Guest Post: Music Owns Me, by Emily White

Last June, I wrote an essay for NPR's All Songs Considered Blog called “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With.” In it, I explained that although I am an active music fan, I don’t feel a sense of ownership of recorded music, partially because I’ve grown accustomed to getting it for free. Since that largely leaves music creators without compensation, I suggested a way to pay to keep the access to music I’m used to: a streaming service that fairly compensates the artists I love. 

If you are reading this article, there is a good chance you know what happened next. I thrust myself into a debate about intellectual property as sensitive as an exposed nerve and became a symbol for many things I don’t really believe in. In the weeks and months that followed, my article took on a life of its own.

I chose not to respond initially because the numerous replies and debates the original article sparked said enough. I’m content with being the catalyst for the discussion, even if it attracted some criticism and negative attention, because understanding the many different ways people consume music today is vital to finding that elusive sustainable revenue stream for artists.

I wrote the article because I wanted to humanize a change in music ownership that has immensely impacted the recording industry. I wanted to show that people who are so hungry for new music they’ll find any way to get it can also stop to evaluate what their choices mean for artists’ rights. I wrote it because I didn’t think generations who grew up with essentially free access to music would ever perceive monetary value in it, and I wondered what that would mean for the future.

One inspiration for the article was an RIAA and Universal Music focus group I participated in about the music-acquiring habits of high-school-to-college-aged students and their perception of the industry. I talked a lot about how being a part of my college radio station opened me up to music I never would have discovered on my own. The high school students talked about listening to music on YouTube and Grooveshark.

We were all scolded for our music-acquiring habits. The session revealed to me a huge disconnect between how I was listening to music and the way the industry perceived it.

The more we can learn about the different ways people discover, share, listen and pay for music, the better the industry can adapt to those changes in a way that benefits both consumers and creators.

In the future, I hope instead of using guilt to persuade young fans to pay for music, we focus on informing those fans how the musicians they love actually make a living. I hope with that information, some of the people who grew up with the most access to free content will in turn become patrons -- the biggest supporters of the things they love, whether it’s Grizzly Bear, NPR or fair trade coffee.

Of course, in the same way not all artists can also be business people, not all fans can or will become selfless consumers. I hope we grow to accept that the failure to acknowledge how younger generations of fans listen to music will only hurt artists in the long run. Spending $7 on an overpriced beer at a concert instead of an album at the merch table is a choice rooted in economics, not ethics. But hey, if I could download free beer, I’d do that too.

I’ve chosen to respond now because in the months since my article was published, so many of the discussions about the ethics of file sharing, royalty payouts from streaming services and the future of music in general have boiled incredibly multifaceted issues down to a generational divide. (Also, Billboard asked, and the time felt right.) I’m guilty of doing the same thing in my original post and I’ve watched myself become a symbol because of it. But as important as these discussions are, pitting the old against the new often just misses the point.

I feel like we can all agree on one thing: we want good artists to continue making good music. And to do that, those artists must be able to support themselves. As simple as that might seem, the response to my article showed me just how far we truly are from building a healthy and sustainable music market.

Amid all of the talk about the measly payouts artists receive from streaming in the past year, the voice that struck me the most was that of Jana Hunter from Lower Dens in a brave critique of the implications of Spotify on her Tumblr:

“If you consume all the music you want all the time, compulsively, sweatily, you end up having a cheap relationship to themusic you do listen to. In turn, this kind of market makes for musicians who are writing with the burden of having to get your attention, instead of writing whatever they’d write if they were just following artistic impulses.”

I once felt that way too. When my college radio station was pressured by the university to get rid of our physical collection, I worried that the DJs would have a cheaper relationship with music they couldn’t actually hold, and would just play artists they were already familiar with. But what I’ve experienced through streaming is the exact opposite. My tastes are more adventurous, I am passionate about more artists, my relationship with the music is stronger and I put more money into concert tickets, t-shirts, vinyl and posters than I ever have before. 

Imagine a scenario in which streaming does scale – in which subscriptions to music streaming services are as commonplace as phone and water bills. In a recent New York Times article, veteran music-business attorney Donald Passman suggests that as streaming become mainstream, royalty rates will increase, as they did with CDs. What if every single time I heard a song, the artist got paid an appropriate amount?

In the past year, with few exceptions, I have almost completely transitioned from “ownership” to access. I don’t mind the transition because I’ve never felt sentimentality towards any of the digital files I’ve amassed, whether they were bought on iTunes, burned from friends or from one of those now-infamous 15 CDs I bought. Booking a local band to play in a basement on my college campus or the band posters that plaster my apartment walls are things that I feel ownership of. The files that sit in the glut of my hard-drive are meaningless to me. But the music -- and the way it has affected and changed my life -- isn’t.

I don’t regret how I’ve acquired music over the past 21 years because I simply wouldn’t be the person I am today without the music that sucker-punched me as a teenager. I never owned any music to begin with, because music owns me. And my attempt to share my experience with music has always been driven by a desire to see the musicians who created that music get compensated in a fair and realistic way.

Traditionally, when people pay for music so much of that money goes to the cost of the container, experience, convenience or curation -- but not the music itself. Huge amounts of money are still made around music, but little of that money makes it back to artists. It’s really time to start paying the creators instead of the containers. 

I still don’t foresee future generations paying for music on a per unit basis, but I do see them paying for a way to listen to music and support artists with the fewest barriers possible. That service doesn’t quite exist yet, but I don’t think it is too much to ask for and I don’t think we are that far away from it. Waiting around for streaming services to scale will be frustrating. But I fear that through the negative discourse, the amazing potential of streaming will be overlooked.

In a recent profile of the DIY punk label Don Giovanni Records, Larry Livermore wrote, “Money and music have always been uneasy bedfellows, but bedfellows nonetheless.” (And as cofounder of Lookout Records, he would know.) Talking about money and music can be an uncomfortable, sensitive and divisive subject—I found that out the hard way. But it’s a conversation about two "bedfellows nonetheless" that needs to be had in order for music as we know it to continue to exist. welcomes responsible commentary. Please contact with ideas.