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.

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