A college student bragged about her music collection on a Saturday.By Monday, an indie-rock stalwart had a band of fired-up online supporters ready to take her tuition money and distribute it to everyone from Big Star to Yo La Tengo.
On June 18, David Lowery of Camper van Beethoven and Cracker posted a response to a blog post from 21-year-old NPR intern Emily White titled “I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With.” Hers was a millennial’s response to a post from NPR “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen, who deleted 25,000 songs from his iTunes library and put his trust in the cloud.
White saw Boilen’s move as hardly radical as her perspective – along with that of her peers – is that they never truly own music due to a lack of physical purchases. White says she has purchased only 15 CDs in her life yet has an iTunes library of 11,000 songs, created from shared mixtapes, ripping CDs at her college radio station and gifts from a few friends.
“I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums,” White says, noting she never lived in a world where music was thought of as a physical product. “I do think we will pay for convenience,” which leads to her hope of a Spotify-like catalog of music that synchs to the phone and various home entertainment devices.
In his 3,800-word response posted on Trichordist, a community blog that aims to “protect artists’ rights in the digital age,” Lowery wrote that individuals need to pressure governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly when it comes to artists’ rights. “There is a disconnect between college students’ personal behavior and a greater social injustice that is occurring” before specifying that “technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality.”
“By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work,” Lowery wrote. “Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists’ work without their permission on a massive scale and globally.”
Conversely, Lowery sees the Internet as a fabricated version of the physical world, one that emphasizes convenience and speed over the tangible and enduring. “Congratulations,” he wrote, “your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!”
He ultimately asks, “Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?”
Lowery, for those whose musical education skipped college and indie rock of the ’80s and ’90s, founded Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. In the 21st century, while keeping both bands alive and recording his first solo album, he has worked as a financial analyst and lectured at the University of Georgia music business program.
An erudite writer and speaker, Lowery’s words were spread on Twitter by a healthy number of artists responding to his post. John Paul White of the Civil Wars, Michael Penn, Aimee Mann, Chuck Prophet and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie were among the artists cheering from the sidelines.
The debate was passionate: Within five days, White’s column attracted nearly 700 comments on NPR’s “All Songs Considered” blog, and Lowery had 500 mostly positive comments with 48 hours of posting. “All Songs Considered” co-host Robin Hilton weighed in with a milquetoast overview of the situation, saying that NPR looks forward to facilitating the conversation on distributing music and getting musicians paid.
Jay Frank, the former Yahoo Music and CMT executive who wrote the books “Futurehit. DNA” and “Hack Your Hit,” felt both sides were missing a major point.
“While all these independent artists argue thievery, do you know who’s winning? Major labels,” he posted on his site, FutureHitDNA.com. “Major labels have figured out that the game is about exposure and awareness . . . It’s not about royalty rates, thievery or even quality of music. It’s all about how I get people to know I exist.”
Yo La Tango, one of the bands White name-checked as a favorite after securing its music from a high school friend, tweeted a final thought for her: “Dear Emily White, someone around here can show you where to buy our records now. ps we just stole your bike.”••••