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Everything Is Free

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Everything Is Free

Everything is free now, that’s what they say

Everything I’ve ever done, they’re gonna give it away

Someone hit the big score, they figured it out

That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay

- Gillian Welch, “Everything is Free”

 

It’s been almost eleven years since the release of Gillian Welch’s haunting lament about the digital music age.  The song itself is both beautiful and bitter, an elegy for a dying industry of the past and yet also prophetic of a new age.  Since the turn of the millennium, music revenues have spiraled as labels and artists alike have scrambled to find a new revenue model in the wake of the advent of the “free download.”  And anyone who aspires to make music for a living has had to reassess the landscape, recalibrate their goals, and forge ahead through uncharted territory.  It has been a time of great upheaval, and only now are we beginning to see what the results of the digital music age are, what kind of musical landscape it has wrought, and what the future may hold.  But whether you think the future will be a good time or bad time for music depends quite a lot on your perspective.

 

 

In February 2012, David Lowery gave an eye-opening presentation at the SF MusicTech Summit.  For those of you who don’t know, Lowery was the lead singer and songwriter for the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven.  He is now a platinum-selling producer and a music business lecturer at the University of Georgia.  His presentation “Meet the New Boss, Worse than the Old Boss?” asks the basic question: Is the new digital model better for the artist than the old major record label model?

His answer is a resounding “No.”  From his introduction:

“I was like all of you.  I believed in the promise of the internet to liberate, empower and even enrich artists… But the music business never transformed into the vibrant marketplace where small stakeholders could compete with multinational conglomerates on an even playing field. In the last few years it’s become apparent the music business, which was once dominated by six large and powerful music conglomerates, MTV, Clear Channel and a handful of other companies, is now dominated by a smaller set of larger even more powerful tech conglomerates.  And their hold on the business seems to be getting stronger… In fact it is nigh impossible for me to pursue my craft without enriching Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google.  Further, the new boss, through its surrogates like Electronic Frontier Foundation, seems to be waging a cynical PR campaign that equates the unauthorized use of other people’s property (artist’s songs) with freedom… I say cynical because when it comes to their intellectual property, software patents for instance, these same companies fight tooth and nail… The other problem?  I’ve been expecting for years now to see the aggregate revenue flowing to artists to increase.  Disintermediation promised us this.  It hasn’t happened.  Everywhere I look artists seem to be working more for less money.  And every time I come across aggregate data that is positive it turns out to have a black cloud inside.”

 

David Lowery

 

In over 50 pages of assembled data, Lowery goes on to make a thoroughly convincing case that things have not improved financially for music artists in the digital age.  In fact, they are drastically worse than they were under the old major label regime of the 60s-90s.  But in spite of this fact, according to Lowery, the Digerati continue to propagate the dual myths that 1) free music is an inevitable side-effect of the digital revolution and 2) this will ultimately prove to be better financially for the artists themselves.  In the course of his presentation, Lowery refutes these myths and says the only reasoning behind the Digerati’s advocacy of them is the fact that, “These people believe in technology like it’s a religion.”

Lowery’s central thesis revolves around the fact that “we are no longer searching for a ‘new’ digital model.  It’s here.  It’s been stable for at least 6 years.  It sucks.”  Under the old model, major labels—while often greedy and/or corrupt—would at least assume most of the risk associated with creating and releasing an album by paying advances to artists.  Whereas, among the digital conglomerates now controlling the industry, “the biggest players assume almost no risk and share zero capital.”  But not only does the artist now have to assume all of the risky capital outlay associated with recording an album, a typical artist makes less per album sold—once you factor in the cost of the album, marketing, distributing, etc.—than they did under the old model ($2.51 per album under the old model, $2.05 under the new, according to Lowery’s calculations).  Finally, thanks to free downloads, fewer albums are currently being purchased than at any other time in the last 40 years.

