Letter to David Lowery

David Lowery wrote a tremendously compelling piece on his blog responding to a self-professed music lover with 11,000 songs, of which only about 15 albums are legally owned.

David:

My mind is all over the place as I write this. I’m troubled as this is the second time this week I’ve read about Spotify’s per-stream rates being dismal, David McCandless put things into perspective with a great infographic, and your own blog puts them at $0.005 per play which is actually about the highest I’ve seen. Spotify, for me, has been the service that I wish I had years ago. I use it primarily as a music exploration tool, and if I find that I’m listening to one album a lot, I buy a digital copy, either through iTunes or Amazon MP3, or occasionally buy physical CDs for their liner notes or if they include something neat like a poster. Spotify has connected me to artists I’d have never found otherwise, and it has saved me from making purchases I would’ve regretted.

The issue, that would seemingly sweep the rug out from under your argument if it were not so, is that Spotify pays the artists a pittance. To this, I ask: How are the obviously failed negotiations between Spotify and the labels my fault? The issue really goes much deeper, when you realize that the big four record labels own a combined 17% of Spotify, and the two founders own 52%, so nearly 70% of Spotify’s decision-making process comes from people that are profiting very, very handsomely from the status quo. These labels simply were not acting in good faith, were not representing the best interests of the artists, and should be the real target of the outrage, here. Spotify is a business whose prime directive is to be profitable, and I don’t believe there were any guns pointed at heads during contract negotiations. The labels saw a huge opportunity for themselves and damn their artists.

I can’t feel like the guilty party here. I can’t. I am involved in this process about as much as I’m involved in the creation of a Big Mac: I consume it, and I leave the paperwork to the people that do paperwork. Also, there’s a false dilemma here; if iTunes offered free, unlimited streaming, or Spotify offered purchasing options, we wouldn’t be talking about this.

There is no monopoly here; I point frustrated artists and conscientious consumers to Bandcamp and their 85/15 revenue split, pay-what-you-want option for albums (set by the artists obviously), and lack of DRM. Piracy is an inevitability in a DRM-free environment, but some clever artists use it as a chance to engage the pirates in a conversation, and surely convert some pirates to paying customers (and it was inevitable anyway, particularly in music).

You write:

I also find this all this sort of sad. Many in your generation are willing to pay a little extra to buy “fair trade” coffee that insures the workers that harvested the coffee were paid fairly. Many in your generation will pay a little more to buy clothing and shoes from manufacturers that certify they don’t use sweatshops. Many in your generation pressured Apple to examine working conditions at Foxconn in China. Your generation is largely responsible for the recent cultural changes that has given more equality to same sex couples. On nearly every count your generation is much more ethical and fair than my generation. Except for one thing. Artist rights.

I do feel for artists in all of this, but if I know my generation (I am a bit older than Emily White), I know that nothing will happen without someone symbolic. We are impulsive and compassionate to a fault; put up a 30-minute video about a Ugandan warlord, and my News Feed is littered with young adults demanding action, without first demanding evidence or context. We are a generation that has to deal with information overload to a level that’s never been seen before. The bite-sized mentality of Twitter is perfectly suited, as are headline-led sites like Reddit and Fark. Nearly all the social issues you provide had iconic photos (I consider things like fair-trade coffee, free-range eggs and cruelty-free shampoo “buying karma”). Why am I only now hearing about Mark Linkous and Vic Chestnutt?

So why don’t we take a stand to get artists more money? I’m not sure, but I make a couple of guesses. One is a general lack of awareness as to how licensing, advances, royalties and all the related business really works, and it’s such a dense topic that I don’t know if we’re going to get all that far in the discussion. I feel I’m better-educated than the average consumer on the topic, but even then I don’t feel I could ballpark how much money any given album has made the artist. Another problem is that those with the greatest reach, those most popular of artists with huge fanbases…are making more on Spotify’s streaming than any other streaming service has made them by sheer volume of plays, your own chart I referenced further up show one label was making three times more from Spotify than the three closest competitors combined. They have no need to speak out, even if they should after seeing what less-popular labelmates are pulling in. Finally, artists choose to be artists. Gay people do not choose to be gay. A current artist really should be aware of the landscape right now. They are all in the bed that they and the labels have made over the last eighty years. I respect any artist that has done well enough to go full-time as a musician (or any art, really), but there’s going to be the widely-held opinion that “Well, if they can’t make it as a musician, they should get a real job.” I’m not opening that can of worms; I am only presenting a possible argument that inhibits “artists rights.”

