David C. Lowery in Furs

Much has been made of Dave “Cracker” Lowery’s open letter in response to an NPR blog post recently. The contrast between these two points of view says a lot about the music industry, and how it earned it’s timely demise.

A quick overview:

Emily White is an intern at NPR. She’s a big music fan, with over 11,000 songs in her collection, and yet she’s only ever bought 15 CDs. She goes to shows, buys merch, but isn’t spending money on the music that’s so important to her. Or, as many people like to think of it, she isn’t supporting musicians.

Several people have said that because she didn’t pay for this music, she is doing harm to the musicians she loves. If they don’t get paid (the thinking goes), they can’t make music. She’s been called a shoplifter and thief.

David Lowery has been in the music biz for almost 30 years now, and took it upon himself to shame Emily and explain to her how she is destroying what she loves. Those 11,000 songs represent $2139.50 in royalties to the artists, he argues, money which she has effectively stolen from them. Musicians should be allowed to earn a living, but it’s impossible when their output is given away for free or stolen by Emily and her kind.

I know a lot of people who share David’s view, and very few who would be cavalier enough to admit to what Emily did. Because I am old. But I would make the argument that the Emilys of the world are far more important to music than the Davids. Because Emily engages with art as a part of our culture, and David engages with it as a limited resource to be mined for industry. Emily makes music culturally valuable by sharing it, David wants it to be treated like a finite resource.

Let’s start with Emily, and the prom date who dumped 15 gigs of music on to her iPod. Included in that batch of tunes are 2 seminal bands: The Velvet Underground and Big Star. Both bands are hugely influential and well-regarded, yet neither managed to sell many records when they were a going concern. How did they become so influential? By having their music shared by the Emilys of the world. Someone had a copy from who knows where, and they shared it because they knew it was something good. These were and are important cultural touchstones that have clearly affected Emily, and me as well. Like so many other music fans, and as with so many other phenomenal bands, these 2 bands entered my life prefaced by a friend saying, “Oh man, you’ve got to hear this!”

And were it left to the music industry, Emily and I would never have heard them (David as well, probably, but we’ll get to that). Their records were out of print long before friends dubbed tapes off for me of their respective catalogs, and no record labels were about to change that. Labels make their money off of what is new (ie, what you don’t have), not what is good, and they’re terrible judges of what’s good anyway. Were it not for their music being shared for a couple of decades by people like Emily, these records would never have been re-pressed. Because they would have been entirely unknown.

It makes sense that Emily DJs at a college radio station. Even though the technology has moved on, this is still an excellent venue for people who like to share music (for free, those shameful buggers), so I can see the appeal. Because of one such good station I listened to as a kid, I got to hear a hilarious novelty song called “Take the Skinheads Bowling” for free and loved it. It was on exactly zero play lists at the time, but someone at the radio station liked it and did what human beings do: she shared it.

Which is really the point: People share what excites them with their peers as something that binds them together. We call that culture. This isn’t a modern phenomenon, it’s as old as music. It’s fundamental to how we see and evaluate ourselves and our society. And the essential piece in all of that are the Emilys of the world, the ones who are moved enough to share great art with people they think will dig it. It happens without regard to the music industry because we don’t relate to music as consumers. Nobody says, “Oh man! You’ve GOT to buy this!” because buying music isn’t why we’re moved by it.

The corollary of the fact that people share and propagate culture that excites them is that mediocre garbage that gets forced onto us through popular media outlets disappears pretty quickly. So the odds are good I’ll never have to hear Cracker again.

But who knows. At some point in the future someone may develop an emotional attachment to Cracker that I lack, and god bless ’em. It won’t be because Virgin kept their records in print, though. It will be because some Emily out there cared enough to share their music with someone else.

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On to David’s article. I don’t see much point in rehashing the debate about whether there is a moral reason people should or shouldn’t pay for music, because it’s academic, and I’ve got other things to do. The distribution of music has changed dramatically and it’s extremely easy to share music now without regard for commerce or copyright. This is a settled fact, and no moral or rhetorical argument is going to change it. So even if David’s right and Emily is bad, it doesn’t particularly matter.

I’m going to skip the spurious Artist Rights arguments and the weird fair trade and same-sex marriage arguments (out of respect for David), and get right to what I see as his main argument for why you should pay for music. It goes like this: because it cost something to make the recorded version of a song (recording and manufacturing), it should cost something to own the recorded version of it. In one sense I agree with this – it’s good to buy music and it does help defray the costs of recording, something artists are always grateful for. But I also think sharing is good for a lot of non-monetary reasons. That’s where he and I part ways. For David, these 2 things are opposites: Paying for music is good and not paying for music is bad. If you don’t buy it, you’re stealing it.

