Arts Desk

Everybody’s Doing It, So Why Can’t We? On NPR, David Lowery, Travis Morrison, and Paying for Music

There's a culture war going on right now, and it has nothing to do with gay marriage. If you're a music nerd, a music-maker, or a Facebook friend of either kind of person, you've probably seen a link to a recent blog piece by NPR intern Emily White in which she explains how she acquired most of her 11,000-song iTunes library without purchasing it. It's an honest piece, and it probably speaks to the experience of a lot of avid music listeners—particularly younger ones.

Shortly after that piece was published, David Lowery (of the '80s college-rock band Camper Van Beethoven and the '90s alt-rock group Cracker) posted a response that quickly went viral. Lowery, who teaches economics at the University of Georgia, posits that folks ought to buy music because artists can't survive without fans buying their records. He brings up some good points, makes some less convincing ones, and does quite a bit to shame the kids for their illegal downloading.

Ex-D.C. denizen and Dismemberment Plan frontman Travis Morrison wrote a response for the Huffington Post, in which he refutes Lowery's intimation that the stealing of music is somehow a new phenomenon. Morrison argues that people have found ways to steal music for a long time, pointing to his own examples of tape-dubbing, mixtaping, and radio-recording—not to mention his friends' shoplifting—long before Napster's all-you-can-eat digital buffet. He continues to make music and works a day job. (Full disclosure: Morrison is a friend, and my record label released a 7-inch he made.)

I think this whole discussion is interesting, but it seems to have lost sight of what actually matters. Both sides have essentially focused on whether people should feel bad for stealing music. White says she and her friends don't, Lowery says they should, and Morrison says chill out, we've pretty much all stolen tunes at some point. For my part, I don't give a shit if you steal music or feel bad about it, but as a musician, a music fan, and a record-label owner, I do care that you pay for it when you can.

In her piece, White writes, "I've come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can't support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone." Yet her next statement doesn't really jive with that admission: "But I honestly don't think my peers and I will ever pay for albums," she writes. "I do think we will pay for convenience." I appreciate the honesty, and I'm sure she's echoing the thoughts and economic motivation of many. And a convenient streaming option that actually compensates artists in a fair manner—which is what she's hinting at—would be fantastic. But if you personally want to an artist to keep making art that you love, and you have some cash, then just buy a goddamn record.

Yes, there are structural problems with digital payments. Yes, Spotify is totally incredible for listeners and it doesn't give musicians much of anything. Yes, someone somewhere should do something about all that. But right now, you, the listener, have myriad options at your disposal. Bandcamp, iTunes, AmazonMP3, Insound, and a million other digital stores will gladly transfer some of your money to the person who created the content you enjoy. They may or may not transfer enough of it, you may prefer to only listen to streaming content, but as a step you can take toward financially supporting art you love, there's really nothing simpler.

I realize an appeal to ethics won't save or fundamentally alter the music industry. I'm not concerned about that. I am concerned about a conversation that's devolving into a pissing contest about who's more digitally righteous. Yeah, I once snatched up a Grizzly Bear record via Mediafire before it came out. Yeah, I torrented Bruce Springsteen's entire catalog in college. You've probably done something similar at some point, even if it was just enjoying a mixtape or a burned CDR that someone gave you.

Whatever. It's 2012, that's the world we live in, and artists do generally want to have their music heard by as many folks as possible. But at the end of the day, if you actually give a shit, spend some dough if you've got it. If you can't afford it right now, no big deal, keep listening and pay when you can. Just don't talk about it like all the content in the world deserves to be free. Expecting art you care about to get made indefinitely without any of your money is like expecting Chicago Public Media to keep producing This American Life (and hiring interns) without ever hosting pledge drives. It's just willfully ignorant.

Photos via the Library of Congress

(Correction: Due to a reporting error, this post originally said NPR produced This American Life.)

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  • Rick

    Amen, brother!

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  • Gordon Withers

    Excellent, I agree completely. The righteousness (on both sides) is unseemly. Working on my own blog post now...

  • Ramon Ramirez

    Yeah I agree with all of this.

    Furthering thought: the streaming model--Pandora for regular folks, Spotify for more detailed and album-oriented listeners--is going a long way toward killing pirating because people have lost the need to own digital files.

    As that becomes perfected with respect to compensating talent, I think that's the model going forward. I find myself buying independent music more and more. The music fan has two libraries--his streaming collection of Kanye West and Thin Lizzy standards, and a lean, muscular iPhone library of rap mixtapes and ripped vinyl mp3s.

  • Ryan Little

    I hope you're right, Ramon.

    I know a lot of regular folks like my parents never pirated much of anything, though. They bought it. And now they use Spotify, which gives much less to artists than their iTunes purchases gave. I don't think Spotify equals doomsday, but so far it hasn't been the savior it claimed it would be.

    Ultimately, I have no idea how it'll all play out. I just hope folks remember they have some pretty easy options to directly affect artists if they choose to utilize them.

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  • The Java Master

    And what, exactly, is the motivation to become a musician or a public performer of any type of music, as either a career or a part-time gig, if I can't earn any money to purchase the instrument(s) and equipment necessary to create and perform my artistic works, not to mention pay my rent and car payments? Whether one is indie DYI or signed to a label, the royalty paymemts to the performer are his/her livelihood. Piracy is theft, period.

  • ugh

    You have to be a complete piece of shit if you condone stealing music, or anything for that matter. The thought that people think this is "OK" boggles my mind.

  • John Murph

    Even as a seasoned music journalist, I make it a point to go to record stores and buy at least three new releases a month -- CDs, vinyl, 12" singles.

    I've seen too many of my cultural heroes make great music and have little to show for it. And oftentimes, it had little to do with their personal financial management.

    Also, I buy music for my own selfish reasons. It helps keep music journalists employed too.

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