I generally dislike the use of physical analogies to digital piracy. If I do download a track from a website, the track is still there. So instead, the ‘Net is a magical place where the record stores accept cash, but if you just take one off the shelf and walk out, you get to keep it, and another one magically appears in it’s place. In a Torrent environment, there are even more than there were to begin with. You are using the “unrealized profits” logic that simply doesn’t fly with my generation, regardless of its merit.

I’m going to use this as an opportunity to soapbox about something related that I’ve been meaning to write about for months. I feel no responsibility to keep the local record store alive. None. You are clinging to an outdated business model, ridden with piracy via CD-ripping and returning, you rip off people looking to sell, and many cities will simply not have enough demand in the future to keep more than one used CD/vinyl store around. One particular instance where I feel few qualms about piracy is when the album in question is out of print, and the artist provides no way to purchase it, digitally or otherwise (or the work is in license hell with no way to republish). I am left with three choices:

  • Drive or call from record store to record store in town, end up with a CD that may be scratched, may not have liner notes, and was probably sold to the store at 10-20% of what they’re trying to sell it to me for. If I can beat this system, I have no qualms doing so.
  • Search eBay or Amazon for the album, and find that sealed copies are going for 5 to 10 times retail. The used copies have the same pitfalls as the record store, but without the ability to look at it first-hand before plunking down the money.
  • Browse a music-centric Torrent site, find a perfect, 1:1 rip of the CD, with scans of the cover, liner notes, and disc label. Free.

I’m getting a bit far from the original topic, though. I think that as long as people can find a way to acquire things without paying for them, they will, and the money that wasn’t spent is simply a reward for being clever (or a punishment for not coming up with a better system). Human nature is guided by self-preservation, and saving money, to me, is an extension of that. People want the finer things in life, and if they don’t have to pay, even better. It is, to me, a minor percentage of people that buy albums for the main reason of supporting the artist; I am one of these people. The majority of paying customers are paying because they either don’t know how to pirate, or piracy is too complicated, with smaller percentages being people that like physical collections and people that do just think it’s the right thing to do, or fear somehow getting caught pirating music. You want these people to all buy their tracks at a dollar apiece at iTunes, and I just have to be the cynic that’s seen the range of opinions. There are probably hundreds of reasons people could come up with for not doing so.

Is there a solution? Not a clear one on the horizon. I’ve imagined various third-party alternatives to Spotify, maybe even run by the labels, but you run into issues with fragmentation (Spotify is popular because it has such variety), existing contracts with labels, and the very real fact that Spotify must burn through a ton of money to maintain their servers, staff, and bandwidth. I think a better option is in there somewhere. But to believe that Spotify will increase it’s payouts of it’s own volition is like thinking the fox in the hen-house will eventually leave out of sheer altruism. The artists, not the labels and certainly not the listeners, are going to have to shake the tree. I’m just the guy eating the Big Mac, while I will put it down and raise a fist for my favorite artists when they call for my support, I can’t fight this battle for them.

30 In 30 Poetry Edition, Day 9

Introspective journals, rip the pages from my mind,
Put them down fresh before they go sour.
Raucous choir of a thousand voices that can’t carry a tune,
Can’t carry a train of thought, more likely to drive that fucker into the ditch
Than leave you anything worth the time.
I’m all excuses, and for that I make no excuses.
A greater man powers through illness and illuminates.
But a lesser one would’ve used it as a chance to give up altogether.

30 in 30 Poetry Edition, Day 8

Some days the creative process feels like a game of Scrabble,
A bag filled with the unknown and unknowable.
You can pull bits and pieces from the bag,
The nonsensical and the vapid side by side.
Unfair as it is, nobody is supposed to sort the letters for you.
It’s a crushing level of responsibility,
The thought that you can take synapses
Firing willy-nilly from a brain
Hooked up to a heart
That occasionally beats more out of habit
Than from any real conviction,
And transform them into thoughts
That someone is looking at right now.
Knowing that I once thought about you
Reading these words,
And that now we’re linked through a memory.

Who can feel worthy of that?

30 in 30 Poetry Edition, Day 7

I am teen angst.
I wear this mass-produced Hot Topic T-shirt
As a statement of individuality.
I spend time practicing drawing the anarchy symbol.
I don’t know a lot about anarchy,
but my circle-A looks perfect.

I rebel because I like saying I rebel.
The looks of shock and disgust are attention.
We’ve got a losers table in the cafeteria,
You’re not invited.
None of us really like each other.
It’s easier for me to gross out all the girls,
Scare them away forever,
Than to try and hold a conversation.