So, to sum up the simple equation Lowery presents, artists are assuming more risk in order to record than they were 15 years ago, yet they are selling fewer albums and making less per album sold.  This is not exactly encouraging news for aspiring musicians.  But he doesn’t simply lay the blame at the feet of the Digerati.  He also calls out all the illegal downloaders out there.  Regardless of how prevalent illegal downloading is, it is still illegal.  Songs are very clearly intellectual property covered by existing U.S. (and international) copyright law, and anyone who illegally downloads a song is stealing, plain and simple.  Making the excuse that music should be free because “the consumer wants music to be free” is, according to Lowery, ridiculous.  “The consumer also wants cars to be free,” he points out.  “And beer.  Especially beer.  But any market involves a buyer and a seller.  A consumer and a producer.  If GM can’t afford to give away their product for free it ain’t gonna happen.  No matter what the consumer wants.”

 

Hold on a second...  Did someone say free beer?

 

Finally, Lowery concludes:

“I think I’ve demonstrated how important it was to the old system that record labels shared risk and invested capital in the creation of music… But I’ve yet to explain why it is that The New Boss refuses to share risk and invest in content creation. I mean the old record labels eventually saw that it was in their long term interest to do so.  My only explanation is that there is just something fundamentally wrong with how many in the tech industry look at the world.  They are deluded somehow… Taking no risk and paying nothing to the content creators is built into the collective psyche of the Tech industry.  They do not value content.  They only see THEIR services as valuable.  They are the Masters of the Universe.  They bring all that is good. Content magically appears on their blessed networks.  I’m using this language for good reason. There is a quasi-religious tone to many tech convention speeches and press releases.  What other industry constantly professes utopian visions for all humanity?  What other industry would dare proclaim they were liberating artists?  Students?  Workers?  What other industry thinks they are mystical shaman, ‘Let’s send our magic objects, our laptops, to poor children in third world countries.’  What other industry genuinely believes they (and only they) possess the lapis philosophorum?  They have even created their own God.  A Superhuman intelligence that they (naturally) have created.  The singularity.  Their egos know no bounds.  Not only is the New Boss worse than the Old Boss.  The New Boss creeps me out.”

 

 

The Gravest Sin

Do you know the Sufi religion?  The Sufi religion believes that if you craft your art for commercialism it’s the gravest sin.  The gravest sin.  It’s so disgusting to them; it’s worse than being a pedophile.  Of course, the rest of us believe there’s a balance.”

- Fred Eaglesmith, Mule Variations Interview, January 2011

 

David Lowery’s critique of the digital music industry is incredibly compelling.  And, as long as you are a believer in things like corporate fairness and the rule of law, it is hard to refute any of his meticulously researched assertions.  But it’s also important to recognize the underlying assumptions that make his assessment of the music industry possible.  Lowery’s assessment assumes a capitalist model in which everything, from ham sandwiches to love songs, is a commodity.  And so it presupposes that art can be classified as something called “intellectual property,” a concept that isn’t exactly brand new, but isn’t exactly old either—few people prior to the 20th century would have been familiar with the concept, let alone the term.  It can be easy to forget that art—and music in particular—existed long before the advent of digital downloads or major labels.  It existed long before it was classified as “intellectual property.”  It existed prior to the relatively recent advent of recorded music.  In fact, it almost certainly existed prior to recorded history itself.

And so when Gillian Welch opines,

Every day I wake up humming a song

But I don’t need to run around, I’ll just stay at home

And sing a little love song, my love and myself

If it’s something that you wanna hear, you can sing it yourself

‘Cause everything is free now…

She’s really just describing the way music was created and experienced for most of human history prior to the advent of recorded music.  The idea of a national or international industry that protects copyrights and sees to it that performing artists are financially compensated for their compositions and recordings was something new to the 20th Century.  The phonograph wasn’t introduced until 1877, and records weren’t mass produced until the 1890s.  Even though we take the technological advancements of our age—and the laws that have sprung up in their wake—for granted, a shared popular culture (and therefore the desirability of mass-production and mass-marketing) is a relatively recent development.  Radio wasn’t commonplace until the 1920s, television until the 1950s, computers until the 1980s, internet until the 1990s, etc.

