About As Socratic as the Internet Gets

Back in June certain corners of the Internet went into a minor frenzy for about a week when NPR published an article by one of its 20 year old interns about how she owns tens of thousands of songs and didn’t pay for any of them and wants instant access to everything ever recorded for free… and didn’t really see any problem with that.

That frenzy multiplied in scope and scale when the Trichordist blog published An Open Letter to Emily White in which David Lowery (formerly of Cracker fame) took many many words to politely and eloquently make that intern feel like a greedy, spoiled goldbricker (which to be fair, most 20 year olds are).

Anyone who read through those posts at the time or took part in the discussion in any way when it happened is bound to remember it well. It was a week during which some very good ideas and salient points were put out and discussed by many well-informed, highly respected and immediately concerned parties. Sure, there was still some of the usual trolling and ad hominem attacks that are ever-present online, but by and large it was about as Socratic as the Internet gets.

But after a week or ten days the argument had played itself out. There was nothing more that could be said about these two blog posts that hadn’t already been said. Even those with the most pressing interests were just exhausted talking about it and everyone kind of agreed to put the conversation on the shelf for a while even though all the music industry’s problems were not, in fact, solved.

It was bound to be a continuing discussion, and last week it was resumed by Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter who dropped a match into a large puddle of Internet gasoline with this tweet:

That was retweeted 100 times (and counting) and touched off a discussion far too big to be had 140 characters at a time. Two days later Hunter went on the record and clarified her position with a lengthy post on Lower Dens’ Tumblr page, which reads in part:

    ” Music shouldn’t be free. It shouldn’t even be cheap. If you consume all the music you want all the time, compulsively, sweatily, you end up having a cheap relationship to the music 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. It’s increasingly difficult and un-rewarding to write music that is considered, patient, and simple* when the market increasingly demands music that is easy, thoughtless, and careless.

    We shouldn’t have everything we want all the time, not in music or anything else. The only reason we do have that relationship to music right now is because we’re taking advantage of technology and a lack of regulation. It makes sense. If that technology did the same thing for food or shelter, we’d be talking about that. Don’t tell me though that this is a consumer-dictated market; it’s this way because we’re taking advantage of it, not because we thought up and implemented a good way of doing things. Like I said before, just cause it’s so doesn’t make it right.”

    (post link)

It gained a lot of attention, including the attention of Lower Dens’ record label, Ribbon Music. Ribbon head Morgan Lebus has some thoughts of his own on the issue, which were posted to the Lower Dens Tumblr Sunday along with a direct response from Hunter.

Lebus imagines a future in which streaming provides fair play for artists through a critical mass of users…

    “In fact, I assume it’s only a matter of time before Apple or the like launch their own streaming services once their account departments deduce there’s more to be made selling paid streaming subscriptions than mp3s. I suspect this will coincide around the time cellular and wifi networks get to a point where they’re operating everywhere (desert highways, subways, airplanes) and at high speeds… shouldn’t be far off.

    And then maybe Apple, Sony, Samsung etc will conveniently announce new iphones / ipads / androids that operate infinitely better than their predecessors because they won’t be weighed down by media files.. to listen to all the music and watch all the movies in the world all we’ll have to do is sign up for APPLE’s “iSTREAM” which will run around say $25.99 p/month.”

    (post link)

While he may well be right about what he says, we can’t see how this will benefit artists or consumers at all. Streaming services aren’t ever going to be generous for the sake of generosity, and there’s absolutely no guarantee that as their profits increase that artists will see a benefit.

For the consumer the future he imagines is a bum deal. Pay $25.99 a month every month of your fucking life or you can’t listen to any music or watch any movies because you don’t own any (obsolete) media files. If you lose your job or are running short of cash Today, you quit buying new records and listen to the ones you have for a while. In Lebus’ scenario, you’re on the hook every month whether you can afford it or not. (Unless some friend or family member is willing to let you use their password.)

It’s also not hard to imagine that when iStream and the like arrive that they will offer “basic” packages at $25/mo. “Premium” packages could run even higher than that.

But that’s all in the future. We’re more concerned with now. In her post, Hunter calls for “regulation” of streaming. We’re not sure if regulation is the exact right word but there needs to be some kind of check on streaming services whether it’s an actual regulation, self-imposed rules, or just the effect of outside forces.

