Monday Music: A Recommitment to Artists, Envisioning Online Music Co-Ops, and a Discussion of “A Letter to Emily White”

Show poster by Bryan Moats. 2002ish.

The Boiled Down Juice explores concepts of community tradition, community action, and creative living, among many other things. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for reading! 

Every Monday we do a series called Monday Music where we post links to an artist  or particular song that we feel is, in some subtle or overt way, exploring how the past lives with the present, how the present points to the future (with the ring of the past tightly woven around any number of fingers), the line between individual and collective storytelling, cultural tradition as a dynamic art of decision making, and so and so on.

This week it seems important to forgo the typical artist profile and touch on the incredibly important, and emotionally charged, discussion that’s been blowing up these past few weeks regarding access to free music, the so-called free culture movement, and a somewhat generational divide over buying (or not buying) music. I doubt we have much to say that hasn’t already been written, tweeted and retweeted endlessly in the bottomless world of blogging, but we just didn’t feel right posting another Monday Music without at least acknowledging the discussions and further arguing in support of the rights of musicians to make a living creating the music we all love so much. To that end, we came up with a few ideas for moving toward a more just future for artist’s rights and a short list of ways each of us, super broke people included, can do more to support independent artists.

In case your unfamiliar with the discussions we are referencing, it started with NPR’s Emily White’s commentary “I Never Owned Music to Begin With.” A young intern and avid lover of music, she made this controversial declaration: 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.

If you’re already familiar with these arguments, scroll down to the section after the bump. If not, keep reading. 

A few paragraphs later she goes on to write:

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.

I don’t want to oversimplify her comments, so please be sure and listen to/read her entire essay here. She closes by acknowledging the layers of problems with this generational response to music, noting that while she loves accessible options like Spotify, there needs to be more money going to the artists. She asks for the big companies to figure out a way to make this happen:

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.

What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices. With this new universal database, everyone would have convenient access to everything that has ever been recorded, and performance royalties would be distributed based on play counts (hopefully with more money going back to the artist than the present model). All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?

The essay was quickly met with a letter from James Lowery of bands Camper Von Beethoven and Cracker. Published on the blog Trichordist, the opening paragraph to Lowery’s essay was clear in his desire not to “shame” or “belittle” Emily and the countless other young people who share her music downloading habits, stating: “We believe young people like Emily White who are fully engaged in the music scene are the artist’s biggest allies. We also believe–for reasons we’ll get into–that she has been been badly misinformed by the Free Culture movement. We only ask the opportunity to present a countervailing viewpoint.”  

Lowery argues:

I must disagree with the underlying premise of what you have written. Fairly 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. (Besides–is it really that inconvenient to download a song from iTunes into your iPhone? Is it that hard to type in your password? I think millions would disagree.)

Rather, fairness for musicians is a problem that requires each of us to individually look at our own actions, values and choices and try to anticipate the consequences of our choices. I would suggest to you that, like so many other policies in our society, it is up to us individually to put pressure on our governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly when it comes to artist’s rights. Not the other way around. We cannot wait for these entities to act in the myriad little transactions that make up an ethical life. I’d suggest to you that, as a 21-year old adult who wants to work in the music business, it is especially important for you to come to grips with these very personal ethical issues.

Mulehead show poster by Bryan Moats.

He goes on to argue there is a “personal disconnect“ between the younger generation’s beliefs about artist’s rights and their behavior, and breaks down some of the misconceptions about the way artists make money, arguing we all share collective responsibility for supporting artists and their livelihoods.  He goes on to further break down some of the specifics of the unethical business models that allow White’s generation to see a problem but have no idea how to put their finger on a solution, including how several large tech corporations have helped to fuel the disconnect in the free culture movement:

The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist…By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to continue to let these companies violate the law without being punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality and principals to match what I think are immoral and unethical business models.

Rather than quote the entire article, please head over to the post here and read it in detail.  It’s long, yes.  But if you care about music and musicians, which you clearly do because you’re reading this, it’s well worth your time. He enlists all of us to align our actions with our beliefs and reminds us of the importance of buying directly from artists, “calling out” companies who don’t give adequate compensation to artists, and donating some money to musician’s charities. Near the end of the letter, he drives home his point this way:

I also find this all this sort of sad. Many in your generation are willing to pay a little extra to buy “fair trade” coffee that insures the workers that harvested the coffee were paid fairly. Many in your generation will pay a little more to buy clothing and shoes from manufacturers that certify they don’t use  sweatshops. Many in your generation pressured Apple to examine working conditions at Foxconn in China. Your generation is largely responsible for the recent cultural changes that has given more equality to same sex couples. On nearly every count your generation is much more ethical and fair than my generation. Except for one thing. Artist rights.

————————————This is the Bump

As you probably already know, people have torn apart both arguments. Despite the fact that Lowrey clearly stated he didn’t want to shame Emily White for her comments, she’s been made into scapegoat for millions of people who love music so much that they’ll share it anyway they can. I haven’t read all the posts out there about this, so if we repeat someone please forgive us. But here’s what we took away from the discussions.

Theodore house show poster by Bryan Moats. 2011.

Reading both commentaries, all we could think about was the passionate and driven love for music, and a deep reverence for those who create it, that fuels both White and Lowery’s comments. Both want a better way—and with all the love of music out there that clearly sustains folks like White and Lowery, no doubt an intergenerational solution(s) can be created. Ideally it will be one that blends a series of models old and new, and will become a more democratic model than any we’ve had before.

For what it’s worth, here’s some more anecdotal evidence. Almost everyone I know who’s on an endless search for music, including those who voraciously gather and stream tunes from Spotify for example, are the same people who regularly attend shows large and small, eschew legal mp3 downloads and willingly pay the extra three dollars for the CD or Vinyl artwork, and go out of their way to make sure everyone they know hears about the great new artist they discovered. I look at the rotating list of Spotify songs being played by my friends, and by far the people who use it the most are the people who have, or still do, operate a music venue, write music reviews for local publications, have more cds and records than food items, book shows for festivals, and/or use their Facebook and Twitter feeds as something akin to a music marketing service. In other words, huge supporters of music.

So where’s the middle ground? Where’s the accounting for music as shared human experience, the kind of thing we pass on to one another in any way possible? Passing it on not because we don’t respect artists, but because we love music and lots and lots of it. Spotify, and other legal streaming options strike me as a model of a  great resource….IF musicians are truly profiting.  But they’re not.  And I actually think this is exactly what Emily White was trying to get at. The main problem, as we see it, is that she suggested someone else create the solution, rather than calling upon her generation to create their own.

So the solution seems two-fold. While we all continue to support musicians in all the ways we can, we’re wondering: are there groups out there staring online music co-ops that actually do allow musicians to truly profit? Could a model like Spotify be turned it into a musician-run, digital music database?  If so, how would such a model of collective ownership work with shareable technology?  My guess is that lots of people are already doing this or at least talking about it. So if you’re heard of this kind of stuff, please let us know! We really want to hear more about it.

And so while we’re all searching for new, more democratic models of music sharing, here’s our short list of the renewed promises to help support independent musicians, even on a super tight budget. Tell us your resolutions and will add them (and credit you, of course!) here. 

We Promise To:

* Download from places like Bandcamp more often and encourage others to do the same. I did the math, and if I always return my library books on time, I can use the money I save to buy at least a few more albums a year. 

* When attending a show, if there’s some extra money to be spent, buy the CD and don’t worry about running out of cash, especially when it’s independent, touring musicians. Think of it as an investment in art, democracy, and alternative economies. 

On that note, support local music whenever possible. Go to more shows. Support the band who’s come in from out of town. Remember that your money helps support touring musicians who are kind enough, and dedicated to their music enough, to come to your local bar.  

* Buy more music as presents. Everyone I know loves music. They all have birthdays. Simple solution.

* Continue to purchase memberships to places like Daytrotter, which, for a small fee, allow access to recordings created especially for the site.

*Talk to anyone who will listen about better solutions than the Spotify-type programs we have now. There are tons of better ways. You and your friends might be the people to put these new ideas into action. 

What are your thoughts and ideas?  What solutions do you envision?


Artwork in this piece was used with kind permission from Bryan Moats.  To see more of his show posters click here.  To see other artwork click here.


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