If you offered me a deal,
Where I traded in all my black shirts,
Cut my hair and shaved,
And in exchange I’d have someone that cared about me…

I’d punch you dead in your shit.

Don’t you understand?
I draw my feelings in close like a turtle,
And I’d rather die on my back,
Than give you the satisfaction
Of watching me awkwardly save myself.

I am teen angst,
And I won’t change my ways
Until I’m sure nobody’s watching anymore.

30 in 30 Poetry Edition, Day 6: Demons

The strangest dream I ever had,
Was when I realized I was in one.
I was surrounded by demons on all sides,
Closing in, slowly but surely.
Making me wish I could do more with this last breath.
Wishing I had someone to tell that I loved them.
Wishing I had time to eat one more mango.
One more day getting in fights,
face ground against cinderblock.

Wondering how I was looking at myself in the third person.
And that was my first clue.

Wild hope sprung within me.
I might not get eaten by demons today.
I might get to go back to my life in Miami,
My stab wound was healed,
And I’d be going into 5th grade soon.
Things were looking up,
But the demons were ever closer.

I told my dream self,
“If you gasp, you’ll escape.”
I gasped. I escaped.

I looked around a familiar bedroom, heart still pounding.
I realized life on this side of the dream wasn’t much better.

When you’re the parent of a chronically bullied child,
It’s easy to tell the child the bullies are just jealous.
I was the smallest child in my class by far,
Working three years ahead, learning four languages.
I’d have traded my brains for any other body in a heartbeat.
Perpetuating a vicious cycle of antisocial behavior.
Realized life had already peaked at nine years old.
Told my mom I’d thought about drowning myself.

I often wondered what would have happened,
If the demons had caught me, killed me in my dreams.
I think I would’ve lost my mind that night.
I think I would’ve woken up half-dead.
Unable to defend myself even in the confines
Of my own head.

30 in 30 Poetry Edition, Day 5: Door-to-door Atheist

I’m a door-to-door atheist.
Hello ma’am, have you heard the good news about Jack Shit?
He’s a real man, and with your tithe he can do wondrously shitty things.
He can magically transform your wages into a megachurch,
with more glory given to itself than to a God that’s probably looking down in horror.
He might be wondering what got lost in translation,
His limitless knowledge translated from Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek to English with such precision
that every bible-pounding flag-waving Real American knows it as…
The Word™.

I’m a door-to-door atheist.
No, ma’am, I am not driven by gods, ghosts, left-wing agendas, right-wing agendas, or flying spaghetti monsters.
I am not sponsored by God, Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, prophets, kings, fishers of men, hunters of vampires or the Pfizer corporation.
I’m just a man, wondering why so many of you have to fear Hell or need paradise to help each other.
Wondering if you realize just how many religions preceded yours,
That human history has shown that mythology is only religion with no believers left to defend it.

I am still beholden to an invisible force, I call it air.
I can do miracles with it.
I can take it deep into my body.
I can reverse the flow, in the form of a question.
In the form of a challenge.
In the form of a plea.

This plea comes courtesy of 13-year-old me, living in rural Kentucky.
Terrified of coming out, with brimstone in my left hand, fire in my right.
If you believe what you believe because you chose to, not because you were supposed to,
Understand that I’m doing the same thing.
Because we both made our choices,
but I respected yours.

30 in 30 Poetry Edition, Day 4: Anticipation

Anticipation
The feeling preceding the letdown,
Impatiently waiting for your spot at the top of the slide,
Just so you can fall back to earth.

When is it not pessimism talking, but experience?
When do I get to say I’m not pessimistic, just well-weathered,
Turned cynical by a world that’s equal parts reality TV marathons and polarized politics?
It’s Election Day, you know.

Why is the poem in my head always superior to what you end up seeing?
Anticipation.
If I put shoes on my elbows and knees so I can run just after learning to crawl,
Is that close enough?
Am I enlightened yet?

If I think the mind is a well that will never run dry of thoughts, materials, poems,
Am I naïve, dangerously optimistic, or just wise beyond my years?
You’ve done four poems in five days, good for you.
That’s worth a gold star, for sure.
What about five weeks? Five months? Five years? Five centuries?
In the year 2379 will I be a brain in a jar hooked up to a word processor,
Processing pickled knowledge that I output as ASCII with an EOF control character when it’s apparent that I’ve run out of ideas?
Isolated and disconnected from the world that’s changed, changed again,
but yet is still nothing but fucking reality TV marathons and polarized politics?

