Last night I got off the phone with one of my best friends who is currently out on tour for the second time in his life. This happened right after reading professor David Lowery's open letter to NPR intern Emily White, who, in a recent blog, proclaimed that she only purchased 15 CDs in her entire life, but obtained an iTunes library of over 11,000 songs. White is 20. My friend is 22. I'll be 26 in two months. Lowery, being a professor and ex-musician, is 51 years old. There is definitely a generational gap between all four of us. All four of us are involved in the business (or was), and to debastardize it to an extent, the "joy" of music. The four of us are also part of a greater consumerism, both financially and emotionally, of millions that hoard digital libraries, buy used CDs and flip them for new ones and/or spend way too much, or luckily at a steal, on OOP print vinyl or new, limited circles of wax.
To detach Lowery from the equation, the three youngest people mentioned do live in what he calls the "Free Culture movement," and i completely agree with that term. But at 26, myself and the older users and staff members of this site should remember going through the motions. I remember Napster on dial-up. I remember living through the downfall of it and the rise of Kazaa and Morpheus on countless others. I remember switching to Soulseek and ripping iPods in my early college years and then to the backdoors of Sendspace and Rapidshare in the later years. Yes, I have pirated a good chunk of music. In reading Travis Morrisons' column tonight, I also remember doing all those other things (with the exception of shoplifting. What?! My dad's a cop!). But I've also spent a good deal on t-shirts, concert tickets, CDs, vinyl, posters, etc. in that time. I love the tangible feel and ownership of something I find special, and even though I may not always have the dime for it, I generally attend the local record store at least once a week, if not twice and try to leave with something. Take that as you will and if you want to continue reading this op-ed.
For those that are 18-21, such as White, you came in at a time of music discovery when what Lowery describes as a "neighborhood" without an "antiquated police force" exists. More than just music, every form of media is digital and free. I just found out you can download comic books a few months ago! I thought video game emulators were one thing in my time, but that recent concept really blew my mind a bit. It's all free, why would you pay for it? The gas to go to the store only to find it's sold out, or the store doesn't carry it? You could order online, but there's extra for shipping. A simple Google search, and within minutes it's unzipped and in your iTunes. I could go to the store and buy fresh tortillas and meat and vegetables and cook tacos and invite my friends and share a good time. Fuck that! One of the best instant gratifications gained living in Texas is Taco Cabanna. Convenience reigns supreme.
That's my biggest problem with White's blog. Lowery touches on all the fiscal reasons why White is wrong, but I want to touch on the brightest red flag I had with her piece. This is going to come off as corny and lame (then again, a lot of what I say does, so take it or leave it) - there is nothing special in the "convenience" of either making music or consuming music. I say that in the most positive light too. Before sitting down to read both White and Lowery's blog entries, I watched Pitchfork.tv's documentary on Modest Mouse's The Lonesome Crowded West. Besides the information on the classic album's recording and meanings behind such Jesse Lacey covered classics as "Trailer Trash," the film makes old points on touring and promoting music without the vast space that is "the 'Net" and its ad-space virus which consumes sites like this and those lawless towns we loot from. All of the grain bands face daily only helps to create what I see as the best music in the end. The tension, anxiety, good times and bad, fear and letting go you hear in the most cherished records are generally reactions of going through the motions of making the music itself - especially lyrically, and sometimes (read: hopefully) instrumentally. (see also: 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons, Read Music / Speak Spanish, Kid A)
Like good satire, music has the ability to not only make us reflect on current trends and motions, the best music makes us grasp something deeper in the reaction to what's being executed. That's the thing that separates convenience from the people who should be in this industry: If something holds enough meaning to me, I want some sort of tangible item to remind me of that - especially when it comes to music. I will pay my water bill late for a copy of a record I've been looking for for sometime. I will drink less than stellar beer to own a copy of a CD or vinyl recently released from one of my favorite bands. I would sacrifice my credit - and have - to financially support something I believe in. I know that I'm not the only one who would do or does do this, and I know that there are people who are reading this thinking I'm insane. Well, so be it.
