White And Lowery: The Discussion We Need To Have

I’ve waited a few days to post here regarding this topic, because I wanted to see how it played out across the vast world of social media before I threw in my two cents. Most of you know the story by now.

Last weekend, an intern for NPR’s “All Songs Considered” posted a piece about how the vast, vast, VAST majority of her sizable music collection was (in one way or another) “acquired” for free. And she rightly wondered how her generation was going to support the continuing creation of music if they refused to pay for it. Rightly pointing out that concert tickets and T-shirt sales don’t pay the bills for the vast, vast, VAST majority of artists. Then essentially saying that purchasing or listening to music legally isn’t currently convenient enough, and asking that it be made more so.

Soon after that, David Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven, multiple degree holder, college professor) posted one of the most brilliant responses possible to her piece. As he has done before, he took on the arguments for the “free music” culture one by one. And one by one he dismantled them all.

I implore you to read them both, as they’re both very important pieces of a puzzle it’s time we all (fans and creators) put together. Lowery’s is pretty long, but it’s worth your time.

What followed – to my great delight – was an absolute EXPLOSION of opinions, articles, Facebook posts, tweets, and general conversation about the ethics and finances of today’s music business. As I’ve said before, one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2012 was to make it my business to educate anyone within earshot of the reality of what stealing music (please let’s not call it “sharing” anymore) has done to the very roots of the creative community that makes the music they love.

My favorite so far is this piece from Salon.com. Well thought out, and well reasoned. Props to Scott Janovitz for passing it along.

I’ve been participating in a number of online discussions via Facebook and Twitter as well, and I’ve had some time to pull together a few coherent thoughts on the subject after a few days of contemplation. In no particular order of importance.

1.) There’s been some talk that Lowery’s piece was unfair to White. This is a red herring, and has nothing to do with the central facts at play. Feel bad for her if you want to, but it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

2.) White, without meaning to, pointed out a fact that has been conveniently overlooked and ignored by pretty much everybody involved for over a decade. Two entire generations of music fans have now passed through their teenage years believing that music is free. That’s two generations of life-long music fans who, if they so chose, never had to pay a dime for the creations they love. Who have now developed habits, tastes, wants, and needs in relation to their music consumption that will be very hard to change.

3.) Who is at fault for this no longer matters. What matters is how we now create a sustainable way for music artists to ply their trade using the new tools we’ve created.

4.) This is the central one. TAKING MUSIC WITHOUT PAYING FOR IT IS STEALING. With ONE exception: When the person who owns the rights to the music decides to give it to you for free. Be that the artist, or (in ever decreasing cases) the label the artist signed their creation over to. I hope Bill Janovitz won’t mind me quoting him here, but he hit the nail on the head on one of the discussions I had:

“Lowery made many points in his piece. But the most basic and important one is that if you illegally download music for free, you’re stealing. You can twist your logic or lack thereof, to try and justify a counter-argument to that — the record industry snoozed, music is overpriced, take your pick — but I have yet to hear an argument that morally justifies stealing. The music is not just “in the air.” Not all artists deserve to be paid for their work if they have no audience. If I don’t want someone’s painting, I don’t buy it. But if someone creates music, records it, asks for a price to be paid to own or stream it, and someone downloads it for repeated listenings without paying, that is stealing.”

Let’s be honest here. If taking music for free was REALLY ethical, moral, and had a positive impact on artists, nobody would be having this conversation. These articles wouldn’t have touched so raw a nerve.

5.) It takes, on average, about 6 weeks of HARD work to make an album these days. As a producer, engineer, and mixer, I normally work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day while working on a full-length record. I’d say that in a similar amount of time, given I had the aptitude, and a similarly talented team of people, I could probably build a custom car in that time. If you then walk into my garage and take it from me, is that okay? No. That car probably will have cost me close to $100,000 in parts and labor. But more importantly, it’s a physical thing that you’d have to physically steal.

6.) Record budgets vary wildly today, but to make one of good quality, a nice round number would be $25,000. That’s JUST for production. And pretty no-frills production at that. Assuming they only release the album digitally, they’ll have to pay a small fee to get it to the digital distribution services. Then pay a fee on each sale. But since nobody knows it’s out, they have to promote it. By playing shows, making posters, buying online ads, spending endless amounts of time on social networking sites, making videos, etc. All of those things cost money as well.