 

 

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, one of the projects taken on by music-loving sociologists like Harry Smith and Neil and Alan Lomax was to travel the country and make “field recordings” documenting the folk songs and traditions that existed in the various isolated pockets of America, from the Appalachian backwoods to the Mississippi Delta.  Sure, some natural overlap and exchange of influence was visible between these pockets; perhaps a traveler would bring his guitar with him on a trip and share a song with friends or relatives living somewhere else.  But there was nothing like the monolithic popular culture that emerged in the second half of the 20th Century.  Prior to that, only a small percentage of songs were committed to sheet music.  And while there were some songs that were passed down by oral tradition long enough that they survived to be recorded by the likes of Smith and Lomax, the vast majority of songs were never recorded in any way; they are lost to history.  And the concept of songs being the personal property of their composers?  The assertion that being financially compensated for writing them is some sort of God-given right?  These are recent developments, too.  Prior to the 20th Century, the only composers being regularly compensated for their work were the classical composers in the royal courts who depended on the fickle benevolence of the king or some other wealthy benefactor.

My reason for pointing this out is not to argue that this pre-20th Century arrangement was necessarily better or worse for music artists or the public at large.  It’s simply a reminder that the “Old Boss” that Lowery repeatedly references isn’t all that old.  Prior to the advent of recorded music, the vast majority of music was created for personal gratification or enjoyment, sometimes with the intention of being shared within the community, sometimes even out of personal necessity.  As Fred Eaglesmith points out in his Mule interview:

“I have a friend in Tennessee who collects old songs; he’s A.P. Carter’s grandson.  He sings these songs, he doesn’t write them, but he finds them, and they’re the most disgustingly heartbreaking songs you’ve ever heard.  And they’re written by postmen and stuff, because they feel it.  They’re not kidding.  They’re not trying to be famous.  They’re just trying to get it off their chest.  Or you hear those old miners’ songs, where the mine has closed down and the wives aren’t even singers, but instead of talking, they start singing, ‘And then the thugs came and beat up my husband, and now he’s gone.’  They broke into song.  They were making it up on the spot.  It just sends chills through you to the floor.  And that’s a part of music we’re all missing.  We’re missing that sort of world.”

 

A.P. Carter and family

 

As soon as people began composing music for a mass audience rather than for themselves or the members of their immediate community—and as soon as it became financially profitable to do so—a certain purity of intention was lost.  Playing music, even within smaller communities, may have always offered a certain amount of social capital; the smallest social communities still have their heartthrobs and ladies’ men.  But the prospect of international fame and riches was an altogether new development.  This was the tradeoff for being able to disseminate music around the globe.  Something was certainly gained in the tradeoff (the ability to listen to music from around the country and around the world), but something was lost as well.  And the promise of massive wealth and fame—pop stardom—inevitably led to a new type of musician who had very different reasons for creating music than the miners’ wives Eaglesmith cites.  As KISS’s Gene Simmons, one of rock’s most unabashed capitalists, famously said, “I believe in my heart that anyone who gets up there and says what they’re doing is art is on crack, and is delusional, and that in point of fact… it was to get laid and make lots of money.  And anybody who tells you otherwise is lying to you.”

Simmons attitude was a new option for the aspiring musician, the inevitable result of an industry where the promise of wealth and fame had become part of the music-making equation.  But there is also another factor that Lowery barely touches on in his assessment of the current music world.  Yes, as he points out, the major labels did invest in the music.  But they also demanded something in return: creative control.  And for most of the rock era, they demanded hits in return for their benevolence.  For years, the most dreaded words from a major label were, “Sorry, I don’t hear a single.”  The hit-single mentality was another result of the conflagration of music, money and popular culture, and it had a profound influence on the way songs were conceived and written, an influence still felt today.  The professional Nashville songwriters who head to the office from 9-5 every day and use formulas to write pop hits for vapid superstars are the descendants of the Tin Pan Alley songsmiths, who emerged in the 1870s as a result of the popular demand for saleable sheet music.

