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All Judgements Considered

There has very recently been a series of reactionary editorials bandying about in cyberspace regarding the fair compensation of artists in today’s technological landscape. This NPR editorial begat this NPR editorial, which was met with this response by a mainstream artist, that led to this reponse by a reasonably successful indie artist. Unsurprisingly, they all had different viewpoints on the way music is changing, and the way these changes apparently aren’t being adapted to by some musicians who once were able to somehow make a living off of record sales. If you choose to indulge in these articles, please set aside a fair amount of time, especially for Lowery’s editorial, which, despite him stating otherwise, comes off as wholly condescending, judgmental, and ridiculously unrealistic. 

Now I fit in kind of on the lower end of the age spectrum here, and that’s important. I’d say about a decade separates me from Emily White and Travis Morrison, who is roughly a decade younger than David Lowery. I was old enough to see the transition from cassettes to CDs, and to live through most of my childhood without much worthwhile internet access. I certainly did make cassette dubs of other people’s records, and I recorded the hell out of college radio, an act I hold in the highest of importance regarding my understanding of music. I remember when burning CDs was a brand new venture, one that I had trouble believing was possible. I remember Napster. I was also heavily involved with my college’s radio station for every year of my undergraduate studies, and took advantage of promos and library access with reckless abandon.

I am also a musician that has played in many bands, and has had many records released by said bands on extremely small indie labels. As such, I can barely relate to Travis Morrison’s success with his band The Dismemberment Plan. Lowery’s bands might as well be Def Leopard. Whatever that guy is complaining about in regards to music is outside of my realm of understanding, even if his first band was supposedly a purveyor of “DIY ethics” (probably before signing to a major label).

The main thrust of my argument is that the all-important record label, something Lowery seems strangely bent on defending, is becoming increasingly less important. In fact, I’d say that outside of making really sexy looking limited-run LPs for niche audiences who enjoy such things, they’re borderline irrelevant now. I also bet that record labels are more of a hindrance to a lot of important older music that nobody will ever legally get to hear because the label-owned recording has gone out of print, and/or is mired in red tape.

That brings me to the main point that isn’t addressed by any of the aforementioned articles. I think it would better serve music as a whole to try and use today’s technology to empower both the artist and music fan, and not make them both feel like they’re indebted to an antiquated business model or faceless company. Is there an alternative to buying a physical copy (which people don’t generally seem to want anymore), legally streaming the music (which apparently doesn’t compensate artists fairly), or downloading it legally (which not enough people seem to do)? One alternative is to completely cut the label out of the equation. Distribution channels are no longer monopolized by big labels, and if you need a loan, go to the bank, or better yet, start a kickstarter account. While you’re at it, start a PayPal account, too and/or a site like bandcamp so people can buy directly from you (and in a variety of file types to boot). As usual, it’s up to the band to figure out ways to get exposure, but, these days, putting yourself in a situation where you need to move 10,000 “units” before seeing a profit is absolutely ludicrous. It’s sad that Lowery won’t get a chance to issue his band’s older recordings this way unless he keeps waiting, or buys the masters from the label for exorbitant amounts, but that’s the legacy of the record label in 2012. I suppose he could set up a personal donation page if he doesn’t mind Virgin not getting a cut.

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