Twisted City by Chris Singleton - album sleeve

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Entries in All Songs Considered (1)


Free music: why David Lowery's letter to Emily White has totally missed the point

David Lowery

Recently musician David Lowery wrote an article on The Trichordist blog where he took a young NPR intern, Emily White, to task for admitting in a blog post that she and her peers didn’t really pay for music in this new-fangled digital era. In a passionate, much-talked-about but ultimately rather over-the-top open letter addressed to her he made the argument that people who did not pay for music were behaving immorally and causing a social injustice; in fact, he went so far as to imply that people who downloaded music for free were guilty of causing the deaths of rock stars. His thoughts went viral and no doubt many of my musician and producer friends clearly sympathised with them, as when I logged into Facebook I found that around 20 musical chums had posted a link to his article. I understand their motives; however – and speaking as a musician myself – I have to take issue with the original blog post.

There are so many things wrong with Lowery’s article and his arguments that it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s begin with economics. When supply outstrips demand, generally speaking prices fall. And when supply seriously outstrips demand, prices approach zero. Which is what has happened with music – there is simply no scarcity of it any more, for two reasons: one, and like it or not, music is now available on millions (billions?) of computers in incredibly easily-to-copy files as opposed to in exclusively physical formats, and two, the revolution in home and project-studio recording means that there has been a huge explosion in the number of recordings available. It doesn’t matter what either Lowery or indeed the ‘adherents of Free Culture’ that he refers to think of the ethics of this situation, the reality of it is that there are just more songs available now – and in incredibly easy-to-avail of formats – than there are people who want to listen to them, with all the inevitable implications this has for the cost and purchasing of music. It’s astonishing that Lowery, who has been teaching music undergraduates about the economics of the music business for the past two years, has not grasped this obvious point (or simply tries to wish it away).

Secondly, throughout his whole article, Lowery ignores something even more obvious: digital revolution or no, the vast majority of musicians have never made much (if any) money out of their art. Let’s go back to 1997, when the Spice Girls were big and, more to the point, before file-sharing had really got off the ground. If you made an album then, you would probably have had to pay a substantial amount of money to record it (it was before the days of 128-track digital multitrackers in every bedroom); you would then have encountered high manufacturing costs (I remember paying £150 to manufacture 10 CDs in 1998); finally, you would have had to work out how on earth you were going to distribute and promote your opus. The upshot? It cost you a truckload of money to make an album; a truckload of money to manufacture it; and after all that you probably wouldn’t have been able to sell it in any meaningful quantities at all, due to shelf space in record shops being so difficult to attain and advertising costs being prohibitive. What did this mean? Any independent musician daft enough to make a record in the 90s would end up selling 5 copies of his album and incurring huge debt.

Contrast that with today. Thanks to inexpensive computers and audio gear, recording is so cheap, it’s practically free; manufacturing is, in the digital realm at least, also free (it doesn’t cost anything to generate an MP3 version of a track); and digital distribution via the likes of iTunes, Amazon and Spotify, is, surprise surprise, more or less free as well. Throw in the potential of (free) social media, email, digital ‘fan-funding’ and cheap online advertising and, if you play your musical cards right, you could actually end up making money from a record that you made for next to nothing. Or, at the very least, generating a decent fanbase that might in the future lead to some sort of income, via live performances, merchandise or other gimmicks. Extremely few musicians will ‘make it’ to the extent that they’ll make a shedload of cash, but that’s always been the case; and at least the current situation means that more musicians than ever before will experience the joy of establishing a fanbase that extends beyond their mum and dad (and it’s worth noting that, believe it or not, some musicians are in it for the listeners rather than the money; if the internet doesn’t provide the latter, it certainly provides the former).

It would have been nice if Lowery had mentioned some of these upsides provided by the digital revolution, or pointed out that musicians now get a whole lot of incredible stuff for free themselves that would have been filed under ‘pipe dream’ in the past (free recording, free manufacturing, free distribution and arguably some free marketing are not to be sniffed at). And you don’t hear Lowery argue, for example, that by opting for the free, ‘self-recording’ approach, musicians have put a lot of recording studios out of business, or caused the deaths of record producers (as somebody who self-produces a hell of a lot of my music, I sincerely hope that I have not inadvertently killed anyone).

Another thing that Lowery is very quiet about in his article is the fact that musicians are by no means the only group that are affected by the digital revolution or the advent of ‘free culture’. The fact is, if you are creating anything that can be turned into a file – be that a news article, a book, a piece of software, a video game or a film – you are presented with exactly the same vexing question that faces musicians: how the hell do I make money out of this content in a context where file-sharing is ubiquitous?

Lowery completely fails to answer this question in any meaningful way – or mention that despite the prevalence of file-sharing and free music there are actually still plenty of ways of monetising music. There are film-sync deals; publishing deals; revenue generated in various ways from advertising; live appearances; merchandise; digital Radiohead-style ‘honesty boxes’; royalties from airplay; and royalties from Youtube video plays. If that’s not enough, it’s important to remember that the profit margins on music that is sold online can be much, much higher than in the ‘good old days’ that Lowery seems to hanker after (particularly where direct sales from websites are concerned). Ok, so you might be selling less music, but what if you are making £6 per album download from your own site, compared to £2 from a CD sold in a HMV store?

This is not to say that making money out of music is in any way easy, but I repeat: it never has been. Getting a successful music project off the ground has always required a whole load of things – I’d like to think that it all comes down to great tunes, but hard work, good hair, good luck, and knowing a bunch of hip journalists are probably far more important.

Throughout rock history, or indeed before anyone recorded any music all, musicians have always complained about how hard it is to make a buck from their art – and Lowery’s blog post, despite its current popularity with many musicians, is just the 21st century (dare I say internet) incarnation of that. It clearly struck a chord with a cash-strapped musical community; but I suspect that the wiser members of that community will see it for what it was – a rock star venting frustration at a lack of sales by first patronising, then picking on, an unsuspecting young intern. It might make him and some other musos feel good for a few minutes, but it probably won’t help him – or the aforementioned musos – make any more money.

Besides all that, I'd love to know if, in his youth, David Lowery ever copied a mate's copy of an album onto one of those quaint blank cassette thingys.

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