Friday, June 22, 2012

Poor Emily White

The fallout from a fairly benign blog post by an NPR intern has ballooned into the biggest music crit discussion topic of the week.

The fun started when David Lowery of Camper van Beethoven and Cracker posted a lengthy and detailed response to White's post, making pretty much the same anti-piracy points we've heard a million times before, but he's a university lecturer now and was therefore able to express the usual opinions much more eloquently than the average blogger or music company suit.

White didn't write anything controversial, in my opinion.  She admitted to stealing music.  She's twenty years old and doesn't remember the "good old days" when people paid $17.99 for a CD that cost the record company $0.99 to manufacture.  In other words, what she lacks in experience is compensated by her increased common sense, the result of not being around twenty years ago to be duped into thinking that CD's just HAD to cost twice as much as records and tapes because they were shiny and portable and digital, or whatever.   What she really wanted out of the music consumer industry was convenience, a music cataloging service that could be streamed on demand from her phone, TV, and computer.  That's something that she'd be perfectly willing to pay for, and it's hardly a new idea.  In the absence of any such service, she resorted to downloading and ripping CD's instead.

Lowery makes a lot of interesting points, and he states his case well.  But at the end of the day, he's defending an antiquated business model for the music industry that simply isn't working any more.  It's the 1930's, and White is saying she wants the convenience of hearing music in her home, either on the radio or by buying a physical recording that she can play whenever she wants. Lowery is saying fuck that noise, radio is killing music, support the artists by going out to a club or concert hall to listen to them play, and while you're there, visit their merch table and buy the sheet music.

I've been saying it for ten years now: electronic music artists are way ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with the realities of the music industry.  Save for those six months in the 90's when Prodigy and Chemical Brothers were hot selling acts, nobody in electronic music has ever entertained the notion of making a sustainable income from selling their recordings.  Records, CD's, and now mp3's are promotional tools that lead to where the real money is -- live gigs and DJ appearances.  That's not to say that selling their music can't be profitable, obviously it can be.  But one cannot be a professional musician in club-centred genres by only selling music recordings.  All the sympathy tactics employed by artists who complain about their lack of income from their albums -- $1 per CD purchase, only $0.0001 for every song streamed on Spotify or whatever the number is -- are rendered moot.  Maybe a new business model will emerge where artists will earn more for streamed albums and songs.  But if it doesn't happen, they should consider streaming sites as promotional outlets for their upcoming tours.

Many electronic artists hold full time jobs (sometimes linked to the music industry, sometimes not) and make music on the side.  The quality isn't suffering, as far as I can tell, just because every artist can't devote all his time to writing and recording 24/7/365.  Many musicians need to accept the fact that they may not be able to fully support themselves by playing music.  Actors know this.  People in the art world know this.  Sometimes the big break never comes, and until it does, you accept whatever bookings you can get and work a second job to help pay the bills.  The odds of becoming a big movie star are low, but that isn't stopping anyone from trying to make a career in acting.  It's a high risk, high reward business.

One can't make a living from music in every city in the world.  Techno artists have been flocking to Berlin since forever.  In Berlin you can play a few parties every week and book international shows with relative ease since travel time to other major European cities is fairly short.  Its status as a music hub means you can also make plenty of contacts in the industry -- contacts that would be difficult to find if you were living anywhere else. None of this is possible even for artists trying to make a living in large North American cities, except for the very top tier of DJ's.  Struggling indie band #589A will probably never make enough money to pay the rent living in a medium sized East Coast city, touring once a year and selling downloads through their label's website.

And finally, what about the actual recordings?  Emily White is a Yo La Tengo fan, she paid to see them in concert but has never bought any of their CD's.  YLT responded with a humourous tweet, essentially telling her to go fuck herself, as if paying good money for concerts counts for nothing.  I'm a fan too, I've seen them in concert a few times, and I've paid money for their CD's.  I've also downloaded some of their music and didn't pay for it.  On one hand, you could say that stealing is stealing, regardless of prior support.  Nobody argues that they've supported their local supermarket on plenty of occasions in the past, so they're entitled to steal a loaf of bread there from time to time.  On the other hand, when file sharing took off in the 2000's (but especially around 2003-5, in the post-Napster, height of Soulseek and Kazaa days) I saw countless bands that I wouldn't have seen if I hadn't been able to easily download their music first.  I was far more amenable to hearing a brand new band when I could test drive their music for free without leaving my house.  There was no pressure to buy, no need to harass the record store employees with a stack of CD's I wanted to hear before deciding what to buy. If I liked the music I'd almost always see the band in concert when they came to town, and was far more likely to buy (=spend money on) their CD's in the future.  File sharing was better than any music advertising I'd ever encountered.

The key point is that just because a certain product produced a healthy revenue stream in the past doesn't mean that it will (and should) remain a revenue stream indefinitely. It's barely been twenty years since the release of the first commercially available mix CD (Billy Nasty's Journeys By DJ).  It's not as if nobody had ever recorded DJ sets before.  I remember heading down to the record shops to browse through and buy "rave tapes" in the early 90's (definitely an age 35+ thing).  You'd also see tapes from local DJ's who wanted to get their names out, or tapes from clubs and DJ's in Detroit, New York, or Chicago claiming to be recorded the previous week and containing the absolute latest sounds in house and techno that hadn't reached Canadian shores yet.  Eventually somebody realized that DJ's were big stars and there was money to be made from officially sanctioned and professionally recorded mixes. And yet, from Billy Nasty's biography page on RA: "Throughout 1992-93, so many bootleg mix tapes of Billy's were flooding the UK that they proved the ultimate marketing tool and resulted in requests for his presence at burgeoning nights nationwide".  The mix CD was a huge success (he made several more and launched an entire cottage industry) and widespread bootlegging of his sets was going on simultaneously.  Did Billy Nasty, the labels he recorded for and the clubs he played in go running to their lawyers?  Probably not, seeing how they were too busy making money.

But the business is different now.  Some well entrenched mix CD series (e.g. Fabric) are still very successful, but many artists have chosen to forego physical releases and post their mixes for free on the internet instead. Everybody has access to a computer and internet, recording mixes and and posting them online has never been easier.  Are artists really "losing" money by not selling their mixes?  Possibly.  Some artists who might have been able to make a few bucks from a mix CD surely decided that it was not really worth their trouble. And countless other artists give away their mixes as podcasts to get their names out, to get free advertising for a new release, or to promote an upcoming party.  As they always have.

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