 

Songwriter "Dr." Luke with Katy Perry

 

Another weakness of Lowery’s argument is the fact that the “golden era” of revenues for the rock industry and rock artists was 1995-2000 (Lowery uses the year 1996 as his representative year of the “old” regime), when music industry sales topped the $1 Billion/year mark for the first and only time in history.  As most music fans will tell you, this period of peak profitability coincided with the lowest point creatively since rock’s birth in the mid-50s (Creed, anyone?  Limp Bizkit?).  All that profitability just meant more profit-seekers looking to, in the words of Jon Busch, “milk the golden calf of rock and roll.”  When you look at the music produced in the late 90s, it becomes clear that Lowery’s use of “financial profitability” as the measure of the music industry in a given era isn’t necessarily the best measure.  Maybe a better measure is the quality of the music being produced in that era.  And by that measurement, there seems to be far more great rock music being produced today than there was 15 years ago (from Beach House to Bon Iver to Arcade Fire to The National to Sigur Ros, etc.—just insert your own personal favorites here), even if there are fewer profits going around.  And that certainly says something about the current music climate.  For a music fan like myself, it’s hard to imagine a better time for music.  And as a talent buyer at a music venue, I’m constantly floored by how much great underground rock music I come in contact with.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Inexpensive home recording equipment and the advent of the internet sales/downloads means that bands can make and distribute their music without having to go through the major label gatekeepers.  Music sales may not be netting artists as much money as they did a few years ago, but artists have gained something in the trade-off.  They are free to create any music they want without having to bow to pressure for hit singles and marketability.  This is the other side of Gillian Welch’s “everything is free” lament.  Yes, there may be free music floating around, but the artists themselves are free, too.  And just as Welch predicted, the passionate musicians are continuing to “do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.”  Maybe the fact that there is less pay in rock music is weeding out some of the Gene Simmons-esque profit-seekers.  Maybe some of the purity of intention that was lost in the 20th Century is becoming possible to regain.

 

Mississippi John Hurt and Elmore James

 

This doesn’t justify the way digital corporations from Spotify to YouTube are profiting off free content without adequately compensating the artists who provide them with that content.  And anyone with any sense of fairness at all will agree with Lowery that the current system isn’t fair.  But achieving financial profit has never been the primary goal of great art.  There have always been rich artists and starving artists, but for all of the great artists, the art itself has been a greater reward than the money received for it (Gene Simmons notwithstanding).  Artists create art.  If they can make a living creating that art, all the better.  Perhaps remembering that great art—not great profit—is the goal of the artist will serve as some small comfort to the legions of musicians being fleeced by the industry.  But whatever musicians think of the current system, they are certainly creating some breathtaking art.  And it is clear that Lowery’s doom and gloom outlook isn’t the only way to view the current music landscape.  To quote author and music fan Nick Hornby’s recent Guardian article:

“I don’t know how it will all pan out, who will pay the artists to make their lovely or ugly or scary music in a world that’s increasingly beginning to expect everything for free… All I know is that if you love music, and you have a curious mind, there has never been a better time to be alive.”

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Chris Madin
[ 06/04/12 1:35 AM ]
great article

Fascinating. Another perspective that this raises is the whole sort of "middle class" of musicians. I assume that the numbers cited on album sales in the two eras refers to artists on record labels. But before the modern paradigm, if you were not on a record label, it seems to me that it was almost impossible to make money at all, much less make a living. But the thing that is (at least theoretically) possible now is for bands without label support to actually record good music, sell it without label and radio support, book shows, and potentially make a living (or at least some $). So I suspect that while the new era might not be any better for successful bands or bands with label support, it probably does offer many more bands who never would have won the record label lottery the opportunity to achieve moderate success (and with greater artistic freedom, as the article pointed out)...

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