Re: Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered

Amazingly, Mozart sold a grand total of zero albums in his lifetime.

This is a response to a post on illegal downloading by David Lowery (of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker) on The Trichordist, which is itself a response to an article by an NPR intern named Emily White. You can read it HERE. For the most part, it is an extremely well-reasoned and passionately argued piece, and does an excellent job of going into explicit details about how online piracy affects the music industry. Despite the fact that I don’t necessarily agree with him on several of his points, the only part where I turned up my nose was when he implicitly blamed illegal downloading for the tragic suicides of his troubled but brilliant friends, Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous, which I felt was a really cheap and manipulative way to reinforce his argument. And, for the sake of getting to my point, I’m not going to spend time criticizing his tone, which, on the one hand, is unlike that of many of the commenters on his post, not one of derisive “get off my lawn, you darn kids!” condescension, but on the other, is overly moralistic.

The debate over online piracy encompasses so many issues and micro-issues that it’s more or less impossible to encompass them all in one argument or article. So, at risk of getting lost in the din of responses to the article that have already been written, I just want to contest one concept that Lowery and many of the people who have commented on his piece seem to hold as an implicit assumption, and that I feel is the core issue behind the online piracy debate. I don’t want to respond to the moral question of whether illegal downloading is right or wrong, or try to justify my own downloading habits, or try to quantify just how much piracy impacts musicians’ revenues (especially since I’ve more or less already addressed these things with this reblog). My retort is simply this: music isn’t a commodity.

I know, I know. How hopelessly naïve and idealistic (and Marxist?) of me. We live in a capitalist system, everybody’s gotta eat, blah blah blah. I know. I’m not some delusional hippie. And I don’t expect music, or anything short of tap water, to be free (Lowery keeps referring to something called the “Free Culture movement”; I did not know that this was an actual thing until I googled it five seconds ago). The issue I take with arguments like Lowery’s is that they equate something as ethereal as a song or an album with a laptop or a can of Pepsi. Lowery admits bafflement: “Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?” Again, I’m not going to debate the morality of people’s willingness or unwillingness to pay for music right now. But… is it really that hard to see the difference between a MacBook and “The Kids Are Alright”? One is a physical consumer product, and the other an ingrained part of rock ‘n roll fans’ brains for over almost fifty years?

Of course, a CD or a vinyl record or even an mp3 purchased from iTunes (or an eight track! Or a wax cylander!) are physical products. But are these physical manifestations what we truly value about music? I’ve got some shocking news for you: recorded music has only existed for barely over a century. Music has existed for a lot longer than that. And when music recordings became available for the general population to buy, listen to, and enjoy, people started freaking out. They said if average folks didn’t have to go to a concert hall or play themselves to hear music, it would destroy music forever. It’s true. And they didn’t only say that sort of thing about music. People flip the shit every time a new technology becomes available. Ever heard this quote before?

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks… As men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.

You know who said that? Plato. Fucking Plato. He was talking about writing. He thought it would destroy the quality of all human communication forever. So when Lowery says something like:

“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.”

Forgive me if I feel like I’ve heard it before.

So like I said, before the advent of recorded music, the only way to hear music performed by professional musicians was to see a live concert or to play it yourself. Therefore, musicians’ only revenue came from live performances or from selling sheet music. Indeed, we can probably call sheet music the CDs of the 18th and 19th Century because amateurs playing in the home were the most common form of musical performance. Sheet music is, of course, nowhere near as ubiquitous today, so I would assume the amount of money that can most musicians can make from it. However, there are a number of alternative revenue sources available to modern day musicians living in our media-saturated world that Stephen Foster could never have conceived of. The most lucrative among them being licensing – to commercials, TV shows, movies, etc. Indeed, where licensing a song to help sell laundry detergent may have been considered heinous to music purists not twenty years ago, today, it’s become something close to a necessity for musicians lucky enough to be offered a licensing opportunity. Indeed, where I might agree with Lowery’s stringently moralistic view of this issue is when I encounter people who illegally download music and then call the very artists whose music they downloaded sellouts for selling a song to a Volvo commercial. If you take away revenue from an artist, don’t complain about the way they try to replace it.

As for album sales, well… again, recorded music has existed for barely over a century. And one could argue that era of the mega album—when popular artists could conceivably make a living solely off record sales without augmenting them with touring and other revenue—lasted from roughly 1970-2000. Thirty years. Out of the entirety of the history of mankind. And now that things have changed, supposedly the fucking sky is falling. I’m not saying we shouldn’t aspire to a system where artists are lucratively rewarded for their recorded output like they were during that period (though we certainly shouldn’t aspire to the outrageously inflated CD prices that became commonplace later in that era). What I am saying is that the way we absorb music has changed drastically throughout history, and the shift that has occurred with the advent of the internet is no more dramatic—and probably quite a bit less so—than the one that occurred when recorded music became available. I’m not saying the current state of affairs is ideal, or that it doesn’t negatively impact artists’ livelihoods on a purely mathematical level. I’m just trying to illustrate that the way people consume and listen to music has changed and will change again, for better or worse. As a musician, you can either adapt and find a way to survive in the new landscape, or become extinct. The more you try to undo it, the more of a dinosaur you become. The only thing that has remained constant as a source of revenue throughout the history of the music business is live performance. Lowery correctly makes the point that only the top 1% of musicians are able to live comfortably on touring revenue. But the point I’m making by bringing this up is that there is one constant, and virtually everything else changes.

Lowery says that, “The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist.” Honestly, I’m not sure what he’s talking about. Artists still control the rights to all their work, and copyright laws are stronger and more extensive than they’ve ever been. What they can’t necessarily control in the age of online piracy is how consumers hear their music – or how much they pay for it. But unless people who download music then turn around and sell it for a profit, I don’t understand how online piracy can be considered “exploiting” music any more than burning a CD for a friend can. Unless, of course, you are someone who measures your success as a musician by how well you are compensated. Music is a creative field and is ideally created regardless of financial incentives. Downloading may hurt musicians financially but it will never stop great music from being made – nothing can. True artists follow their muse regardless of the outside reward. Robert Pollard made albums in his basement for half a decade before anyone noticed, and now he can make a living off music because he kept at it even though he wasn’t making jack shit at first. This goes back to my original point, which is not that musicians should have to work for free, but that music is not equivalent to a consumer product like a goddamned hot dog bun. It is something far different than that. I would think that would be patently obvious to anyone who loves music. It transcends capitalism – and I’m not saying that to justify illegal downloading, I’m saying it because it’s true. This is why when people use loaded terms like “stealing” and “looting” to characterize illegal downloading, it irks me. It implies that someone who downloads a song is taking something from an artist that doesn’t belong to him or her. But when an artist writes a song, does it become his or her property? Hell no. It belongs to all of us – everyone who hears it, and whose life it affects. Now, one could easily make the argument that it is imperative we pay for music precisely because it is so intangibly valuable to so many people. And that would be a pretty strong argument. But if you can understand my thinking on this, then you can maybe to start to see why people like me and Emily White might view the online piracy issue with some ambiguity. Then we will understand where we both are coming from and can thus begin a real dialog.

One Comment

  1. robin wrote:

    Well put, Mr Winograd! You should send this around-it could actually start some intelligent conversations!

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