Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Music and paying for it

Bob Boilen from NPR's All Songs Considered recently uploaded his entire music library into the cloud, deleting his 25,000 song collection from iTunes in the process. He says: "I'm a bit scared, but I backed everything up, took a deep breath and stepped into the future."

In response, one of the NPR interns, Emily White, explained that she never owned any music in the first place. She says: "I never went through the transition from physical to digital. I'm almost 21 and since I first began to love music I've been spoiled by the Internet." She explains her entire musical library has been acquired digitally, and she's "never supported physical music as a consumer," adding, "I honestly don't think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience."

Her post has stirred a debate. David Lowery, a musician (remember Cracker?) and University of Georgia lecturer on the economics of the music business, wrote a very well-written response at The Trichordist to call out Emily and those like her who claim to love music but have grown up in a time when it's all too easy to download music (illegally) for free. He says: "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."

He also explains that using a $1000 computer and a $30 - $60 internet plan to download music for free is really nothing compared to the cents per song that an artist legally deserves to be compensated. In fact, it just goes to show that people are willing to spend much more money on technology to big tech companies than to artists for their music. For this, he says, "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!"

It's gone viral. Go read Lowery's entire essay here.

And then... someone at a record label wrote in support of Emily White, not for illegally downloading music, but for addressing the need to make music easier to listen to online, which was actually the point of Emily's article.  (Things are different now!  Get with the times!  It's not all bad!)

And then...NPR's Robin Hilton summarized: "the debate over compensation doesn't break down along generational lines, and didn't begin with Emily's essay," and has been debated and will likely continue to be debated for some time.

I remember closely following the A&M Records vs. Napster case back in 2001 for a class project.  Seems like so long ago because technology has changed so much over the past ten years and yet we're still having the same conversations.

(continued below)

David Lowery's band Cracker performing "Low" off their 1993 album Kerosene Hat, a real cd I bought with real money in the 1990's. 

I too spent my 20's downloading music for free online, making copies of cds for my friends, ripping cds from my campus radio station onto my laptop (which was tolerated but certainly not condoned by the radio station staff). Is it as easy to do these days? Probably. College students are always going to find a way to not to pay for music. There's always going to be some computer science major who figures out a way to do it. And they're cheap, and when you're young and cheap, you don't care so much about ethics.

I'm in my 30's now. I'm not as voracious with my music acquisitions. I don't even know how to torrent something and although I imagine it's easy to figure out, I have no desire to learn. The last album I acquired was Grimes "Visions," which I bought on iTunes. And you know what? It was really easy to do that. And it felt good to know I was doing it in a legal and ethical way. I understand lots of people hate on iTunes and Grimes only gets some fraction of my money, but at least it's something, right?

If it's just as easy to get music for free, I think some people will choose to not pay. But at a certain point in your life, if you want to support artists and have the desire to own the music for yourself-- in whatever form that takes-- I think you're willing to pay for it and not deal with the guilty conscience.

Yet something else has changed over the past ten years. Not only am I more discriminating with the music I acquire, I also don't value my music collection as much as I used to. Not as I valued my cd collection back in high school, which I lovingly organized alphabetically, or by genre, sometimes by the color of the album. Not as much as those low quality mp3s I downloaded painstakingly in my Napster days in those first years of college (deleted long ago). My iTunes library is 12,500 songs and feels like a burden. When I bought a new Macbook in January, I only copied a few albums from my old computer. What is going on? Have I burned-out on music? Maybe it's just too easy to listen to music online. Why dig around for a cd or search for it on iTunes if I can just as easily play it in my web browser?

One of the problems with paying for music online, is this: how can anyone be expected to pay much money for something that has little perceived value? I mean, I love music, but an mp3 isn't something I often feel the need to own anymore (aside from the rarities, like Grimes). And this is the problem. And this is what Emily White was getting at.

There's plenty of music available online that is both free and legal, like official Youtube channels, streaming album previews, mp3 samplers from record labels, online radio stations and music podcasts. At work, I listen to a lot of Pandora, which I merely tolerate because I don't have the energy to look for something better. But I feel good knowing I'm technically paying for it because I'm forced to listen to advertising every once in a while and at least Pandora claims to pay artists royalties through SoundExchange.

Maybe the subscription model is the next big thing. I haven't joined Spotify yet, but it lets you listen for a limited amount free with ads, or pay $5 a month to stream unlimited music, ad-free. However, it requires a Facebook account to join, so I'm unclear there's not some hidden costs in terms of privacy. (Does everyone on Facebook need to know how much I listen to Fleetwood Mac?)

It's amazing how entitled we are in terms of online services. I can't believe that I don't pay Google for host my Gmail, blogs, and backups of my dissertations and research papers.  They earn their revenue entirely through AdSense. This is a whole other debate, but it leads me to a similar conclusion, that maybe it's better to just pay money for things.

No comments: