Can music industry survive by convincing young people that paying for tunes is a moral act?
Last year, I had dinner with a few old college friends who are talented veterans of the music industry.
Between them, they've worked with several big name artists as producers, songwriters and/or backup musicians. And the stories they told were hair-raising.
Fans only see the opulent lives of huge stars such as Lady Gaga and Kanye West. But these folks were the working stiffs of the music world -- talented performers and producers who helped craft the live shows and records everyone enjoys, and they were watching the Internet eat the heart out of their industry's economics.
I thought of them while reading this essay from an intern at NPR who admitted she hadn't paid for many of the 11,000 songs clogging her music library. Few were illegally downloaded; many had been given to her by friends or taken from CDs at a radio station where she had worked.
The piece seemed focused on talking about how many twentysomethingshave grown up without physical repositories for their music such as CDs or record albums.
But it also inadvertently raised another question: How to convince young people that getting songs for free -- however they come to you -- hurts the artist?
I'll admit, it's something I didn't think about much while working as a music critic. Often, I would add CDs sent to me as promotional copies by record companies to my own library, much in the same way described in the NPR essay, with little thought to the impact of my choices on the artists.
But, as Cracker co-founder David Lowery at The Trichordist blog points out in an amazing essay, even that act robs deserving artists of compensation for their hard work.
Comparing taking music for free digitally to looting a store because you know police aren't guarding it -- while big companies such as Google are basically giving you maps to the store and burglary tools -- the author makes a passionate argument for convincing young people to think more about paying for their music as a act of social responsibility, in the same way they might recycle a plastic bottle or drive an eco-friendly car.
The essay reads: "On a personal level, I have witnessed the impoverishment of many critically acclaimed but marginally commercial artists. In particular, two dear friends: Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Chesnutt. Both of these artists, despite growing global popularity, saw their total incomes fall in the last decade. There is no other explanation except for the fact that “fans” made the unethical choice to take their music without compensating these artists.
"Shortly before Christmas 2009, Vic took his life. He was my neighbor, and I was there as they put him in the ambulance. On March 6th, 2010, Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart. Anybody who knew either of these musicians will tell you that the pair suffered depression. They will also tell you their situation was worsened by their financial situation. Vic was deeply in debt to hospitals and, at the time, was publicly complaining about losing his home. Mark was living in abject squalor in his remote studio in the Smokey Mountains without adequate access to the mental health care he so desperately needed.
"I present these two stories to you not because I’m pointing fingers or want to shame you. I just want to illustrate that “small” personal decisions have very real consequences, particularly when millions of people make the decision not to compensate artists they supposedly “love”. And it is up to us individually to examine the consequences of our actions. It is not up to governments or corporations to make us choose to behave ethically. We have to do that ourselves."
The SF Weekly blog adds to the discussion with a list of 8 reasons to pay for music.
Writing for Time magazine, James Poniewozik notes there's been lots of chewing over the ethics of this for years, and that people do pay for cable, Internet access and iPads; perhaps they've just decided after all that, they're done paying.
But in those cases, people are paying for distribution -- access to cable TV systems, Internet accounts or iPad/iPhone apps -- and the payment for the intellectual property delivered on them is included.
That's the way we're used to payment for media content working, even in the modern world. Paying for access to distribution -- whether its buying a newspaper or sitting through advertisements in a network TV show -- also pays for the cost of creating the content.
But digital technology has now divided that process. You can pay one company for access to the Internet and access material created by an entirely separate company. Or you can buy a smartphone and use its apps to access material created by a company spearate from the people who made the device. In these cases, paying for access to distribution doesn't reward the people making the content you also access.
That, as Poniewozik points out, affects media outside of the music business, with implications for TV, radio, film and beyond.
Cynics among us will sneer at the idea of asking consumers to ignore the convenience of digital technologies, pointing fingers at other industries -- including newspapers -- which are also finding their economic models steamrollered by the online media revolution.
And as an increasingly old fart with a good job who can afford to buy most of his music through iTunes, it's easy for me to showcase this argument now.
But I think it's worth making the case that fans who really love music and musicians might want to think about paying for the stuff the same way they work to reduce their carbon footprint or avoid patronizing companies which use sweatshop labor.
If a village can push Apple to reform its factories, maybe it can help some talented artists earn a middle class living for their achievements.