30 In 30 Poetry Edition Day 3

How come people don’t like my LOLcats?
Got a blog full of thoughts people walk past.
Got a Wall, but it’s all full of mama’s trash,
“Love you, son! Walk the dog after drama class!”

Tweetin’ bout my life like FML,
All my followers are gurus with a book to sell.
Playin’ out like a bad skit on SNL,
Watchin’ the clock tick-tock on this life in teenage hell.

Can’t join that live-action role-play, no way,
Pops would rather I fit in and drink that Jose, okay.
Stop writin’ songs and bump that Coldplay, so safe.
Sip that Kool-aid after roach haze throat aches.

Startin’ to wonder if I’m not a freak;
Why else would my old man want me to not be me?
Would he rather I was that prep that pops E
With a fake-ass tan and some lame-assed beats?
If I hear you reminisce again then Im’ma scream,
I know in high school you got more ass than a toilet seat,
I know you’re disappointed that I don’t repeat the feat,
I know you hoped that you could do it all again through me.
I hope you realize that I’m not you and you’re not me,
But I’m through taking this in stride, I’m not your enemy.
I’m just an adolescent looking for a friend to see
in me, the me that I once seen in me, the me that wants to be,
be wanted constantly, respected honestly, but now it’s God and me,
in that Magic: The Gathering in the sky,
kicking it on cloud nine, told me that he liked my rhymes,
but that he had a doubt I ever felt the line
I wrote about there being no easy way out and that was fine.

30 in 30 Poetry Edition Day 2: Conversation with a fatass.

Why yes, I will have another Baconator, you’re so polite.
I’m really feeling that last KFC gravy shot.
Do you mind if I wipe the grease off on your cat?
You do? Well then. I’ll be on my way.

I find the nicotine rush is much more intense when I stick a cigarette up each of my nostrils.
I am the Marlboro dragon, with the power of emphysema.
Kind sir, will you light the cigarettes stuck in my ears? I cannot reach them without singing my hair.
You won’t? Well then. I’ll be on my way.

You know what cuts down the burn after Tequila shots? Bath salt snooters.
Those crafty cats at the labs just keep evading the law.
If it’s legal, it’s gotta be okay. God knows the Government is watching out for my health.
I feel fucking fantastic. Excuse me miss, I’ll give you twenty bucks if you’ll let me chew your nose off.
No? Maybe an ear? No? Well then. I’ll be on my way.

What the fuck do you mean I can’t have a large Coke with my Double Down?
The great state of New York thought I was responsible enough to own and carry the pistol that is currently dangling from my middle finger.
Maybe Bloomberg is afraid it’ll keep me up past my bedtime.
Maybe I offend him with my chubby existence.
I think we can all agree, this is the most important step to making me skinny.
Oh, I can still grab a Big Gulp? Sixty-seven ounces of Coke for a dollar? Later.
I used to drink 20 ounce Pepsis, now I only buy Big Gulps. Triple the volume for 30 cents less! Thanks Mayor.

I can see you know best how to keep me healthy.

30 in 30 Poetry Edition, Day 1:

EDIT: So I just saw that @JordPlourde linked this to the Twitterverse. I hope you enjoy it but please be nice as this is, no bullshit, the first rhyming poem I’ve written since I was about 14.

I’m going to try and write and share 30 poems over the next 30 days, some freeform, some rhyming. Not really looking for critique, just getting in the habit of writing this way.

 

Do I enhance or inhibit, / suppress or exhibit / that creative process that I stress over? / Know what, forget it. / TGIF, so I’m goin’ blind, deaf, / dumb as a mic check, / pour me the high-test, / leave out the ice. Next / dive’s down the block / so I walk / till I fall / then I crawl / hands and knees / sayin’ please look away. / You don’t want to see this sad rerun on Saturday. / Better believe I’ve got reason to act this way. / Gotta make it big, get my own island like Cast Away. / So he say /

Liquid knowledge, / fact or fiction, / equal doses, / watch me mix ‘em.

Liquid knowledge, / words of wisdom, / I found ‘em in the bottom of the bottle, then I pissed ‘em in the snow, / bright yellow cursive on white parchment, / I felt encouraged to make some fine art, then / realized the penis mightier than this word, / I created a one-eyed monster, / spittin’ knowledge constantly, / I tell him no, but he don’t take no prompts from me. / Fact is it’s impossibly hard to be labeled a victim of circumstance / when you find your rhymes by gettin’ drunk enough to piss your pants.