Month: January 2012

Music Monday: The value of music

Instead of blogging about a musician or band this morning for Music Monday, I wanted to ponder the value of music in today’s mostly digital marketplace.

More to the point, I want to ask: Do you believe it’s OK to download music for free, without giving anything to the artist?

This is not a new discussion or a new issue – it’s one that’s been happening for more than a decade.

As music sales have moved from brick-and-mortar stores and physical music platforms like CDs to digital files, so has the ability to access MP3s and music files online. Napster was the first platform to encourage music trading, but even without it around, a thousand others have popped up in its wake.

And the concept of “owning” a piece of music vs. having access to it on a smartphone or computer is an increasingly gray area, thanks to new platforms like Spotify, which uses a mixture of music files and its own radio station.

I guess my debate is more of a moral one: why do so many people think it’s perfectly OK to take something without paying for it?

One argument that’s always put forth is that all record companies are evil behemoths and won’t miss the money. Yes, many record companies past and present have only a tenuous connection to the artistic side of the process, if they have one at all. Many labels have mishandled artists or mismanaged their money or made decisions that were good for business but bad for art. No doubt about that.

But if a record company is not paid for the product that it distributed, I can guarantee it won’t be their general ledger that takes a hit. The artist will. And that’s likely why artists are now consistently saying they make no money whatsoever on an album. Touring is their sole way to make money from the music they create and play.

The second argument is more troublesome to me, and the argument is essentially this: I’m [fill in the blank: unemployed, underemployed, poor] and can’t afford to buy this music, so I’ll just download it.

But that’s never made sense to me. The inability to pay for an item does not entitle you to have it for free. The fact that people think that it does just reeks of entitlement. (To be blunt, for many of the people I’ve heard this argument from, it’s also a serious case of white privilege and veiled racism.)

When people loot during a crisis, there’s almost universal condemnation of that action. And it is morally wrong. It’s often an act perpetrated by people who are poor and who may be looting for the basics of life to survive.

Downloading music and not paying for it? Is digital looting.

Is my own conscience clear? I feel that it is. I pay for files on iTunes. I think there’s been maybe two or three times that I’ve downloaded a file; in all those cases, it was a “leaked track” by one of my favorite artists. I knew the moment it became available I was buying the entire album.

For a few older albums, I “ripped” the album from a physical CD into my iTunes library. I bought those albums several times over (on vinyl and cassette) so I know that I’ve paid for the music.

And I still make mixtapes, so to speak (on CD now). So I do share songs with friends. But (a) I’ve paid for the song/album and (b) if I share it, it’s not going to be shared into infinity with thousands of users. And (c) I’ve introduced people to music which in many cases spurred them to buy the entire album and/or other music by the same artist.

Maybe it’s just me entering the hey-you-kids-get-off-of-my-lawn phase, but it really troubles me that so many people see no issue with stealing music.

Because no matter how many ways we slice it, my final thought always comes back to this: How would you feel if you worked for a week, or two weeks, or whatever your pay cycle is….

….and on payday, the end users of your company’s product came to your office/store/widget factory and said, “Hey, we’re taking your paycheck. We appreciate your work, but don’t think you should be paid for it. Thanks!”

I’m guessing mass rioting would occur. So if it’s not ethical if someone does it to you, why would it be ethical to take the value (perceived or monetary) of someone else’s work and assume it as your property?

Music Monday: Arthur Russell

After a long hiatus I’m going to revive Music Monday on this blog. It’s a good icebreaker for the week!

I’ve been exploring the music of Arthur Russell over the last few months. I first heard of him when I heard a cover of his song “Get Around To It” on a solo album by Tracey Thorn, the voice of Everything But The Girl. A few months later, I heard his version and found some of his music on iTunes.

Russell was an unconventional singer/songwriter, with an unusual voice. During his early career he wrote several disco songs. “Tell You” was a song he wrote as part of a disco collaboration, Loose Joints.

In Russell’s music and his approach, I see (and hear) parallels to musicians and songwriters like Radiohead and Andrew Bird, especially in some of his later music – layers of sound and atmosphere that are catchy, and yet don’t exist within the boundaries of a three-and-a-half minute pop song. One of my favorites is “Make 1, 2.”

Russell was apparently a legend or sorts in New York – a closely guarded man who, when seen in public, was often listening to his own music so he could rework and tweak it. He may have been deep into disco music, but he was also a trained classical musician and tried to merge those worlds (much as Bird now does with rock/pop, violin and whistling).

Russell died in 1992 of AIDS, and it’s been in just the last few years that his work has been rediscovered. There’s a documentary of his life and work, Wild Combination, that I’m hoping to see soon. This is a trailer for the film:

The music is so intriguing and quirky and alive to me. And there’s something compelling about his life story, as well. There’s something very Beethoven-esque about music being both Russell’s joy as well as the thing that made him slightly mad.