7.) These days, most of that money is coming directly from the artists themselves. Think about that. These people are SO committed to making something for you that they are willing to part with what is likely more than half a year’s salary to create it. Now think about this fact:

“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.”

8.) I couldn’t be more thrilled that these facts are FINALLY making their way into the public consciousness.

9.) I don’t think there’s a magic wand solution to the problems we’re facing. I think we’re looking at a slow steady campaign of re-valuing music in the mind of the average music fan. So that “free” and “fair” aren’t seen as the same thing. And it starts with having THIS conversation about the REAL expenses and returns of being a music artist. In 2012.

10.) We can’t use outlier success stories as evidence that our problems have found a cure (read: Amanda Palmer). And we have to keep delivering this message. It’s time to teach the next generation of music fans to give their artists a chance at a sustainable career.

11.) Finally, we have to admit that if 75,000 albums are getting made each year, most of them aren’t going to be classics. That not everyone who picks up an instrument is a genius. That not every band/artist will find a fan base. That was true under the old model, and it will be true under the new. But my hope is that the new model we create can make room for more variety, and let that variety flourish for a longer period of time. Great art needs time to develop. Financial support gives an artist the time they need to turn into that exciting thing that melts your mind every time you listen.

How The Music Business Ended

Here’s an article by Angela Poe with some interesting insights into the history and current state of how we make money in the music business. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but there are some really thought-provoking ideas in here. This one’s my favorite, and it follows on yesterday’s post:

“It’s not about creating a way to make it ‘fair’ for everyone — it never was fair for everyone. The sooner the entitlement generation learns that not everyone gets a gold star and a music career just because they went to college and got a degree in music or the music business, the better. And not everyone with the best computer equipment has talent.”

You’re Not Special

David McCullough Jr. made a speech at a high school graduation recently. He’s a high school teacher, so that really shouldn’t surprise anyone. But the topic of his speech hits home with me. The fact that it also caused a bit of controversy is worth noting as well. Because, not surprisingly, many of those in attendance at the graduation failed to see the subtext. More disturbingly, they failed to see the that he is also correct. Because the hook he used to deliver his message to the graduates was this: You’re not special. He goes on in great detail to point out why this is an essential truth to understand, and how we must WORK to make our lives special; and through that work find deep fulfillment; and through that fulfillment touch others; and through those connections find wonderment and happiness.

I’ve often repeated what I found to be a profound quote from Pixar’s, “The Incredibles.” (Whether they meant it this way or not.) After an argument between the super-mom and her super-son about why he can’t participate in sports, she tries to put a period on the conversation telling him, “Everyone’s special, Dash.”

To which Dash replies, “Which is another way of saying no one is.”

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with music, production, or recording, think about how many Guitar Centers there are across this country. How many instruments each one of them sells every day with posters, and commercials, and promises of rock stardom. How many laptops ship with multitrack recorders, software synthesizers, and sequencers built in. Then each of those serves as a desktop distribution system for our every creation via SoundCloud or Facebook or the iTunes Music Store.

NOW think about how many Jimi Hendrixs there are. Eric Claptons. Kurt Cobains. Jonny Greenwoods or Ben Gibbards. Miles Davis’s or Mozarts. Think about what separates what they did with these magical instruments in their hands from what most manage.

But here’s the trick: For them, the important part wasn’t about the fame and adulation that befell them because of their gifts. The important part was the CREATION. The PURSUIT. It was a lifelong endeavor to be savored and improved upon. Something that (despite those promises from the Guitar Center mailers) purchases, hope, and an internet connection can’t get you.

Should everybody play music? ABSOLUTELY. Even if it’s singing in your car. Music is an emotional thread that runs through each of our lives.

Does the fact that you can now take video of you singing in your car on your phone, upload it to YouTube, and tweet it to your friends mean you’ve got the talent, drive, ambition, and musical gifts to touch millions of lives? No. It does not. It means you own a hammer, a saw, and some nails. There’s a long trip from there to becoming a carpenter. But if being a carpenter is what fuels your soul, then it’s that trip that’s worthwhile.

The art of capturing performances is what fuels mine, and that’s why I keep on pursuing it, defending it, debating its importance, and above all learning every day. No matter the material rewards. Because I have – at least for me – the best job in the world. And if that wondrous day arrives that I DO get my mug plastered on a GC flyer, the first thing I’m going to think is, “You’re not special.”