The economy certainly sucks. There just isn't enough money to go around that everyone can even remotely live a "convenient" life. I'm three years out of college living somewhere close to the poverty line trying to make it. My friends in bands are doing the same. Some of them you've never heard of, and some of them you might think are rock stars truly aren't. My friends who run labels doing their best to support their family of bands do well. But some rosters cater to a demographic of those 15-21 year-old listeners that share the tunes, and you have to remember that a pre-order goes a long way to put back into the label to sign more of "your friend's awesome band(s)" so they can truly see the same muck of business shit we all do.
I have no idea what to do about the financial situation of this industry. I can only give so much myself and still be able to work part-time and not give up my own dreams. It's not "convenient" whatsoever. It's an adventure, and the bands and industry people who live (or lived) through the years of "inconvenience" are generally the smartest. They know how things not only work, but how they work best. I'm not saying that White should quit her dream, because hell, she's on a great path. I'll say this, her demographic needs to think about the "convenience" of life catered to such technologies we've all been thrown into. Nothing I've ever loved has been easy to obtain or understood the moment it entered my life. There was no instant gratification, only days and months and years of appreciating something special that I once garnered. There's no "convenience" in true ownership, only hard work rewarded. I haven't been handed a lot of things in my life, so I know the work that has to be put into such ownership and confidence. A great band this week asked, "So what if everything that you ever loved more than anything was killing you this slow?" Well, this past year I've been on a deathbed of sorts. Some close friends have struggled as well. Just understand that big advances and trust funds generally don't make a lasting impact - quality music does. Go out and make a quality product and people will throw their hard earned money at your confidence and heart put into it. The people who matter will. They're the fans who will give your "new direction" a biting chance and take a plane or road trip cross country to see you reunite years later. People will put themselves through any number of "inconveniences" for any number of quality products - especially the comfort of music.
Should I be fighting this thing? Should I continue to ride the line of buying in and sampling on a five finger discount, or should I learn to play by the rules?
Riding the line of a love to consume music and a tight pocketbook, where each handbill better count-- may be it wrong to obtain an art form for free without compensation, distributed by a few bad seeds whose ship is sinking and is draining water into the life boats to save their own hide?
Does the free consumption of music have its potential to weed out those who don't deserve a three song set on stage? Or is the major consumption based around a major industry with bland and garbage as product?
All of these can be combated back and forth with answers for each side.
After reading through the thread on the front page, Jason makes a lot of points of how the labels put back into the artists' pockets to create the music we end up just taking.
And he's right. Scott Heisel explained a similar motive to me a year back. While as consumers, we think we are sticking it to the man, we may just end up hurting our chances of quality music in the end by the artists we love.
But how does this explain artists who are taking their own funding and investing it back into themselves to do things on their own terms?
Portugal did it. Thrice are thinking of doing it after their contract is up with Vagrant. I would like to think other artists are poised to do this as well.
Art is hard to bargain, but most of us don't know the amount of dollars that go into making that little jewel case that sits in cellophane at the record store.
Simply asking Google, it seems studio time is based by the hour (duh), which means anywhere from $50, upwards of $200 to $300 for your bigger studios.
Then a song has to be mastered. Again, to Google's knowledge, that could mean around $100 per song, if not more!
For your bigger acts, I wouldn't even know how much would go into having a producer.
Needless to say, that's a hefty fee that is usually fronted by the label, both major and independent.
But since there is a move from the physical sale to a digital sale with deals from Amazon MP3 and iTunes, are artists and labels making back those cost?
There's a lot of discussion that is hazy because of a shift in both at-home-production versus the old studio standard or the fact that bands can now have their own imprints for copyright purposes and distribute through Web and online retail, which is still a growing market (unsure if it is dominant over an actual store).
Who knows what Jesse Lacey and his band has made, or been making off their releases. But they have had consistent sold out tours and that certainly makes sure of merch sales, something, if void of a shitty 360 deal, are the best way to make money as artists.
Me, I'll still out weigh my handbill to see a band and buy a shirt or physical copy at a show if it cost them a preview of their album via a friend's iPod or the Internet.
The model is drastically changing, and it'll always be interesting to see where it ends up.
I promise this though...if I start making salary, I'll do my part to help those who truly deserve it.