This week, one of the topics being avidly discussed on the blogosphere is a  post written on the All Songs Considered blog by NPR intern Emily White (read here).  There have been a number of passionate replies to her suggestion that those in her age group simply are not buying music: they’re too accustomed to “appropriating” it. David Lowery (of the band Camper Van Beethoven) provided an in depth and thoughtful response (a must read at the Trichordist here).  One can also read Ben Sisario’s article for the NY Times here and Jonathan Coulton’s blog post here.

All caught up? Good.

I won’t go through all of the merits and moral quandaries associated with file-sharing and streaming services. Full disclosure: I use NML regularly in my work (we subscribe at Westminster Choir College) and also have a paid Spotify subscription. While I’m a big proponent of physical media, and also feel that streaming services must work to do a better job to compensate artists, I am pleased that these technological options are available, as they are invaluable references for scholars and music lovers.

Thus, I’m certainly not interested in piling on or, goodness forbid, admonishing Emily White. In some ways, I feel sorry for her: a DJ and station manager who doesn’t have a record collection strikes me as someone who’s missed out on a very fun part of that gig. Instead, let’s zero in on those records. In the various posts on the subject of apathetic interns there is an almost unmentioned other segment of the populace that should be introduced into this conversation about purchasing music: young people who, you know, purchase music.

I support lots of artists by buying their music, often in physical, sometimes esoteric, formats. I feel about LPs the way that former Senator Phil Gramm feels about firearms, about which he famously said, “I have more of ’em than I need and less of ’em than I want.”

But I’m not the only one with this penchant for owning a physical artifact instead of ripping a friend’s CD. Why is it whenever I go to a record store I’m surrounded by people, many approximately Emily White’s age, who are digging through the bins and buying vinyl? New vinyl – nice 180 gram pressings of current albums. That’s a lot of latte money!

Maybe, in the midst of all of the doom and gloom about the decline of CDs as a distribution model, we are overgeneralizing by taking the casual listener as the barometer for future music sales. The casual listener has long “stolen” or, at the very least, freely acquired, music: well before the advent of file sharing and mp3s. Mix tapes, listening to the radio in a restaurant that doesn’t pay royalties, borrowing music from libraries, friends, etc.

Yes, the arguments regarding “fair use” settled some of these issues, but it took lengthy court battles to do so. At the time, most teens remained blithely oblivious of the issues at hand, continuing to dupe their friends’ copies of whatever they couldn’t afford that week at Sam Goody. What’s sad is that Emily seems to fall into this group of casual consumers: one might hope that NPR would attract folks who get the point of supporting those who entertain, educate, and even move them.

Physical product continues to be viable in the digital age, even if it proves to be a more modest stream of revenue than it was for artists during the boom years of the CD era. The physical product that seems to be on the rise at the moment is the LP, with good reason: it’s a very fine artifact. The bigger format helps – you can actually read the liner notes and the artwork can better be appreciated. Many audiophiles (myself included) love ’em.

That said, the industry should continue to explore other modes of distribution, new platforms that will help to keep them in business and recoup at least some of artists’ lost royalties. In no way am I suggesting that streaming media isn’t going to be the prevailing method of experiencing recorded music in the future. From an archival standpoint and one of accessibility, this is an exciting thing indeed. However, I can’t help but think that the lack of engagement with a record collection, except in the digital domain, divests the listening experience of some of its vitality.

Readers: what do you think? The comments section is open for civil discourse.

4 thoughts on “All Songs Intern “Rips” Buying Music?”
  1. I write this with mixed emotions because our most successful artists have managed to make a living from their art, and they have done this by having it captured in a commercial transaction. And this is a great achievement even during the best of times in the music business. But that system is breaking down, and it naturally hurts the best and brightest talents.

    If music is coupled to a scarce commodity – the number of seats in a concert hall or a limited run of plastic CDs, then a market will develop to allocate that scarcity. I buy a concert ticket, and there is one fewer seat for others to buy. I buy a CD and the seller’s inventory is reduced – so a supply/demand equation is established and the musician gets some part of that transaction.

    With music recorded digitally, the supply/demand equation completely breaks down – because a file downloaded does not diminish the supply of files available. A product that has infinite supply and very little distribution cost will be priced by the market at near zero. (That is why a lot of the money in digital downloading goes to those like iTunes and Spotify who are supplying the delivery and transaction infrastructure as a service.) The copyright laws offer some protection – and anyone should be able charge for their art and expect to have their copyright honored. The bigger record labels, in fact, have made an aggressive effort to criminalize illegal downloading of copyrighted material. But these legal efforts are up against powerful market forces that must, by their very nature, work continuously to devalue a commodity that is infinite in supply.

    The better way forward is to free art – especially digitally reproducible art – from the forces of the capitalist marketplace. Music should be heard, not sold. Society will have to find some other way to support its musicians if there is no longer a viable marketplace for recorded music. To burden art with a selling price that is not governed by free market forces is, ultimately, folly. And music that is free will be more widely heard and judged on its own merits, rather than on the promotional and legal strength of the copyright holder.

    We see the downside of trying to keep the old system afloat most clearly in popular music – the big labels have criminalized their downloading customers with lawsuits and given the world indifferent music in return. Free culture is better for culture and eventually, will be better for artists.

  2. I’m in my late forties, and have a fair-sized CD collection. Over the last ten years, I care less and less about owning CDs. I wish it was standard practice to deliver high-quality artwork and notes with electronic distributions. And I prefer downloading from services like emusic and Amazon to streaming; I want to control my copies of the music. (An artist or album can just disappear from a streaming service.) I won’t buy anything with DRM for the same reason.

    Merits and moral quandaries? It’s just amazing to me how – theft of music having become so easy, and free of consequences – so many seem to seriously wonder if it’s still theft. David Lowery (in another – even longer! – article on Trichordist than the one you linked: is very convincing that illegal downloads have in fact had an impact on the income of artists, and that in general artists are much worse off than they were before. And in the article you linked, he makes the point that there are a lot of corporate interests who make a lot of money from the culture of piracy; unlike the “evil” record labels, they aren’t sharing any of that revenue with the artists.

    It seems to me that a musical culture where people are willing to pay for music is bound to be healthier than one in which people expect – in fact, feel they have a right – to be able to steal it.

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