[Ethicophilia] Musicophilia’s Two Cents (and $50k) on Paying Artists for the Music We Love

Posted in Talking by Soundslike on June 23, 2012

drum_bw1Musicophilia has been in defacto semi-retirement for most of the last couple years, as life has made mix-making infeasible (and even music listening far too rare). However, I am working on a few things, and several equally musically-obsessed friends are at work, too. The mixes still seem to get a few downloads every day, so I’ve left things up in the hopes that the mixes will continue to turn people on to music they’ll love.

Which brings me to the real topic of this post: loving music enough to share it, and what I hope is the result. I’ve been explicit about it elsewhere, along the lines of “please support the artists featured in these mixes,” but on the internet that might seem like some sort of pseudo-legalese ass-covering. I hope that it’s always evident, however, that in the case of blogs like this one–sharing mixes, sharing very deeply out-of-print music–that we really mean it, that the objective is to support and promote artists. Prior to Musicophilia, I grappled with the ethics of mix-sharing on a broader scale when distributing the ‘1981’ box. On the one hand, I was “giving away” music that I did not create; on the other, I did so with the (non-legally-binding) approval of nearly every artist I spoke with who had made the music, with only one dissenting voice. Perhaps more importantly, nearly every person with whom I talked after they’d had the mix a while said something like “darn you, you’ve made me spend so much money buying albums on stuff I first heard on the box”. I wanted people to experience the thrills and joys the music had given me. But my “ulterior motive” was very definitely that they should then go out and be a big dork who buys lots of music and thereby supports the sort of shops that sold such music, and the artists who made it.

What has me thinking about all this at the moment is the exchange between a college student who wrote about having 11,000 songs in her collection while having purchased only 15 CDs in her life, and musician David Lowery, writing about the ‘new paradigm’ her attitudes reflect and foster. As is my wont, I’m late to the discussion and you probably have already read it all. But it’s a subject I imagine people who would come to this sort of blog–which arguably straddles both sides of the argument by its nature–might have interesting insights on the matter. So I invite you to discuss the issue here, at least in part picking up a conversation we began years ago here.

For myself, I spent just enough years (a decade or so) as a music-lover before downloading (legally or illegally) became an option that I deeply value both 1) physical media/record stores/real-life conversations about music and 2) the potential equalizer of the internet, wherein you weren’t limited by where you lived or who you knew or how much money you had, but only by your interest, in your path to musical discovery. This was no small matter to someone with voracious ears who lived in the hinterland, without a hip older sibling, without money–the sort of person who, without the internet (and some lucky opportunities to travel), might have faced years of frustration instead of years of discovery.   As a result, I’m neither old-school nor new school: I think of the internet as a great tool for discovery and turning others onto discoveries–but I still believe record shops, physical media, and supporting artists/labels/shops directly are essential to a sustained musical culture.

I’ve probably spent around $50k in my twenty years of buying music, a sizable portion of every dollar I’ve ever earned. From around 1998 onward (the year I was a college radio DJ, like Ms. White, and gained access to high-speed internet) almost all that music almost could’ve cost me $0. So maybe I’m a rube and a sucker, a consumerist weighed down by meaningless discs.  Maybe I’m arguing broad access to music is a game for the rich (or, in my case, the financially stupid).  But for all that music has given my life–and it really is a huge part of what gives me my hope for humanity, and on a personal level is intertwined with almost every memory I have–don’t I owe something to the people who made it?

I don’t say all this because I think I’m inherently more moral than younger folks “spoiled by the internet”–maybe they can’t imagine music being anything but free.  And I can see how that could be the paradigm for the casual listener, satisfied with the limited supply of music propagated through mainstream channels at any given moment.  But it’s impossible for me to understand the mentality of someone who says “my world is music-centric,” yet thinks that this “center” of their life just appears out of thin air–moreover, someone whose main approach to music’s central role in her life is how “convenient” it is to hear.  I have to admit, that mindset makes me question the validity of something like Musicophilia as a help rather than a hindrance to musical culture.

