Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A letter to David Lowery at Trichordist, Carbon-Copied to Emily White

Dear Mr. Lowery:

Thank you for your well-thought-out reply to Ms. White’s blog at All Things Considered.  As you correctly point out, “fairness for musicians is a problem that requires each of us to individually look at our own actions, values and choices and try to anticipate the consequences of our choices.”  As an amateur musician of little repute and a listener of great passion, this question is a double-edged sword.

It really sucks to be on the “destruction” end of creative destruction, but I think that’s where artists are finding ourselves.  We’re just on the same end of the stick as opera singers and vaudeville performers were when records and movies came out—and I can assure you, it’s not the clean end.  Opera stages and vaudeville theatres made money because the number of seats in the house was, by definition, limited.  They could sell a scarce product, just like fair-trade coffee is scarce.

Their business model was killed off because recording technology allowed the song to be carried outside the walls of the theatre.  And it wasn’t just the people on the stage losing jobs—my grandmother’s nonagenarian friend Polly lost her sweet gig playing piano for the silent movies, too.  The recording industry made money off of recording and distributing tracks, assembled into albums.  But the track is the reification of the song.  The track is not the song.  And while you’re correct that “file sharing sites could get the same license if they wanted to, at least for the songs,” they don’t want to bother because they know that they’re paying for vapor.  File sharing has rendered tracks about as scarce as water.  

Your reasoning is strong, and you are making an important plea for us to recognize the plight of the artist.  But yes, I am asking us “to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change,” because the proverbial cat is out of the bag.  However, you jump right back on the correct-train when you point out the Cloud not being the solution.  The Cloud is siphoning off profits while offering very little, other than convenience.  I say we cut them out of the picture as well.

We as a listening community should share and share alike, burning CDs, e-mailing .torrents, and popularizing our favorite musicians to the best of our abilities.  And then we and our peers must bear the responsibility of supporting the artists.  Instead of relying on corporations to make the bets on musicians, we need to be doing so ourselves, through crowdsourcing platforms (which, although they do skim profits off the top, also provide a credit-card processing feature that I don’t have the knowledge myself to emulate) and through attending shows and tipping the band.  I’m excited to learn about SweetRelief, and that’s another great way to help out. 

As for musicians, we’ve got to be honest with ourselves: the idea that we can buoy ourselves off our past recordings is a thing of the past.  We’ll need to practice music im derech eretz and find some other things to do to get by in the world.  But the best songs we’ve ever written are the ones we haven’t written yet, and as long as we can convince our audiences this is true, I think we’ve got a shot.

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