There’s nothing wrong with not owning the music you listen to

There’s been a lot of sharing of this article where David Lowery (of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fame) responds to a NPR intern who wrote about barely have bought any music at all. The Lowery article has been eating away at me, because arguments like that drive me absolutely insane. Its a noble argument, but logically wrong.

First and most importantly, digital music files are simply not comparable to physical records. It’s a concept that’s hard to wrap your head around, but digital media has no apt comparison. We’ve never dealt with this in human history: a product whose inventory is infinite and has nothing physical to change hands.

I think it can be best summed up with an argument I saw recently that was responding to a campaign against digital piracy that asked “You wouldn’t steal a car, would you?”, to which the response came, “If I could make an exact copy of the car without doing any damage or changing ownership of the original, I probably would.”

Think about it: up until the digital age, the concept of “stealing” was always clear. There is a physical piece of property, and stealing it means removing the ownership from one person and giving it to another. In the digital age, both people have ownership of it. It is not in any way “looting”, as Lowrey claims in his terrible analogy of a town called “the ‘Net”. Copying files is not the same as stealing. It’s not the same as anything. It’s something that requires a completely new way of thinking, and connecting it to past methods is futile.

Secondly, musicians and labels charge for recordings because they can, not because it’s ethically right to charge for it. When recorded music first started, it made logical sense to sell it, because it was a physical product that cost money to record and produce. It was very simple: if you wanted to listen to a song whenever you wanted, you had to pay for it. That is why people purchased albums, not because they made a clear choice to support art with their dollars and this is a value that today’s digital culture has devalued. 

This is essentially what Emily White was getting at: she hasn’t bought much music because she hasn’t needed to. Music is all around her and easy to grab from multiple different places. Like a lot of digital consumers, it’s not that she’s making a conscious choice away from digital music stores, but rather than she very rarely has to make that conscious decision. Music is just everywhere now, not just at record stores.

We buy (or download) music for one reason: because we want to hear it. We bought LPs and CDs because that’s the way that we could hear it. We share files and fire up bittorrent because that’s the way we can hear it. You might choose buying over file sharing because you like the idea of some money going to the artist, but you’re not buying it because you want to support the artist. It’s a small distinction, but an important one.

Thirdly, non-official channels offer a better product. White talks about how she wants “convenience” (a poor choice of words), and Lowrey jumps on that with “how hard is it to enter a password?” But what White means is that people are going to gravitate to whatever gives them what they want. She dreams of the ability to have her entire library on Spotify (and Lowrey completely misses that White’s ideal is a legal method that pays artists), because that’s the place where she most wants to listen to music. But she can’t have everything that she wants on Spotify, because like all the services and stores, it’s bound by legal agreements that keep her from truly having the music experience she wants. File sharing has none of those boundaries.

The vast majority of file sharers are not greedy pirates who laugh in the face of the poor artists who are just trying to make a decent living. Music is something that they at least enjoy and maybe even love, but they just want to hear it. That’s it. So they go where the music is, and file sharing—with its lack of release days; its wide variety of formats and bitrates; its lack of concept of “out of print” or “not available in your country”—offers the best and easiest solution.

Finally, musicians are not owed a living from their music. Musicians making money off of recordings (which, by the way, they still do) was a great time, but it’s nothing but a business model, not artistic justice.

This argument was brilliantly put by a man who’s as great of a thinker as he is a musician, Brian Eno:

I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. Sorry mate – history’s moving along.

It’s wonderful that people were not just able to make money, but it was that way because the product was physical and clear cut: some thing to buy. It isn’t anymore, and we owe it to ourselves to get our heads around the new world and think of new ways to support artists, rather than insisting people do things in the way we’re used to and understand.

Ultimately, Lowrey’s arguments (echoed by the dozens of people who have shared his article with hearty agreement) are as hurtful to musicians as any file sharing. The conversations need to be around how we can keep art as a viable career, not how we can keep things the way they were.