A few weeks ago a short screed by Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman David Lowery about the music acquisition practices of our youth went seriously viral. A surprising number of Facebook music pals reposted it with captions like “Brother Lowery gets it right.” This essay appeared on a WordPress blog called The Trichordist, Artists for an Ethical Internet, a sad little place where a couple of musicians grouse about not getting paid enough and blame Google and folks like John Perry Barlow and Larry Lessig for this sad state of affairs.
This debacle started when NPR’s great music guy Bob Boilin posted on the NPR site that he’d ditched his entire 25,000 track iTunes music library in favor of Apple’s Match cloud storage service. He did the usual old-guy bemoaning of missing album liner notes and the like, but said he felt it was time to move past ownership and to trust the cloud. In response, an NPR intern named Emily Smith posted that Boilin’s jump didn’t seem like a big deal to her, since she was never interested in “owning music” to begin with. She’d amassed an 11,000-song iTunes collection by ripping CDs or trading with friends. And this “collection” meant little to her. What she wanted, what she’d pay for, was a service like Spotify, an always-on service where she could listen to whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Oh, and she mentioned that she’d bought only 15 CDs in her life, and that she didn’t have any of them any more.
Lowery has posted head-in-the-sand idiocy before, but he outdid himself this time. He explained to Emily that her premise “that fairly compensating musicians is not a problem that is up to governments and large corporations to solve” was false. Unfortunately, this wasn’t her premise. Her premise was that she didn’t care about owning music. He placed Emily’s music collection in the center of a huge moral dilemma about paying musicians. He said he wasn’t going to create a straw man, but then argued against various justifications for file sharing, like that file sharing is OK because record companies screw musicians anyway. Except that Emily didn’t raise this, or any other justification, for file sharing. Then he railed against the big tech companies, who apparently are involved in some mass concerted conspiracy to take musicians’ money.
Lowery teaches a college course in the economics of the music business, but it appears that he specializes in the irrelevant economics of the 1990s music business and is clueless about how things work today. He said that most of his students have similar views to Emily’s, apparently because they are also hyp-mo-tized by that pernicious Free Culture Movement, funded by the nefarious tech companies that, as we have discussed, conspire to abscond with musicians’ money.
After a patronizing and incorrect tutorial about how Lowery thinks the music business is supposed to work and the history of intellectual property law, he starts spouting phony statistics about the state of the music business and declining sales and earnings, all caused, I guess, by Emily and her little thief pals. Then, incredibly and pathetically, he lays the suicides of musicians Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous at the kid’s feet, while disingenuously claiming he wasn’t. Then he dismisses Spotify because of all the complaints about low payments. And he compares the Internet to a big record store where everything’s free but you have to pay AT&T or Verizon for admission.
He ends with instructions for how Emily can buy music off of iTunes. Sigh.
What shocked me was how much traction this tripe got. People I know and respect were applauding Lowery’s clumsy, pedantic drivel, and chiding Emily for stealing stealing stealing! What decade are we in, kids? Certainly not this one, ‘cause the train left the station on Lowery’s bullshit 10 years ago. Lowery and his followers are little more than ignorant and skeevy old people telling kids to get off a digital lawn that doesn’t exist.
By and large kids, and I’ll define “kids” loosely as anyone under 30, don’t give a damn about “owning” music. The fact that they need to stick digital files into their phones or computers so they can listen is a nuisance they could do without. They want to push a button and have their music come out, and they don’t care where it comes from. And they don’t want to pay a la carte, but they’ll happily pay for reliable, easy-to-use service. This isn’t a conspiracy and there’s no misunderstanding and there’s no moral dilemma. It’s the market screaming to be heard. A market that’s been ignored, marginalized and ridiculed by the record companies and their sycophants, like Lowery and his ilk. So the kids are like, fuck you, we’ll get it for free then. And I don’t blame them.