David Lowery of the '90s alternative band Cracker (who I believe may still be putting out music) writes a highly informative and cogent article over at The Trichordist about the death of modern music via file sharing, a response to a blog post by an NPR intern named Emily White, who writes how she has 11,000 songs in her iTunes but only bought 15 CDs in her life. She's 21 and that's what her generation does, she says, and as someone who isn't 21 and doesn't know what it's like to have music for "free" all his life, I don't know if she's a special case or not (likely not) but Lowery, in as nice a way as possible, tells her that she's basically being unethical, she's stealing, and she is killing the music industry that she loves (and hopes to work for one day). You should go read Lowery's article. Probably read Emily White's first, for reference, but definitely read Lowery. It's very revelatory about details of the music business but also common sense and really well written (Lowery teaches a music business class at the University of Georgia).
As someone who posts copyrighted material on this very forum and as someone who's downloaded his share music for "free" in his life, but also someone who buys a ton of music, talks up bands and links to them when possible, and supports them through concerts and T-shirts, I'm a bit on both sides of this issue. I've long thought that the availability of "free" music on the Internet in some ways helps artists, particularly indie rock artists, whose songs can get sampled by potential listeners who would then go on to buy the album, see the concert, buy the T-shirt. Classic marketing. That was the case when I started this blog and that's how I discovered new music -- everyone from Arcade Fire to Wolf Parade to Sigur Ros to Japandroids I discovered in some way or another by downloading songs for free online and falling in love. I wouldn't download an album of a band I didn't know otherwise and I would buy the stuff (and go to the shows) if I liked what I heard. I hoped (or maybe dreamed) that most of my readers and most indie rock fans did the same. These artists are largely not signed to major labels (corporations) who keep 90+% of any record sales $, these bands are almost by definition on independent labels, making upwards of 50% of sales $, and as such, the fans would support them (as I did). Not just download a song on my website and never buy an actual CD. But Ms. White appears to be an actual indie rock fan and she's never (or very rarely) bought an actual CD in her life. And sure, as a college student, she probably has a lot less disposable income than me (and she uses it for concerts), but when I was in college, I paid for music (we didn't exactly have the Internet back then... we had something called "Prodigy" -- yes, I'm old). So the excuse doesn't really hold up. And as Lowery says quite clearly, she's writing her piece to explain that she feels she's flirting with an unethical act but claims that it's not convenient to buy music (or not as convenient as free music). Which isn't really true anymore. ITunes is pretty damned convenient (if a little pricey for a single song) and Pandora has a paid model which gives money to artists. But that's all in the Lowery article. The point is she isn't paying for music not because it's inconvenient but because she believes it should be free and the artist should adapt (or the industry, and maybe the government should do something to compensate the artist so that users can keep using their stuff for free).
Recorded music revenue is down 64% since 1999.
Per capita spending on music is 47% lower than it was in 1973!!
The number of professional musicians has fallen 25% since 2000.
Of the 75,000 albums released in 2010 only 2,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. Only 1,000 sold more than 10,000 copies. Without going into details, 10,000 albums is about the point where independent artists begin to go into the black on professional album production, marketing and promotion.
That's pretty much a collapse of an industry. And that 25% less musicians is only going to increase as more and more artists try and fail to make a go at this thing called making money to live on. Independent artists, even in the pre-Internet days, never made much money -- Superchunk didn't, Pavement didn't (until their reunion tour... ca-ching), The Pixies didn't, Sonic Youth didn't. But they all could at least support the lifestyle of making music. Mac McCaughen and Stephen Malkmus and Frank Black and Thurston Moore haven't had day jobs since they put out their first records in the late '80s (as far as I know) and all are still making music in some way today, leaving the listener (me) with a plethora of riches in our own lives. They made enough to live on, if not become any kind of mainstream success, and that's great. Yet in the past year or so, many of the greatest indie rock artists of this current decade -- from Broken Social Scene to The Decemberists to Wolf Parade to name a few -- have called it quits, none for economic reasons, at least not as outwardly reasoned, but you gotta believe that the constant touring now required to make any money (since albums don't sell anymore) along with the financial pressures, have contributed to their demise. And honestly, in the past year, I'm not finding a whole lot of great new indie rock artists to fill their sneakers. Admittedly, I've had health issues that have made it difficult for me to enjoy anything in the past year, but all of this is not happening in a vacuum. Did I care that Warner Brothers wasn't making millions on the latest Rihanna record? No. Do I care that Broken Social Scene broke up (perhaps to pay the bills)? Hell yes. It's all very devastating to me, personally, for how much music has meant to my life.
What can be done? Lowery offers some solutions. Personally, I think independent artists (if they are able) and independent labels (who are able) need to abandon the pretense of iTunes (Lowery mentions how all the "hardware" providers like Apple have gotten all the music dollars over the past decade) and anything that isn't streaming and just sell their stuff online on their own websites. The Radiohead model of set your own price. Or the Louis CK model of $5 for a DVD download. Those worked ridiculously well. Personally, if I'm looking for a specific song from an artist (particularly one I don't really know) I'll search the Internet for it before paying $0.99 or $1.29 to iTunes. And I have a buck to spend. And the artist/label only gets about 30% of that anyway. Why not put it on your website for a quarter, or 50 cents. You make as much (or more) as you would on iTunes, no overhead, and everyone who has iTunes has the Internet. There is the issue with the fact that phones are replacing computers so you'd have to be mobile friendly too (easier on iTunes) but the point is that you're competing with free and while Lowery goes to great lengths to discuss how it's a moral failing of the younger generation en masse to decide that all art should be free by right of birth, it wouldn't hurt to make it more economically viable for the indie artist and user to give a cheaper download on their websites and abandon iTunes. But honestly, no one is coming to me for advice. And Lowery is right in that it simply takes each of us, with our own wallets and our own influence and our own beliefs, to change what is happening, and in effect save the future of music on our own.
Since I have what is essentially an indie rock music blog (although I write about a lot of stuff), I am deciding to make the personal pledge to the Largeheartedboy ethic of only making free and legal music available for download on this site in the future. So that means there may be a lot more links to streaming music instead of downloads, particularly for newer music being released, which I think is more work for me, but I've been swayed by both Lowery's words and the "retirements" of so many beloved artists in the past year to think that we all have to make an effort, as music lovers, to try to reverse the death knell of the industry as a money-making venture, and "free" doesn't make any money for anyone except Apple, Google, and Megaupload, none of whom are in the music industry. Like I said, I've tried to follow that ethic for the most part in recent years, but I'm going to be stricter in my stance, and I realize there are 100 websites that you can find the song I would have uploaded but won't anymore, but I'm willing to try. And I have seen more sites like mine go to the embedded streaming track format a lot more than I have so I'll do my best to do that as well. Could it keep you from sampling a song you may have otherwise and in the end hurt the artist I'm trying to help? Perhaps. Like I said, I've been of two minds on this issue. But the fact remains that until we all convince the next generation that art -- music, movies, writing, etc. -- sustains us as a culture and therefore has value, including monetary value, our culture in general will be much worse for it.
(by the way, I'm still not sure what to do about something like the "Shiver & Shake" post -- that's a 25 year old song, no one is buying it anyway, right? Or maybe they are but I'm trying to sustain active bands for the most part, not The Cure. I imagine I may continue to post older songs but I don't know how to define that yet. YouTube embed instead? It's a work in progress. Again, read Lowery's article and decide for yourself -- I'd post a Cracker song here but that would be in really poor taste and also, I don't own any digital Cracker songs, the album(s) I have of his are almost surely on cassette).