Emily White, 140 Characters, and My Optimism as an Artist

If you haven’t read Emily White’s post about how she’s spent her life stealing music or David Lowery’s thoughtful response on his own blog, I’ll give you the tweet-length version: Kids today download music because paying money is inconvenient to them; the thought of purchasing songs doesn’t even cross their minds.  You’re better off reading the posts, though, they’re quite detailed and articulate (or as most of you would say, TL;DR). Shit, even JoCo wrote a fairly brilliant response already.  I have my own.

Indie Music TODAY at 140 Characters 2012

Photo by Becky McCray

I spoke at the 140 Characters Conference this week in New York City about Indie Music TODAY.  I led the talk with the statement that I earn my living playing my music- not waiting tables, not in a cover band.  I felt it was important to establish that fact up front because, frankly, everybody seems to think that being paid for your art is impossible these days.  Some people (who clearly are making their living selling books or public speaking, not through their music) have even encouraged artists to give their music away for free.  All of it.

As I said on stage in Manhattan, this business is about connection, not money.  It’s about taking something intangible from inside you and, by sharing it, changing someone else’s life.  That is why we do this thing we do; the airborne panties and room keys are merely a side benefit.

Here, watch the video and you’ll understand where I’m coming from:

Watch on UStream’s site if you can’t see it here.

Touched By A T-Shirt?

As Lowery thoroughly debunked the “artists can earn their keep at live performances” line, I want to hit the other popular misconception that merch sales (shirts, stickers, etc.) can make up the revenue shortfall.  The margins may be better on some items, but no one’s life was changed by a laser-etched bottle-opener key chain.  They don’t fling underwear because the shirts are well designed and they sure as hell don’t break into tears because that bumper sticker will fit perfectly on their Focus.

I guess what I’m saying is this: If you think the concert tickets or t-shirts have value, why the fuck would you think the songs that brought you there don’t have value?

To a certain extent, it’s our own fault. People have been shelling out money for soulless music-esque auto-tuned noises for so long they may have forgotten that music is supposed to communicate with their souls.  If I listened to Bieber all day I probably wouldn’t value music either.  If the music industry is going to survive at all, artists will need to be on their A game with every release.

Then again, piracy is to blame as well… but not just kids like Emily who don’t understand what’s at stake here. The industrial pirate kings like Spotify and Grooveshark are as much at fault as the Free Culture. I have to agree with Lowery on this one: these services have conned the masses into thinking that they’re giving artists a fair cut.  They’re not.  Sure, I’d rather you listen to me than ignore me, but if you’re listening on Spotify you may as well just be stealing the music.

Connection Is Everything

Maybe you like party music. Maybe you’re an emo kid. Maybe, like me, you like good authentic production with lyrics that you have to listen to ten times before you get what the artist is really saying. The point is that somehow this music- the intangible intellectual property –changed you. It connected you to an artist like me or Coulton or, God help you, Nickelback in a way that renders normal communication deficient.

I’m not going to say I just made love to your ears, but that kind of bond can easily be as close as sex. If the love and support is only flowing one way, however, one of us is just getting fucked.

  • The reality is, people could access all of our work from The Pirate Bay, while running Adblock, and therefore experience everything we’ve ever created without any money going to anyone, anywhere. There is nothing stopping anyone from doing that.

    But they like us. So they find a way to give us money.

    Maybe it’s just because I’m Emily’s age, but I don’t really mind being a charity. Commercial transactions suck anyway. I don’t like the idea of selling merch, because A) the 3D-printer Diamond Age JoCo wrote about is going to kill that anyway, and B) the last thing people need are more useless knick-knacks to buy. In this new reality, all the pretenses and complexities of the market are shattered, and our only choice, really, is to focus all of our energy on moving people. Being an artist.

    I haven’t managed to get YFIAS to support me full-time just yet. But I’ve made a hell of a lot more money than I’d have made had I tried to sell it to a network or use it to push merchandise. Or putting it behind a paywall, for that matter.

  • Spotify and Grooveshark bug me more than the pirate sites, because they can sucker people who _are_ trying to be ethical.  :/

  •  Your music does make love to my ears.

  • Miranda Hein

    Most of my high school students just really don’t think twice about “free” music.  Your post does a great job of explaining why it’s important to respect the intellectual property of the artists they claim to love.  I hope some of them change their minds after hearing from you!

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