If the important part about music is the industry that has delivered recordings to you (which does undeniably suffer when you don’t patronize it), then he is right. If, on the other hand, the important part of music is it’s cultural value, then he is wrong.

If you ask any musician if they would rather have their music heard by a thousand people or bought by 10, they’d go with the thousand. Because like every other human being that’s how musicians value music. In other words, he is wrong.

Which is not to say you as a consumer shouldn’t consider whether you want to pay for music because you should. The issue is whether not paying for it is somehow wrong.

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But like I said, it’s all academic. The old record industry model isn’t coming back and no amount of scolding interns on the internet is going to change that. But I find it odd that David spends much of his essay arguing the merits of the old record industry. Because I am dumb and argumentative, I just can’t resist the urge to swing at some of that low-hanging fruit.

First he tries to dispel some of the classic arguments for downloading music, using things his students have told him as examples. First up:

“It’s OK not to pay for music because record companies rip off artists and do not pay artists anything.” In the vast majority of cases, this is not true.

While I agree that this is a stupid argument for stealing (and in David’s view that’s what the argument is meant to justify), this is just a bold-faced lie. The history of the music industry is rife with stories of artists not getting paid, and recorded music has been a great lever for making sure that happens. How many rich doo-wop stars do you know of? That’s right, none. Because they were black teenagers who were easily taken advantage of and whom nobody was going to stand up for as artists. The same goes for blues musicians, jazz musicians, rhythm and blues musicians and, well, pretty much anybody black and making good music. But it doesn’t end there. Platinum-selling artists who succeeded on the industry’s terms often can’t live on what they got out of the deal. As a result, TLC declared Bankruptcy, Sly Stone is homeless, and Florence Ballard of the Supremes was on welfare when she died. Lyle Lovette and Merle Haggard (white people!) have both pointed out that they have never gotten any money from their chart-topping records. Those are people who, if the industry were actually playing fair, would be rich. But they don’t play fair. As a result, Collective Soul collects not a dime from “Shine”, Andre Williams doesn’t get royalties from “Mustang Sally”, etc etc etc. Tommy James’ bio is called Me, the Mob, and Music because his label was run by actual mobsters. It should go without saying that he did not get any money from any of his hits. And these are the big fish – the smaller ones get treated worse.

The Problem with Music still exists, and it is the industry part, not the music part. The lack of transparency and financial exploitation in the record industry is so blatant it’s even obvious to Courtney Love.

He goes on:

But most record contracts specify royalties and advances to artists. Advances are important to understand–a prepayment of unearned royalties. Not a debt, more like a bet. The artist only has to “repay” (or “recoup”) the advance from record sales. If there are no or insufficient record sales, the advance is written off by the record company. So it’s false to say that record companies don’t pay artists. Most of the time they not only pay artists, but they make bets on artists.  And it should go without saying that the bets will get smaller and fewer the more unrecouped advances are paid by labels.

“Not a debt, more like a bet” is one of the most astonishing phrases I ever did read. If David actually considers an advance a bet, he believes that there is a chance that an artist could “win” that bet. This is simply not true, as established above. Sure, some will, especially if they’re willing to hire staff to work full time to prevent themselves from being screwed. But the vast majority will not get what they’re owed.

In every legal sense of the word, an advance is a loan, one that does have to be paid back out of whatever money the record makes. If a band is going to make money off of a record (which is what he claims happens), the band will have to pay off the total of the advance. Artists are encouraged to ignore the fact that this is a loan that will be paid back on the lender’s terms and instead to see the advance as their first taste of the big time. Not really a loan at all, just free money.

Add to that the fact that the label does all of the accounting and you can be sure that it always works out in their favor.

Advances also rarely consist of money that goes into the band’s pockets for them to do with as they please, but rather goes to buying pro gear , renting pro studios, hiring pro producers (hello, David), making pro videos, getting pro catering, and having a totally kick ass record release party. It does not go to paying bills or buying groceries, and is often spent before the band sees it.

