I buy more music than Emily White, and you should too

There have been heated discussions and analysis springing up throughout all facets of the music community this week in response to NPR intern Emily White's candid but thoroughly controversial piece, 'I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With,' which was published on the All Songs Considered blog on Saturday.

In her piece, the nearly 21-year-old readily admits to being spoiled by the free music that the internet (and the music industry she works within) offers her, and confesses that even though her iTunes library has over 11,000 songs in it, she has personally purchased only 15 CDs in her lifetime.

A thoughtful, thorough response from Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman David Lowery soon followed, as did absorbing posts from noted music writer/sourpuss Bob Lefsetz, Pitchfork's associate editor Laura Snapes, and Drowned In Sound founder Sean Adams, to single out just a few. All of these make for interesting, engrossing reads on the current state of the music industry, and what, if any, obligations (financial, moral, or otherwise) modern music fans truly have towards the musicians and the work that they claim to love.

David Lowery with Cracker
David Lowery with Cracker

It's a fascinating discussion, and certainly one that a lot of my friends and peers have already weighed in on. And while an open, honest dialogue about any subject certainly can (and should) have a galvanizing effect on its participants, I can only hope that music lovers of any age who regularly neglect financially supporting the hard working bands and musicians who craft the songs that frequently soundtrack the good (and bad) moments of their lives have been snapped out of their consumer-free comfort zones by this ongoing discourse.

Now, I do understand where Emily White (and people of her generation) are coming from. They were raised in the digital age, where anything you are looking for (and plenty of things you aren't) can be found with a few keystrokes on your computer or smart phones. They have been raised in an era where music isn't something you have to actively seek out or take chances on -- it's everywhere you look, and most often it can be found for free. How do you convince music lovers that its time to pony up and pay for something that they have gotten for free all of their lives? It's a difficult challenge, and certainly one that has been plaguing the music industry for well over the past decade.

But the continued rise of the bottled water industry is proof positive that millions of people will pay billions of dollars for something that is readily available for free elsewhere. So, how do we make this shift happen within the music industry, and how are songs and albums any different from the bottled water that is sold to us on nearly every street corner? Again, it's something the record execs and labels are struggling with. But with the advent of iTunes and the proliferation of iPods, iPhones and other portable music devices, buying music takes just a few clicks and only moments to download, so convenience isn't an issue.

A big part of the issue comes down to a basic moral choice. Plenty of people who would never think of shoplifting in a store or dining and dashing in a restaurant have no problem whatsoever downloading an album illegally. Obviously, the anonymity of the internet has created an endless, bountiful cloud that allows for this theft to take place without any attention being drawn to the individual. And that cloud isn't going away anytime soon. So what, if anything, can be done?


What needs to change is the mentality of the music fan, who begins to realize that downloading music for free isn't a victimless crime. The musicians and labels that they are stealing from aren't faceless fat-cats sitting in their ivory towers, but rather they are hardworking members of the community who more often than not struggle just to get by. Or, even if they are making a good living for now, that will likely change if people continue to steal their music for free.

But a lot of entitled fans want to consume music solely on their own terms, and want their favorite bands to find success on those same loosely defined terms. If a group becomes too successful, those same fans turn their backs because they can no longer see them play at the small club they discovered them in. These types of selfish, pampered music fans want to keep their artists in the box they are comfortable and familiar with for as long as they can, and perhaps that plays a small roll in keeping them from actually paying for their music in the end.

Obviously, working on the fringes of the music industry as I do, I am fortunate enough to receive my share of free music (as Emily White no doubt does) in exchange for publicity for the bands and reviews of their records. And, I've admittedly grown quite fond of being on the guest list for their respective live shows. These are certainly the perks of working within the music industry, and I take as much advantage of them as I can.

However, if I review an album and truly love the work, I typically buy the record on vinyl from either the band or their label's website (or the numerous independent record stores here in the Twin Cities). I want the larger album art, the liner notes, and the lush hi-fi sound that vinyl provides. But in addition to all of that, I want to support these artists whom I love and the good folks working hard at the record labels who continue to put out a great product. Because I want that band to flourish and put out another fantastic album that I can eventually buy, and I want that label to succeed so that they can send their roster of bands out on tour, and go out and sign new bands who I've never heard of but will eventual grow to love. It's a rewarding, fulfilling cycle for everyone involved.

I buy more music than Emily White, and you should too
Photo by Erik Hess

And, if I get into a band's show for free, you better believe that I'm bringing some extra money along to buy their record at the merch stand after the gig, if only so that the members have some extra gas money to get them to the next stop on the tour or some added cash to blow on drinks that night. It's just my way of taking a small financial stand and saying that their music matters to me enough to pay for it, take it home and make it part of my life each time I play their album.

That's the crucial part of the mentality of the modern music fan that needs to change. Sure, you can always find the music for free, but if it matters to you enough, you'll learn to pay for it.

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