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What does it really mean to be a music lover?

Can you really call yourself a music lover if you’re not supporting the artists responsible for the music you have?

Earlier this month, an intern with NPR’s “All Songs Considered” named Emily White posted a fairly revealing blog entry titled “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With” in which she confessed that, despite having an iTunes collection of over 11,000 songs, she’d only purchased 15 CDs in her life. The Internet spoiled her, she writes, when it came to acquiring new music — and now it’s so easy to acquire music that White’s generation feels no real need to support their favorite artists by paying them. What will they pay for? In a word, convenience. Here’s White’s proposal:

What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices. With this new universal database, everyone would have convenient access to everything that has ever been recorded and performance royalties would be distributed based on play counts (hopefully with more money going back to the artist than the present model). All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?

Technical issues related to such an undertaking aside, White’s proposal is perfectly in-line with how many people have come to view media (music, movies, television, etc.) these days. Indeed, I’ve expressed similar thoughts when voicing my dissatisfaction re. watching my favorite television shows online. And yet, there’s something particularly galling about how blasé and entitled she sounds when casually admitting that she won’t purchase outright the music of artists that she loves.

Not surprisingly, the commenters on White’s entry were pretty brutal, with many of them taking her to task for her moral and ethical inconsistency. For example, commenter “M M (GTR44)” wrote:

This article is sad on so many levels. The 800lb Gorilla irony here is that NPR exists in part because they ask us all to donate to bring them something that they believe those tuning in should feel obliged to pay for. While they themselves embrace someone who gets to write about how she owns 11,000 song but only paid for 15 albums worth of music.

Or, as commenter “Keith Roberts” put it:

What about: “I really love public radio, I listen to it all the time, but I’ve never paid for it.”

That would be cool too, right?

Commenter “alex moorehead” even called into question White’s claim to be a “music lover,” writing:

[Y]ou’re not a music fan; you’re a leach. being a fan means being invested in the art and having an interaction with the medium. ripping promo cds and downloading shared files doesn’t make you a fan. having a virtual collection without spending the hours, days, weeks, or years searching for that treasured album means nothing… sorry, but the sentiment of this author having the audacity to caller herself a music fan just because her iTunes library is growing is an insult to people that have spent their private lives (and fortunes) in pursuit of that coveted album.

The best response, though, to White’s article — and certainly the most in-depth and passionate — was by David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker). In an article simply titled “Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered,” Lowery graciously yet thoroughly exposes the contradiction at the heart of White’s article. He writes:

My intention here is not to shame you or embarrass you. I believe you are already on the side of musicians and artists and you are just grappling with how to do the right thing. I applaud your courage in admitting you do not pay for music, and that you do not want to but you are grappling with the moral implications. I just think that you have been presented with some false choices by what sounds a lot like what we hear from the “Free Culture” adherents.

I must disagree with the underlying premise of what you have written. Fairly compensating musicians is not a problem that is up to governments and large corporations to solve. It is not up to them to make it “convenient” so you don’t behave unethically. (Besides — is it really that inconvenient to download a song from iTunes into your iPhone? Is it that hard to type in your password? I think millions would disagree.)

Rather, fairness for musicians is a problem that requires each of us to individually look at our own actions, values and choices and try to anticipate the consequences of our choices. I would suggest to you that, like so many other policies in our society, it is up to us individually to put pressure on our governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly when it comes to artists rights. Not the other way around. We cannot wait for these entities to act in the myriad little transactions that make up an ethical life. I’d suggest to you that, as a 21-year old adult who wants to work in the music business, it is especially important for you to come to grips with these very personal ethical issues.

Quite simply, Lowery’s letter is easily one of the best pieces I’ve read regarding the economics and morality of downloading music versus buying music, what it means to really support artists, and our society’s rapidly changing stance regarding art and artists. I highly recommend reading the entire piece, as it explains so well the quandary that many people face in a culture where downloading an album (or a movie or a TV show) seems like a victimless crime (even though that seemingly innocent download can have real world consequences). But I’ll just highlight a few portions.

Now, having said all that, I also deeply empathize with your generation. You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality. Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change — if a machine can do something, it ought to be done. Although it is the premise of every “machines gone wild” story since Jules Verne or Fritz Lang, this is exactly backwards. Sadly, I see the effects of this thinking with many of my students.


The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for hudreds of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time. (Since the works that are are almost invariably the subject of these discussions are popular culture of one type or another, the duration of the copyright term is pretty much irrelevant for an ethical discussion.) By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to continue to let these companies violate the law without being punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality and principals to match what I think are immoral and unethical business models.

This part is especially good, in an nicely snarky way.

The existential questions that your generation gets to answer are these:
Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?
Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?

Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?

This is a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the point. But it’s as if:

Networks: Giant mega corporations.
Cool! have some money!

Hardware: Giant mega corporations.
Cool! have some money!

Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class.
Screw you, you greedy bastards!

Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!

Again, read the entire thing.

In the past, I’ve been known to borrow a line from Chris Rock and quip: “Now I’m not saying you should download that music/movie/etc., but I understand.” When I say that, I’m usually talking in the context of some big name movie or TV show put out by some big name studio that is surprisingly difficult to acquire given the number of legitimate methods around — and when talking about such things, it’s easy to get caught up in a pro-consumer, anti-big business mindset and think that a few measly downloads won’t hurt anybody, especially not some industry fat cat. But Lowery’s letter adroitly exposes such thinking for the lie that it is, and the sometimes tragic consequences that it can lead to.

We live in a society that is rapidly changing, and as such, many traditional notions regarding media, art, and whatnot, are changing as well. Increasingly sophisticated technology makes possible what seemed like barely a dream even five years ago. But no amount of social or technological change in the world can change the fact that if you have music on your computer that you acquired in a way that didn’t require you to pay any money to the rightful creators, copyright holders, etc., then you probably did something bad. And if that can be said for the vast majority of music that you have, then — at the risk of sounding preachy, sanctimonious, and elitist — can you really say you’re a fan of the creators? Can you really call yourself a music lover if you’re not putting your money where your mouth is and supporting the artists responsible for the music you have?

By all means, use all of this wonderful technology at your disposal to find new music. And then, when you find that great new album, it’s quite simple: pay the people who made it. Pay them directly via their band website if you can; otherwise, do it via Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon, or any number of great online music stores. In the end, it’s a “win win”: you get to listen to some great music with a truly clean conscience and the people who made that music can start getting enough money to record another album, not to mention put food on the table. Supporting musicians — yes, with tweets and “likes” and blog posts, but more importantly, with the money that actually enables them to make a living doing what they love and what you enjoy — that’s what it means to be a fan. That’s what it means to be a music lover.

Yes, the various media industries certainly deserve a lot of criticism for adopting strategies that make it harder for consumers to easily and legitimately acquire the media that they want. But that’s a subject for another entry — or comic strip. Besides, none of that changes the fact that, if you’re not purchasing the media that you do possess, you’re still doing something unethical, regardless of any industry shortcomings.

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