Perhaps the optimism I’ve always had about the internet as part of a hybrid approach (virtual + real-world musical discovery) is unfounded. Maybe mix-sharing is just another way of creating a false notion that music is “free”–and cheap. Maybe physical media will die, and all the shops will close (I’m living in New York right now, and it feels almost as barren as my hinterland home 15 years ago, for decent shops), and music is mostly a fashion accessory these days anyway. I can get very old-man-grousing “get off my lawn” about it. But then–so much of the music I’ve mixed on Musicophilia is in print and can be bought, and I feel like more and better music is being reissued than ever, and on physical media to boot.  Contemporary independent, theoretically artist-driven music has never had deeper inroads into the mainstream. Even if half the ones I knew are gone, there are still shops selling all this music.; and while I may find it baffling, people can and apparently do spend money on mp3s. It all leaves me completely unsure which way the wind is really blowing.  Is there a generation out there that really thinks the way Emily White thinks?  Are all the great reissue labels just experiencing one final flourish selling to the last of the “record geeks,” soon to disappear?  Is online music selling going to boil down to whatever “convenient” gatekeepers like iTunes decide to sell, and on their terms–putting people back into a virtual hinterland? I guess I can only hope that for every “music lover” who thinks everything is free now, there are two who recognize it’s never been easier to find the music you were born to hear–and doesn’t think it’s too inconvenient to “support the artists” in a very real way.

So share your thoughts, anecdotes, statistics, sad stories of shops closing, triumphant experiences of all this complicated mess working out for the best. And hit up some of the “BUY. MUSIC.” links to the right, while we still can.


5 Responses

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  1. Soundslike said, on June 23, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Most well-reasoned response I’ve read so far:

  2. Soundslike said, on June 23, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    This sums up the “it’s inevitable, music is a service not a product [much less an artform or a culture], you can tell Emily White to just buy the music already but it’s not going to happen” response:

    And this is the sort of weird thing where change is confused for “progress,” and “progress” is treated as inevitable, and acknowledging that inevitability is the only reasonable approach for someone who wants to be a realist rather than an idealist. The zeitgeist approach, characteristic of Modernist architecture and urbanism of the last 70 years, whereby agency and thereby ethical considerations are swept aside And you never have to ask the question “why,” you just say “because”. (Of course, lurking therein is the frequent likelihood that the banner of “it’s the zeitgeist, I am but helpless before it” is a very convenient way of pushing a very decided, non-passive, idealogue-not-idealist agenda.) But I can’t help ask the question, since apparently I escaped the inevitable zeitgeist–*why* can’t Emily White et al just buy some music, instead of downloading all of it for free?

    I have a download-based music blog, and I link to plenty from which I’ve downloaded amazing out-of-print music. But when that out-of-print comes in print, I buy it, if I have any money at all–I don’t say, gosh, it’s just impossible, it’s out of the zeitgeist–it’ll never happen. I don’t say, gosh, it’s inconvenient. I buy it, and I’m happy to do so. So this isn’t a one-or-the-other thing–it is possible to both download-for-free AND buy to support the artist. That’s basically the premise of Musicophilia, in fact. It doesn’t seem that complicated, but it runs counter to the prevailing techno-narrative (insights into which are probably the best thing about Lowery’s essay).

  3. Soundslike said, on June 23, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    An even more caustic “Emily White is just reality, man” take:

  4. Soundslike said, on June 23, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    And capping it off, the “it’s the reality, and it’s totally meritocratic” pseudo-libertarian approach, “be a good artist and you’ll succeed, the only reason you’re complaining is because you’re no good”:

    I don’t begrudge awful pap making lots of money, if they can do it–I’m not going to call false consciousness on people, at most I’d say it’s commercial bombardment combined with our natural laziness (“convenient” again apparently the key word of the times). But to pretend that it’s the best music that’s always the most successful is fatuous beyond belief. Or that all music that doesn’t earn a musician a good living is crap. Both can be the case–but so can their opposites. The point isn’t that music is some zero-sum competition, but that there ought to be room for people to earn decent livings–not just some binary between “become Jay-Z or pack it in”.

  5. john said, on June 9, 2013 at 11:45 pm

    i may have been among the first to post a “pseudo-legalese” disclaimer on my blog (the long gone Tofu Hut) and I’m glad to see the conversation continuing. i appreciate your approach and your thoughtfulness. my method of maintaining what i considered an ethical way to comport myself was to not accept ads at the time. i believed this method of distribution was fair if i never saw direct profit from it. in retrospect, i don’t know if i was being naive or sensible. it’s an odd thing the way the brave new world turns over.

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