You can have a Spotify, and it can be a very good service worth paying for even without access to every album ever made. Netflix doesn’t stream every movie ever made, but it’s still an incredible service and could easily charge more than $8 a month for what it provides. Anecdotally interesting; we never hear of studios or directors saying they’re getting screwed by Netflix. We hear musicians take issue with Spotify all the time.

Jana Hunter used over 1000 words to take issue with Spotify in her post, and here’s the thing: this blog agrees with all of it. Every bit of it.

Certain parts of her post resonate with us more than others. We’re not going to be getting too much into royalties schemes or sound quality issues. What we really want to talk about is the relationship of listeners to their music, which has been cheapened by streaming subscription services, and continues to be degraded all the time.

Part of Hunter’s argument that we agree with most strongly is that you should not have everything you want when you want it. This is precisely what’s cheapening our relationship to music, and it’s not just limited to music either.

The way that some musicians and labels feel about streaming reminds us a lot of how many unions and smart-growth advocates feel about Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart and other big-box chains of all stripes will plead that its business practices are driven by consumer demand, without ever admitting that they created that (false) demand themselves, on purpose. People don’t walk into a Target store for socks and come out with shoes and new sheets and holiday decorations and a new coffee bean grinder because the demand was there, they do it because they can.

There’s so much on the shelves, and the price is so low that you might as well fill your cart. If you don’t you’re missing out, right?

Too often now this is the approach we take with music. A good album should cost you about $15. Even if it’s digital. Even if iTunes is taking much too big a cut. There has to be a barrier to entry, and it’s got to be big enough to mean something.

The Emily Whites of the world say that they don’t want to ‘own’ any music, but that’s just not true.They want to own all the music. And they want to do it without buying in. Between sites like Bandcamp, Reverb Nation, and Soundcloud, Music Blogs, bands’ own websites and social media pages you can browse and discover more new music than you could ever possibly listen to. You can stream almost all of it for free too. And Spotify or no Spotify that’s not going to change any time soon.

You can discover as much new music as you want. But even discovering a great band online can fail to make a lasting impression when you’re faced with a paralysis of choice. How much attention can you really pay with six tabs open? We may be risking curmudgeon status here, but we still believe the best way to discover new bands is live.

But when it comes to actual listening habits the iPod generation is too lazy and/or cheap to pick what they like and buy it. They want it spoonfed to them in the form of playlists and algorithms. We’re losing the art of listening. We’re forgetting how to be good listeners.

The truth is it’s impossible to judge an album’s value after one listen. After ten listens even. And any album that’s any good wasn’t made to be listened to once or twice- or a dozen times. Lower Dens is a good example of this. The albums they’ve made are meant to be listened to as whole albums, and are of the type that yield new rewards and different experiences with each listen. Twin Hand Movement probably won’t be your favorite record the first time you hear it, but five years from now it just might be.

Five years from now is too late though. Let’s be honest: if you’ve been getting something for free for years, you’re not going to suddenly decide to start paying for it. And even if you do, even if everyone did, by then it’s too late. Labels can’t put out records with the expectation that they’ll recoup their costs maybe someday eventually. That’s not how business works. We wonder when and if Morgan Lebus will be willing to finance a release without selling it, simply giving it to the Cloud and depending on play counts to recoup.

As a listener you gotta buy in on the front end. You gotta pay up. And that $15 will do more than actually pay artists fairly and ensure that labels will still produce records. It will allow you to take ownership of the music. It will allow you to feel invested, and will behoove you to put in the time and effort to actively listen to that record all the way through, many times, giving it the attention and respect it deserves.

Buying records and building a collection, when done deliberately and purposefully, will allow a person to more than simply acquire music. It will allow them to go from liking music to loving it. Records are documents of the people, places and times that produced them. Owning them allows us to fully understand where they came from and what they mean, and only then can we begin to love them.

Our favorite records grow with us. They become a part of us. Someday we’ll inherit our father’s copies of Abbey Road and 461 Ocean Boulevard. Our kids will eventually get those along with Frame and Canvas and Nothing Makes Sense Without It.

Emily White’s kids will get her Spotify password.