Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Paying for music

From the finally-getting-around-to-it department...
A few weeks ago I read a Flowering Toilet post that touched on a (at the time) internet hot topic (that I hadn't heard about, because I don't live online enough) where an NPR intern wrote a post for the NPR website wherein she admitted to having bought 15 CDs in her life but having 11,000 songs in her iTunes—mostly not from illegal downloads , but partially from ripping discs borrowed from her college radio station. Further she admitted that having grown up in the internet age, she believed her generation was disinclined to buy albums but was willing to pay for convenience (such as the all-you-can-listen-to-with-access-to-everything model of Spotify). She knew this wasn't the best for the artists she loved, but the genie was out of the bottle.

David Lowery posted a lengthy response on another website where he took the opportunity to not lambast her personally but to show the flaws in her thinking. Being the front man in Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, and now a professor in Georgia, he knew well how the game works. He identified how the college-age generation are willing to pay corporations for their computers and devices, and to pay corporations for their monthly internet or cell phone plans, but when it comes to the artists themselves the kids are fine with screwing them over by not paying for what they download with the paid access to the paid-for device.

It's really the dilemma for music in the digital age: how artists can get fairly compensated. Well, it's not so much of a dilemma when one thinks about it: As Lowery posits, you pay them for their product, the same as you pay for your iPhone. You don't go to file-sharing sites to get their product for free even though you can. You make choices that support them rather than taking money away from them. You don't justify your actions with excuses that suggest record companies are already screwing-over the artists and thus it doesn't matter.

It's not convenient, but it's right.

You didn't come out of the womb believing everything on the internet should be free; you "learned" that from your peers, so you can learn how to adjust your thinking and your actions.


And now more than you need to know and more than I should admit about my history in this arena:

I have approaching 30,000 tracks in my iTunes library. I have never been to a file-sharing site. Ever.

Okay, that's about as much of a high horse as I can be on, so I'll get down now.

My library is that size because back in my 20's I spent a disproportionate amount of my disposable income on music, buying CDs. At one point I had well over 1100 discs on my shelves—which is not as big as some people I knew but still was considered large by most "civilians." However, I should admit that I shopped at many stores that sold a mixture of new and used discs, and if I could get something I wanted from the used bin cheaper I would. And some of those CDs proved to be promo copies that technically shouldn't have been for sale, as the artist never got any money for it in the first place. But did I stop shopping at a store that engaged in loose practices such as that? Not really.

I knew from my time writing for my college paper, and the one semester I got packages of promos and press releases from Atlantic Records—but the bottom rung of the swag ladder, with CDs from bands few ever heard of—that these promo copies were ones the label didn't expect to get paid for. But still, by buying that copy in the used bin instead of a new copy was I technically denying the artist some modest amount of royalties? Yes. And regarding all the other discs I bought used (ones where they had been purchased new at one point but then sold back to the store, as though it were a collectible), my essentially re-purchasing something someone had previously paid for instead of a new copy was denying the royalties as well; sure, they got paid the first time, but they got nothing from mine.

The thing was this: I had a big appetite for music. In my 20's my friends and I would go up to Hollywood to see bands on average at least once a week (often with an attitude of "Who's playing? Who cares?"). We'd go see our favorites anytime they toured. We liked music very much. And (bringing this back to me) the reality is that I had a finite budget for buying music (and going to see it, etc.), so when I was in the store and saw a disc in the used bins for, say, $8, buying that instead of the $14 new one that gave me money to buy more discs. It was simple economics. I wanted a lot but had limited resources, so saving where I could allowed me to get more of it. Sure, I purchased plenty of discs new over the years—I could never go back and tell you how many of those 1,100-plus had been bought new versus used, but I'm fairly certain it was hundreds and hundreds, which is more than the average person probably buys new in a lifetime. But was I justifying it in my mind and not thinking about the artist getting his share? Of course.

However, the reality also was that I purchased plenty of albums over the years where the song I'd heard on the radio ended up being the only good track on the disc and I learned to be more discriminating about my purchases; in those days there weren't streaming online to sample something first, so you took your chances. With a lot of those discs I purchased used I never would have been comfortable paying full price, so the artist wasn't getting royalties from me on it one way or the other. That sounds self-serving—because it is—but it's also the truth. And there were cases where I liked that album enough that when that artist put out a new album in the future I would buy that one new, which probably wouldn't have happened otherwise.