But as he points out, if the record doesn’t recoup (or, in laymans terms, “recoup”), the advance gets written off by the label, so it’s not really a debt, right? You can just make another record, or if you no longer like the situation just quit working with the label. Right? Herein lies the bigger problem. Any label that’s going to give a band an advance is likely going to to have a contract that protects their interests. So, when a label doesn’t recoup (based on their dubious accounting), they will have avenues available to them to recoup that weren’t necessarily part of the deal with the first advance. Such as the rights to any music you or your band might record in the future. And, since they’re the ones in the hole, they will have some creative control so that they don’t get taken advantage of (please see Van Morrison’s contractual obligation record, which hurt the industry terribly). So the next record will be more pro, with some famous song writers on it. And of course a bigger advance. If you don’t like those terms, don’t ever plan on making another record. The label now owns whatever music you might make.

So this “advance” is not an obligation-free pile of money. It’s a loan from a crooked loan shark. David’s seen enough to know this, and he knows that characterizing it like that is necessary to get bands to go along.

Anyway, back to the 100% guaranteed money bands are getting paid:

Secondly, by law the record label must pay songwriters (who may also be artists) something called a “mechanical royalty” for sales of CDs or downloads of the song. This is paid regardless of whether a record is recouped or not. The rate is predetermined, and the license is compulsory.

A little googling will establish that labels regularly fail to pay mechanicals. This isn’t even worth discussing. But it is worth noting that in Bob Mould’s excellent bio, See a Little Light, he did get a hint of what his mechanicals were worth to Sony when his then-manager traded them away in exchange for lavish tour support.

***

It’s not enough to argue that that musicians are making less, though. Most people’s reaction would be, “Your dream job’s not working out? Guess you’ll have to get a normal job like the rest of us.” In order to show how Emily is destroying the lives of musicians, David rolls out a whopper: that downloading killed Vic Chestnutt and Mark Linkous.

On a personal level, I have witnessed the impoverishment of many critically acclaimed but marginally commercial artists. In particular, two dear friends: Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Chestnutt. Both of these artists, despite growing global popularity, saw their incomes collapse in the last decade. There is no other explanation except for the fact that “fans” made the unethical choice to take their music without compensating these artists.

Shortly before Christmas 2009, Vic took his life. He was my neighbor, and I was there as they put him in the ambulance. On March 6th, 2010, Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart. Anybody who knew either of these musicians will tell you that the pair suffered from addiction and depression. They will also tell you their situation was worsened by their financial situation. Vic was deeply in debt to hospitals and, at the time, was publicly complaining about losing his home. Mark was living in abject squalor in his remote studio in the Smokey Mountains without adequate access to the mental health care he so desperately needed.

Vic’s problem was that he couldn’t get health insurance because he needed a lot of it and that industry makes it’s money by encouraging those people die sooner than later. He blamed the healthcare industry loudly and often – and rightly. His expenses were extreme and unreasonable. He never blamed downloading, because it wasn’t the issue.

Mark Linkous didn’t kill himself because he was impoverished by downloaders. He did it because he was clinically depressed and suicidal.

I wish both of these guys had had access to free, top-notch medial care. Seems like a pretty basic humanity, and I look forward to America getting it right. Eventually. But these problems were due to their poor health, not their careers. To that end, there are hundreds of thousands of non-musicians out there in the same boat.

Of course, David can’t scold Emily without showing some sort of damages. It’s not enough to say that paying for music is good, he needs to establish that sharing music is bad. So tries to tie the tragic deaths of 2 talented musicians – his dear friends – directly to Emily. That’s pretty repulsive, but what else can he do? This is the internet and he needs to win it!

Perhaps I’m being unfair in painting this as a disgusting exploitation of 2 tragic deaths to score cheap points on the internet. To that end, here’s Steve Albini’s take on using these 2 artists to illustrate the damages:

The two examples Lowery uses, Chestnutt and Sparklehorse, are prime examples of bands induced into living above their means and ending up in sharecropper status. Sure they had a money tit for a while, but when it becomes obvious to the money people your band’s sales can’t pay for quarter-million dollar recording budgets, then those budgets go away along with the other slush money those bands get to take advantage of.

It’s not the fault of the audience that they were in a game rigged to induce wild, unsustainable expectations.

I’m just going to leave that there.

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I could go on, but the hogs need slopping and the wife won’t go near them. Plus Chris Randall has written a better, more succinct article than mine (notice how I saved the link until the end). I did want to quickly make one more point though: For the very few musicians who manage the right combination of luck, hard work, and talent and do make a career out of it, there will always be ways to earn a living playing music. The rest of us musicians won’t and we will still be happy. Because we aren’t in it for money at all. We’re in it for the chicks.

