food for thought for anyone who thinks “old music” equals “free music”.
As Laura points out, Mr. Lowery is similarly quick to write off anybody under the age of 30. I’ve seen an awful lot of reaction to Lowery’s post, mostly in Facebook comments and such. Reactions have varied hugely, from unquestioning support to total disregard and accusations of materialist greed. I’m going to come straight out and say I do support his overall argument: you should pay for the music you own. His invocation of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous might seem over the top but, after reading some comments by James Jackson Toth (of Wooden Wand) on Facebook, I’m thinking maybe they’re pretty accurate. Toth said that all musicians in his part of the industry (i.e. the ultra-DIY, hard-working, 100% independent part of it) are making less money now than they were ten years ago.
From speaking to a lot of artists trying to work and make enough to get by, I know it’s pretty hard to argue with Toth’s assertions. Things aren’t getting any easier for anybody really. The idea that live music will somehow replace record sales has long been proven false in practice. The money you can make from live performance is falling all the time, especially if you live in smaller cities or say, on an island…
On a personal level, well over 100 people came to a free launch gig last Friday night for four new releases on my label. 12 people bought something. All the releases on the label are pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp, very few people ever pay anything and that’s ok, it’s their choice. I don’t think it should be necessary to make downloads free but, especially in the light of the Richter Collective’s folding, it’s just the way things are here and I have no idea how to change that.
I don’t really know what to add to what’s been said already, the whole thing is a giant mash of ethical, financial and personal values that is not ever going to be fairly solved. All I can really say is that for me, illegal downloading will have to stop. It’s a personal decision and one I’ll have to stand by if I’m going to attempt to make some sort of living working with independent music in some way. I am interested in the cottage industry, the idea that you can build something personal over time. Doing that in this industry will mean selling records. How can I sell records if I don’t buy them?
I am not interested in convenience, I am interested in fairness. If I am to say that and mean it, I have only one option.