And did I ever borrow a friend's copy of an album and rip it? I did that. I felt it was not too bad because it was a friend…

The seeming incongruity of being a big fan of music but not making sure I purchased it in the manner that most benefited the artists making that music is not lost on me now. However, I think that's the problem; had I been merely a casual fan who just listened to the radio and only bought a CD once in a while when a song really captured me, I'm sure I would have bought everything new. It was only because I was more voracious about it but lacked unlimited funds to realistically get it by paying the full price of new discs, so I found a way to compromise. The alternative would have been simply not to buy as much.

That's the gist of what the NPR intern admitted in her piece—she really likes music and wants a lot of it. In fact, she wants a system where artists get their due but also where she can access everything conveniently. She doesn't want to bring down the system with her behavior, but it's merely what the way things played out technologically that has set her expectations thusly. Lowery counters with the valid argument that iTunes is pretty darn convenient, but as a piece by another writer on Salon (written in response to the whole situation) duly notes, the problem there is that the music industry took too long in the period between 1999 – 2003 to get that convenient and legal method of downloading available to the general public. People turned to Napster not only because it was free but because it and the other file-sharing sites were really the only game in town, and thus those on a budget with a voracious music appetite didn't buy used CDs but went that route.

I may have been able to justify used discs but I wouldn't go to file-sharing sites, but not so much out of devotion to the artists. Sure, I didn't like that aspect, and I knew many of them were havens for viruses so that was another deterrent, but in the end it was a fairness thing. It would not be fair to download files from others unless I was willing to share some of mine—hence the whole "sharing" aspect of the name—it would not be at all equitable, even to the others on the sites. As I didn't want to do that, I didn't participate. It was one thing if I allowed one friend I knew to borrow a disc of mine or me to borrow one of theirs, but with these strangers there was no dealing I wished to have.

Convenient logic, I concede, but true nonetheless.

Let's bring this back to the happy ending.

Around five years ago I realized I was pretty much only listening to mp3's; CDs were bought and only ripped and put on a device. A friend was a member of eMusic, and spoke highly of it, so I gave it a try. At the time it was independent labels only, but the tracks were only about 25 cents as opposed to iTunes 99—so it was sort of the used model for saving money but where I'm led to believe the artist got at least something. And ever since I've pretty much only downloaded from that and other legal sources (sometimes iTunes or Amazon), where there's at least some agreement with the labels that I certainly like to believe does get the artists (or their beneficiaries) something. (eMusic eventually joined with major labels and raised prices, but they're still cheaper than iTunes.)

That may not be much better than the old days, but anything they're getting from me since I've been download-only is more than what they got from any used discs I bought back then. (I'm sure someone will tell me those deals still screw over the artists, however.)

Would I even think this way had I come of age in the 21st century, with the prevalence of not only illegal sites but legal streaming? I'm not sure. It seems like the real solution is to go back in time and get the industry to adopt the online model early and nip the Napsters in the bud, but that's unlikely, so what can we hope for to balance things out? I suppose the source of optimism is that these behaviors and attitudes of people about expecting free music was something they learned, so they could learn to support a new method, or the methods that now are prevalent (like iTunes). Some people will be lost causes but that's always been the case; others, however, may appreciate fairness and choose not only to do the right thing but to turn that into the "cool" thing.

Okay, that sounded ridiculous, but you get the idea. I certainly hope someone comes up with a much better one, but if not and artists can no longer continue to create their music, I'll keep downloading their back catalog. It's the least I can do (until time travel is developed--oh, but who's going to pay for that?).

p.s. Yes, kids, I'm old. I know.


  1. I also think you'll find kids interning at NPR are much more likely to be lazy thieves than kids interning at Fox News. It's simply a different demographic. Lazy communists happy to help themselves to other people's property for free, versus hardworking, ethical capitalists who would rather pay for it. I also think it's appropriate that an NPR staffer would be so blase' about committing crimes.

    I buy almost all of my music. A few things, I have ripped off of YouTube because I can't find them on CD (download only), but I certainly don't share any of my music with anyone. Filesharing sites are virus vectors, you're right.

  2. And I too have bought many albums for one song, and the rest absolutely stunk. That's why albums declined and many popular artists (especially in rap) now just release one-off tunes.

    Even though I seldom rip things off YouTube and I mostly buy CDs, most artists still don't make any money off me, because I always buy used CDs whenever possible. My darling wife taught me, "Never pay full price," and "Why buy new when you can buy used?" and she was right.


So, what do you think?