2 Responses to “David C. Lowery in Furs”

  1. KrashKow wrote:

    Umm… I disagree… here’s why.

    1) “Oh, the emily’s of the world are spreading the word about good music!” yeah, and by robbing musicians of revenues, they are making it harder for new music to propegate. 2) Radio as sharing for “free” has always been part of the “promote to purchase” equation and is not equivelent with file sharing. Weak rhetoric there. 3) Knocking Cracker is a low blow that does nothing to strengthen your argument and comes off as simply being bitchy. Honestly, you can screw off for that. 4) You say: “If you ask any musician if they would rather have their music heard by a thousand people or bought by 10, they’d go with the thousand. Because like every other human being that’s how musicians value music. In other words, he is wrong.” BULLSHIT Starwman argument. You’re leaving out this part: That none of the thousand who heard them paid for it. AT ALL and that the muscian is making no money on his craft. I think artists would still like to be paid. In fact, David Lowery is an artist who just wrote an article about it. Repeat, that argument is B.U.L.L.S.H.I.T. 5) Bringing up all the people who got screwed by record companies does automatically mean that popular music is suddenly better off when said companies are in ruin and no model has yet arisen to take their place. 6) You never directly address the fact that there is LESS money going into the music industry as a whole (big label or small) and that working musicians have to work a lot harder to make money than they did ten or fifteen years ago. And not Big Huge Millionaire money either. Just making money at all. The proof is in the pudding with that one. Let’s leave the suicides out of this. I’ll just bring up that I have read interviews with working musicians like John McCrea (Cake) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney, Wild Flag) and they make it a point to mention how much harder it is now to make money in music.

  2. Colin wrote:

    1) If this were true, there would be less new music available. Which is obviously not the case. I’ll go one further: if money were necessary for people to make great music, Rumors would be better than the entire Motown catalog

    2) I remember as a kid hearing a DJ announce, “I’ve got the new Steely Dan record in, and after the next break I’m going to play side one so get your tapes ready.” But that was on a commercial station. On college radio (especially in the 80s, before the majors knew college radio existed) the main motivation the DJs have tends to be sharing music they think is good, not promoting what’s HOT this week. Times have changed a bit, and there’s been some investment in commercializing college radio (which they refer to as “training students for an exiting career in the music business”), but you can still tune in WFMU or KDVS or KPOO and hear a DJ put on a song that they love regardless of anybody else’s interests.

    3) I do not like Cracker. I made fun of them in jest, and no retorical points are tied to my opinion of their awful, awful music. Well, okay – one is: that they might find a fan base in the future who cares about them, and that will be due to people sharing their music, not their record company. Because their record company only cares about their financial value, not their artistic value. If they are going to have any kind of lasting legacy, it will be because people care about their art, not their profitability.

    4) Musicians don’t make music because they want to get rich, something very very few of them ever do. Very few of them make much of any money – the really lucky ones break even. So why do they keep doing it? Hmm… For you to be right, it’s because they think they MIGHT get rich. But most of us are under no illusions about that. Even the ones who do make a career of it (or even a partial career) tend to understand that that won’t last forever (did you read Chris’ post?).

    The other thing to note is that it really doesn’t cost a lot of money to put out a record these days, so it’s not a big issue to lose it. My last band (a trio) each sunk about $500 into our last record. We recorded in a nice studio and put it out in lavish hand-made packaging. $500 bucks each. Not much money at all. I spend that much on music every year.

    5) Music is better off when it’s heard and has the chance to find it’s audience. The financial value of music is meaningless, even though a large industry managed to hype that as the most important aspect, convincing people like you that it’s true. It’s not. And surprise of surprises, there’s a lot of music still being made. Even when it costs musicians money to make it.

    But I’m not opposed to recorded music having a financial value in our society. I actually think that’s great. However, if that’s not the case I want to make sure it gets heard. Just like every other musician.

    6) I didn’t argue that there’s less money going into music than there was 10 or 15 years ago because it’s true. If you factor out the big-name artists (I do because I care even less about Britney than I do about Cracker), you’ll find the amount of money moving around has remained pretty similar. Still less, but similar.

    It’s also true that there is currently more money being generated by the music industry today than there was 50 or 60 years ago, when there was also a vibrant music scene going on.

    And yet, there are still a few musicians who manage to make a career of it through luck, hard work, and talent. Most of them make money by playing live – still the most dependable source of income for musicians.

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