A candid blog post over the weekend at NPR’s All Songs Considered blog has touched off a small firestorm in the music industry over the behavior of young, “digital native” music fans and the right of musicians and record companies to be paid for their work. Fourteen years since the arrival of the game-changing Napster file-sharing service, these topics still touch a nerve. But the responses to the post show how wide a gulf remains between what the music industry expects the public to do and what the public is actually doing.
In the NPR post, a 20-year-old intern named Emily White wrote that despite being “an avid music listener, concertgoer and college radio D.J.,” with an iTunes library of 11,000 songs, she has bought only 15 CDs in her life. “As monumental a role as musicians and albums have played in my life,” she wrote, “I’ve never invested money in them aside from concert tickets and T-shirts.”
Supporters of the deal are expected to testify on Thursday that the Internet has weakened the record companies, thus making another step toward consolidation less than worrisome.
Ms. White went on to describe some typical Gen-Y behaviors about acquiring digital music: ripping CDs; copying friends’ song files; being given 15 gigabytes of music by a prom date. Curiously, she noted that aside from “a few” tracks that she obtained through the now-defunct file-sharing service Kazaa, most were not “illegally” downloaded.
The post has drawn more than 440 comments. It has been debated for days on music industry forums and in blog responses, none more impassioned than a 3,800-word open letter from David Lowery, of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. (His post itself has received more than 300 comments and been passed around and around via Twitter.)
After first telling her, “My intention here is not to shame you or embarrass you,” Mr. Lowery goes on, eloquently and in great detail, to do what might be called throwing the morality book at her. He argues against the unpaid accumulation of music online, rejecting common rationalizations (“record companies rip off artists”; “artists can make money on the road”) and explaining that even in not paying for music, Ms. White has made economic choices by using technology and online bandwidth, which somebody probably paid for.
As a result, Mr. Lowery writes, young people who do not pay for music instead wind up valuing the technology of “giant mega corporations” at the expense of the musicians they actually care about, “unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians.”
“You are doing it wrong,” Mr. Lowery concludes.
Educating young people about the consequences of their economic decisions is a vital part of living in a free market and a democratic society. But history has shown that heavy-handed moral arguments about music — or any other form of online entertainment, for that matter — are seldom effective. That is largely because convenience trumps any other consideration. Also, as the NPR story demonstrates, the moral dimensions of copyright law aren’t always cut and dried.
For example, the kind of file sharing that Ms. White details — which Mr. Lowery equates with depriving artists of their
rightful income through royalties — is mostly a matter of copying from a single source, not downloading en masse: that is, taking playlists from friends or copying CDs from the library of her college radio station. Decades ago, the record industry saw the cassette tape as a threat. In the 1980s, albums sometimes came with warning stickers reading, “Home taping is killing music.” The movie business said the same thing about VCRs at first. But of course those technologies did not kill Hollywood or the major record companies.
In the statement that angered Mr. Lowery the most, Ms. White wrote: “As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.”
Mr. Lowery doesn’t buy that. He questions the moral integrity of failing to pay for the music one enjoys listening to while paying for the technology used to acquire and listen to it.
Others commenting on the issue have noted the odd situation this puts artists in. “Recorded music apparently now exists in a nether world between commerce and charity, dependent entirely on the ethics of strangers,” the singer and songwriter Michael Penn posted to Twitter. The ability of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter to become reliable sources of income for musicians — along the lines of Amanda Palmer’s recent $1.2 million fund-raising campaign there — hinges to some degree on this question: When fans “support” a project, is it an act of charity or just an advance purchase?
The most telling part of Ms. White’s post is her belief that she and her peers will pay for convenience in listening to music. That’s a practical statement, not a moral one. And when she says that what she really wants is simply to pay to subscribe to “one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices,” it sounds like a wish for convenience and legitimacy all in one. If the music and technology industries can make those ideas line up, there may be no need for appeals to morality.
I don't know why they keep trying to appeal to morality - there is a well earned debt of public trust in big business yet they think hollow appeals are going to work? Embrace the convenience the digital age has brought us; quit trying to steer us back to yesteryear in a legislation-powered time machine.