opinion: analyzing the ‘david lowery vs. emily white’ controversy about file-sharing

June 20, 2012

So an NPR intern named Emily White wrote a thing. Then Cracker / Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery responded with a thing. Then the internet exploded in a fiery hellstorm of sniping. (Which is not surprising since it’s basically the thing the internet does when it’s not making funny cat GIFs. Incidentally, Benjamin Sisko was the best Star Trek captain.)

Words by Nathan Leigh
Having run out of funny cat GIFs to make, I ended up in an impassioned twitter conversation with an artist I truly respect and admire; Chad Clark of Beauty Pill. If you don’t know them, your life is devoid of meaning. Seriously ‘Terrible Things’ is one of the few songs I could (and have!) listen to on repeat for days. Also we need to apply peer pressure to make them finish their new album. But anyway. Chad’s take-away from Lowery’s post was this:
The more important point is for the listener to think “Man, I hope this musician isn’t suffering! Lemme find out…” The actual economic models are less important than intent.
I realized that wasn’t at all what I was taking away from Lowery. We were both reading the same text and taking away two very different points. I was seeing it as a defense of an outdated economic model, a “this far and no further!” line drawn in the sand. Could we both be right? I’m not going to debate the merits of either Lowery’s post or Emily White’s. The internet has already done that to exhaustion. I’m interested in why it’s sparked so much controversy. Also cat GIFs.
Whether intentionally or not, Lowery’s post has sparked a long overdue and much needed conversation. I don’t think anyone is actually debating what Lowery had to say. I think he’s fundamentally right on most levels. I also think Emily White is fundamentally right. The issue is that I don’t think anyone (up to and including Lowery) is actually conversing with each other about this. We’re all having the conversation we want to have about the very difficult and essential issue of what is fair compensation for an artist and pretending it’s about Lowery/White.

For the record: I am a working musician with few real life skills, and a life-threatening lung condition (hopefully to be resolved soon!). Please understand that I have skin in this game too. This isn’t academic for me. It’s incredibly personal.

At the risk of being completely reductive, Lowery’s post seems to have divided people into 4 camps:

– Pro artist-rights, but pro file-sharing: I fall into this camp. Many (though certainly not all) of my peers do as well. I believe from her post that Emily White is here too.

– Anti (or apathetic to) artist-rights, pro file-sharing: This is the camp Lowery accuses White of unintentionally being in. I don’t believe that is true, but certainly there are many, maybe even a majority, in my generation who are part of this group.

– Pro artist-rights, anti file-sharing: This is David Lowery town.

– Anti artist-rights, anti file-sharing: – The only people who fall into this category are executives in the RIAA, Comcast, Apple, and debatably Google. These people are objectively terrible. (%1 and all…)
So it comes down to a question of whether or not you A. believe artists have a right to be compensated for their work, and B. whether you believe the 0s and 1s that make-up your complete RATT discography torrent count as property. Personally, I believe that A. absolutely fucking yes. And B. not at all. So then for me, it’s a question of once you assume that a digital download has no intrinsic value, how do you compensate an artist fairly for their work?

The RIAA’s argument in suing 12 year olds into a life of destitution for downloading one Justin Beiber song is that you’re stealing from poor little Justin. He works hard for the money, so you better treat him right. But if you download that song, are you depriving someone else of purchasing it legitimately, the way it would be if you were to steal a copy of his cassingle from the Virgin Megastore? No. The download you have is essentially worthless (also aesthetically). If you’ve ever read the iTunes terms of service, what you are purchasing is not a copy of the song. You are not buying a digital analog to a CD. What your bitcoins are going towards is a license to listen to Beiber’s dulcet 1s and 0s. In much the same way a radio station pays a license to play a song, you are paying a license to play a song an infinite amount of times, or until Apple revokes your license. Which they can totally do. In short, you’re paying for convenience.

Now convenience goes a long way. But Apple takes a 30% cut. While Bandcamp takes a much more reasonable 15%. Why does Apple need 30%? Well just imagine how poorly Foxconn workers would be paid without it. Oh. Wrong internet screed. Next time. Anyway, Lowery (astutely) addresses the issue of people “sticking it to the greedy labels.” At the risk of being even more reductive, he tells them to go fuck themselves. When you’re sticking it to the labels and distributors (disproportionately) large cuts, you are inherently also sticking it to the artists meager (9.1 cents), but still essential cut in the deal. This is a problem, because food costs money. And Cthulu help you if you get sick.
Speaking of which: Jason Noble (of The Shipping News and Rachel’s) is currently battling cancer. You should buy the comp that supports him:

So here’s where things get complicated. Humans have been making music for 50,000 years. Selling records has been a viable way to live off said talent for roughly 50 of those years. Before that, patronage, touring, and commissions were your only options. To think it must always be thus is terribly naïve. People are downloading music. That genie has been out of the bottle for over a decade. It’s not going back in. It certainly would make things simpler if it would, but it’s not. For me, the issue with Lowery’s piece is not in any of the actual words he commits to paper, but in the assumption that the old economic model is the only possible one.

