One behavior that seems uniquely American to me is how we, as a collective nation, like to punch down. Maybe it’s just the people I talk to (who are mostly educated liberals), but I’ve noticed more anger towards people on public assistance, immigrants and the homeless than I have noticed towards Wall Street bankers who have received hundreds of billions of dollars in government aid to avoid collapse of the economy from their own reckless decisions that have real, global consequences. They’re job creators! Or something.
So, it came as exactly no surprise that somewhere around twenty of my Facebook friends were sharing a post applauding the lead singer of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker was going after a twenty-one year old intern at NPR. There were a few exceptions, but public opinion mostly ran against the intern.
Yesterday, David Lowery wrote a post on his WordPress blog called “Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered.” White is the summer intern at “All Songs Considered,” one of NPR’s music programs. She wrote an article for NPR’s blog about how she listens to music almost exclusively digitally and has only purchased about fifteen physical CDs. It was called, “I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With.”
Lowery’s piece begins, “Emily: My intention here is not to shame or embarrass you.” It’s kind of like when you’re told, “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” Of course his intention is to “shame or embarrass” a, again, twenty-one year old intern at NPR. He wouldn’t have written it so condescendingly, if he didn’t. Lowery uses sentences like, “Now, having said all of that, I deeply empathize with your generation,” “Let’s look at things that you (or your parents) might pay for” and “And I’m going to give you a break.” He also sets up a host of artificial strawmen. Nowhere does White say that she believes piracy is okay because labels rip off musicians, yet Lowery feels the need to rebut that point as though she said she believes that.
It gets worse. He calculates that White owes $2139.50 to artists, because, he says, “$2,139.50 = 1 smart phone + 1 full size ipod + 1 macbook.” Neither David Lowery nor I know whether or not Emily White owns a MacBook, nor do we know what kind of iPod or smart phone she has or what she paid for them, or even most what’s in her record collection. As we’re getting down to cents, it should probably be defined a little more specifically, though that can’t be anything other than a number he pulled from his ass. Throughout the entire piece, he makes countless assumptions based on someone who I’m willing to bet he wouldn’t recognize on the street.
If his post wasn’t heavy-handed enough, he felt, for some inexplicable reason, comfortable enough indicting White and her generation for the deaths of singer-songwriter Vic Chestnutt and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous. Both were suicides and reveal problems with the health care system that was broken long before Napster or Kazaa came along. Poor Emily White. She thought she was using the so-called celestial jukebox as it was intended and ended up with Vic Chestnutt’s blood on her hands.
I agree with Lowery’s basic thesis that artists deserve to be paid for their art, and certainly hope they’re paid more than they currently are. I’ve grappled with the issue of Spotify’s low payments and all of the music I have on my hard drive and iPod was obtained legally. I’m opposed to illegal file-sharing and haven’t engaged in it for many, many years. It’s unfortunate, of course, that artists are making less money than they were in years past, but it’s hardly like no one saw that coming. Nor can it be blamed on this poor intern or her generation, which he calls the “Free Culture.” It’s kind of like how the 1980’s were dubbed the “Me Decade.” Camper Van Beethoven put out its first album in 1985.
If there’s one thing I find myself taking umbrage at, it’s that I find myself typing these words: “[industry insider/blogger] Bob Lefsetz is right when he writes,” “That intern David Lowery is beating up on has no power. He’s wasting his time. And you’re high-fiving him as if it all makes a difference. You’re involved in a circle jerk anybody with the chance of making a difference is ignoring.” He might be making up facts and figures to cover up his faulty logic, making unfair assumptions about someone he doesn’t know and throws around the memory of his dead friends cavalierly; the line must be drawn when I’m forced to agree with Lefsetz.
Part of the reason that artists are making less money is because innovation has allowed customers to opt out of purchasing the music they don’t want. You are no longer obligated to pay $17 for a CD with only one song you like.
Emily White is hardly a pirate, as she wrote about having remorse for the file-sharing she’s done in fifth grade (she’s now a college senior) and said that she continues to support artists through buying merch and concert tickets. Yet, she still makes an acceptable straw(wo)man for Lowery’s arguments.
Lowery discusses Spotify and it’s low payments to artists, but what he doesn’t mention is that Spotify reached agreements with all of the major record labels to stream their music and it’s the record labels who have all of the power (including the power to renegotiate terms to be more favorable, under the threat of having their music pulled from the service). White, Lowery and I all agree that we wish the payments to artists were higher for their music being streamed through subscription services like that.
White writes, “I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.” That seems to be the direction that music playing has been going. I read in 2000 (when I was then as old as Emily White is now) in the Atlantic about the promise of a “Heavenly Jukebox.” Then, the Atlantic wrote, “Ultimately, many music pundits say, listeners will simply pay a monthly fee and download whatever music they want. Music will no longer be a product, acquired in a shrink-wrapped package, in the vision of Jim Griffin, the co-chairman of Evolab, a start-up that is attempting to create a wireless version of the jukebox. Instead it will become a service, almost a utility. Consumers will have ready access to more artists than they do now, but will pay less for music; musicians will no longer be forced to cover exorbitant production costs, and will be able to reach audiences more easily than ever before. “Musicians will get paid,” Griffin promises. “But to the consumer, music will feel free — just the way cable TV feels free once you’ve paid the fee.”
What the Atlantic said in 2000 sounds a lot like what Emily White wrote in 2012, “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?”
As entitled as that sound, it ultimately means that reality is catching up with technology’s problems because Spotify and other streaming services (find David Lowery on MOG!) are the closest we’ve come to the heavenly, or celestial, jukebox.
I want to see artists compensated well, like they have been in the past, which is where I part ways with Lefsetz. That’s what David Lowery is arguing for, a worthy and important cause and he makes a passionate argument. I just think he wants to try to put a genie back into a bottle and wants an unpaid intern to pick up the pieces of an industry flailing long before she became a part of it. I don’t know what the solution is or how to make the current system more equitable and fair, but I do think there are better targets and more appropriate people to blame Emily White.
Chris Burlingame is the editor of Another Rainy Saturday.