Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Essential Reading: Steal this album: What happens if no one pays for music?

My friend Scott Timberg has a very thoughtful piece up on Salon today that cuts to the heart of what is at stake in the kerfuffle between Emily White, the NPR intern who admits to never having "owned" any music and Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman David Lowery, who says artists should be fairly compensated for their work: "How should we pay for culture in the Internet era, and if we don’t pay, what happens to the producers of culture?"

Read it, and if you haven't already, I also recommend reading White's original post and Lowrey's response

As Scott notes, many on the internet have taken Lowrey to task for fuddy-duddyism, accusing him of not being able understand that music consumption models have changed, and we can't go back to his "good old days." But I do not think Lowrey's arguments are so easily dismissed, especially in light of some of the cold, hard statistics he cites. I've never been able to buy into the "culture wants to be free" arguments of many technological utopians. Scott does a better job than I could of pulling these problems into focus, so I highly recommend his Salon piece.

But, while I am generally on Lowrey's side in this argument, I would be not be commenting in good faith if I did not also mention that I once made one of David's songs available for download through this blog without permission. I posted a Camper Van Beethoven track back in 2006, a cover of The Buzzcocks' "Harmony In My Head" that was only released as a b-side on a promotional single. I long ago deleted the file, but at the time I did not see any harm in making it available for free. My thinking was that it was okay (ethically, if not legally) to post songs that either were highly unlikely to ever be commercially re-released, or that had been out-of-print for a very long time.

So, am I a big, fat, old hypocrite to side with Lowrey over the young-whippersnapper White now? Maybe. But as with President Obama on same sex marriage, I prefer to think that my position has "evolved" over time (and in fairness to White, her thinking seems to be evolving as well). I no longer post music without the express consent of the rights-holder or their representitive. My evolution on this issue was slow, and I suspect my original thinking on the issue was not as clear-headed as it should have been. For what it is worth, I know I never meant any harm, and that my goal was to raise the profile of any artist I featured.

Of all the music I posted here, I never once had an artist complain, or ask me to take a track down. I did have many artists write to me to thank me for featuring their music, and they uniformly seemed grateful for the attention I was bringing to their work. Many of these artists, in my view, never received the critical acclaim or financial rewards their music deserved, and I viewed my posts as a way to honor them, and perhaps even spark a new demand for their music. I got personal thank yous from criminally overlooked artists like Barbara Manning and Don Fleming, others like The Popes and David Duet of Cat Butt linked to my posts via Facebook or other social media. I'm proud of the fact that I never received a complaint from an artist, and I'd like to think that's because I chose my subjects wisely and with honorable intentions.

But I no longer think offering unauthorized music for free was the right thing to do, regardless of my intentions, and regardless of whether the musicians in question appreciated it or not. Over time I noticed more and more music blogs popping up, many of them offering free downloads of entire albums, some out-of-print, some easily available through normal commercial channels. These made me less comfortable with the idea of posting music for free. I also saw an spike over time of belligerent posters who were outraged that I had let a track expire: Didn't I know that culture wants to be free, and who was I to hoard it for my own selfish purposes?

It was reading these posts (some extremely hostile) that made me realize I was doing more harm than good. I was contributing to a culture of consumption that said "Everything I want should be available to me right now, and for free. Anything else is unacceptable." At a certain point I decided I could no longer participate in that process in good faith because I don't want to live in a world where artists are not fairly compensated for the their work. Or as David Lowrey might have put it, "What the world needs now is another illegal download, like I need a hole in the head." I went so far at one point as to briefly delete this entire blog and all its contents. But I wanted to keep writing about music, and I felt that the content of some of my earlier posts was still worthwhile without the accompanying music, so I restored it (without the music) and continued blogging. I also found ways to feature interesting music by working directly with artists or their representatives, so if you find any music downloads on this site now, they have been approved by those who hold the legal rights to the work.

I'll have more to say on this subject later, but this is something I've wanted to get off my chest for a while.


WhatsTheSound said...

I empathize a lot with your agonizing on inculcating a culture of free music entitlement. There are a lot of disturbing blogs out there that put up new albums in full without an apparent second thought. Yet the fact that much of the music I find of interest on the music blogs are things that money can't buy (unreleased live or demo tracks, out of print undigitized vinyl, etc ) - especially as I was living until recently overseas in a market labels judge too small to issue digital licenses for anything but big hits (so Amazon, iTunes, etc just blocked me from buying... Might as well still be 2002), I can't agree that the tap should be turned off entirely but I don't know what the answer is...

Pete Bilderback said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I'm not sure the tap should be turned off entirely, as you say. Actually, the one thing I am sure of is that it can't be. I don't know the solution either, and sadly I wasn't offering one. I just wanted to describe my own experience and evolution of thought. I can tell you for a fact that the hostile comments I sometimes got, and the sense of entitlement they betrayed, had a lot to do with my decision.

WhatsTheSound said...

I can imagine... For what's it's worth, on my own blog the only music that isn't 'stream' are mixes, so I do emphathize.

Doug said...

The Lowery post was quite the read, and did bring a few pangs of guilt on my part--not that I'd done anything like what the NPR intern did, but I did buy plenty of used discs that technically deprived artists of royalties, I'm sure. These days of legal downloading is probably better for the artists (at least in what they're earning from me).

For weeks I've been meaning to get around to posting about this topic (stupid day job), but finally I have, so because this inspired it I figured you'd want to know.