And this is where the controversy comes in, I think. What Lowery’s saying is right. A “fan” of a musician who doesn’t care that said artist is struggling economically and needs help isn’t much of a fan. But White is merely recognizing the reality of our cloud-based world. Music is a service now. It’s not a product, and we can’t pretend it is anymore. The difficulties of the last decade have revolved around people being unwilling to accept that music-as-commodity is essentially gone. Probably forever.

There are also assumptions wrapped up in the controversy about whether an artist is entitled to be a full-time artist. And honestly I’m not sure. Music-making is 1/3 of my income. I’m pretty proud of that. I like to think I’m pretty good. Maybe not Camper Van good. But (shameless plug) the musical I recently co-wrote, The Consequences, has been getting unanimously positive reviews. Even my mom liked it. But any time I feel abused by someone who’s hired me to write something for them (freelance composition will destroy your soul. I cannot wait until I’m healthy enough to go back on the road…) I have to remind myself that I’m in a market where there are literally millions of people as good as me, if not better, who would gladly do the work I’m complaining about for less.

So does David Lowery deserve to be compensated for his work? Yes. Did Vic Chestnut or Mark Linkous? Double yes. Do all of them deserve and need the support of their fans especially when they were at their lowest? If you answer anything other than a resounding yes, you deserve to live in a universe where ‘Take The Skinheads Bowling’ was never written. Were they entitled to live exclusively off their music? I don’t mean to sound insensitive to the pain they went through, since I’m experiencing something quite similar myself at the moment, but I honestly don’t know.
And then what about Woody Guthrie? Why not download his songs for free? His estate is doing fine. His kids and grandkids are all successful musicians in their own right. And anyway, Guthrie didn’t even want people to pay for his music when he was alive, and vinyl was the only distribution option then. What about Robert Johnson? He doesn’t even have an estate, and yet you can buy all 29 of his songs in a dizzying array of remasters and formats.

I don’t think we can debate file-sharing vs. no file-sharing. That chicken has long flown the coop. I think we have to accept that file-sharing is a reality. It began in the cassette era, and in the internet era the elephant in the room just became so big we could no longer ignore it. (Yay animal metaphors! Also: squids are awesome.) Lowery pleads for an injection of ethics into the system. He pleads for empathy with the artists so called fans claim to be fans of. He’s 100% right, but how can you enforce ethics? You can’t make someone behave ethically when it is more convenient for them to behave unethically. The entirety of human history has taught us that lesson. So how do you incentivise empathy in your fans? It certainly doesn’t happen by scolding them for not paying for your music. Now they also wont pay to get in to your concerts either. You could have only lost $10 of theoretical revenue, now you lost $40.

I don’t believe David Lowery is wrong about anything he wrote. I just think he’s making an impassioned case for water conservation on Mars. Like it or not, the time has come and gone. The only thing we can debate that isn’t a waste of time is what to do next.

So we’re sitting here debating whether an artist deserves to be compensated for their work, and whether a download has any value. When I think the question we need to be asking each other, and arguing out until we have a really good answer is this: given that a download has no value, and given that physical medium is no longer the preferred method of distribution, how do we fairly compensate artists for their work?

Some hear this question and see a wall of despair. That music-making as a career option is forever dead in the wake of the almighty mp3. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We artists have an opportunity right now to invent a new system that is actually fair to all artists, not just the vaunted 1% who make VH1s best of lists. Kickstarter plays a part. So do self-distribution methods like Bandcamp and Tunecore. What else are the tools we need to make this dream achievable? What doesn’t exist yet? Let’s not start by mourning the death of an imperfect system. There is absolutely no reason that we can’t create our own economic model for art that is fair for both the artist and their fans. There is no reason ethics and empathy can’t play a central part. We just have to have that conversation. Not the one about Lowery vs. White. Because only one of those conversations has the potential to change the world for the better. Like it or not, the old ways are dying. Let’s build something new and beautiful together.

In the meantime, here’s a youtube clip of Cracker’s awesome hit “Low” with an ad in front of it. Watch it 100 times so that at 9.1 cents a pop, David Lowery can buy himself a sandwich: