Passions ran high Friday evening at what was described by its organizers as “an artists’ panel” in the Austin Convention Center for SXSW. The distinction was deliberate -- too many panels and presentations at this conference had failed to represent the artist’s perspective, the organizers argued.
Daryl Friedman, VP of advocacy for the Recording Academy, moderated the panel, which bore the provocative title “Who’s Ripping Me Off Now?” He was joined by David Lowery, the artist and producer who ignited a firestorm online last year thanks to his critical letter to NPR intern Emily White, who blogged openly on the site about having never paid for music. East Bay Ray, guitarist for the punk band the Dead Kennedys, and Nakia, an Austin-based singer/songwriter and former contestant on NBC’s “The Voice.”
Lowery kicked things off by addressing his high-profile spat with White, who recently spoke out about the incident for the first time in an Op-Ed for Billboard.biz.
“I read what she wrote and it seems like she’s been thinking about things a little bit more,” he said. “I’m glad that we’re all thinking about this more.”
Lowery was less gracious toward those who he said were behind a campaign of “willful corporate ignorance” about the harmful effects of illegal downloading. He showed a PowerPoint presentation likening those wh oclaim filesharing doesn’t take money from artists to climate deniers and people who think President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim.
Lowery argued that filesharing sites hurt artists not only by dragging down sales on legitimate online markets like iTunes and Amazon, but by competing for ad dollars with streaming sites like Spotify and YouTube.
He said Google was complicit in this problem because it profits from ad sales to pirate sites. As evidence, he showed a screen-captured Google search for “Carly Rae Jepsen Call Me Maybe download” where the majority of results pointed to illegal download sites running ads sold by Google’s DoubleClick.
In a screen-grab of his own, East Bay Ray showed ads from Alaskan Airlines and 1-800 Flowers running on what he said was a Russian pirate website offering illegal Dead Kennedys mp3s.
Friedman asked why big companies allow their brands to be associated with these sites.
“The rationale you get from them is that they don’t have control of where the ads show up,” Lowery said. “But you won’t ever see their ads on porn sites, so somebody’s lying.”
East Bay Ray compared those who profit from artists’ work without compensating them to “pimps who underpay their girls.”
“Actually, pimps are a little better because at least they pay them something,” he said.
Nakia, who said he “downloaded music all the time” in the days of Napster, admitted he was of two minds after becoming an artist himself. On the one hand, he wants to make money from recorded music in addition to other avenues -- but on the other, he still wants to reach as broad an audience as possible.
East Bay Ray sympathized with that sentiment, saying the important thing was that artists have a choice in how their music is disseminated.
“What matters is consent,” he said. “Because otherwise it’s almost like forced labor.”
Lowery said it was incumbent on artists to speak out about the importance of paying for music. Many artists who defer to corporate interests suffer from a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome,” he said.
“Lars Ulrich was the first to speak out and they put his head on a stake,” Lowery said, referring to the backlash against the Metallica singer after he took Napster to court in 2000. “But Ulrich was right. If you go back and watch his interview with Charlie Rose, everything he said came true. The technologists were wrong.”
During the Q&A portion of the panel, the room became critical of the SXSW conference itself. The Interactive segment, in particular, was accused of cheerleading advances in technology without regard to their impact on arts communities.
“That’s a really good point,” said Friedman. “We should all reach out to our contacts and tell them that. Next year, every panel should have artists on it.”