In defense of the container: A response to Emily White

The iconic artwork for Some Girls from container experts the Rolling Stones
The iconic artwork for Some Girls from container experts the Rolling Stones

Today marks the return of Emily White -- the 21-year-old NPR intern who got everyone riled up last June because she's too young to appreciate music ownership. She and I are actually very similar on paper. Both of us love music and the artists who create it deeply enough to delve into the murky waters of industry economics. In a new post published today on Billboard, titled "Music Owns Me," she discusses the potential of streaming services that pay a living wage to artists.

Like her, I also have a background in college radio, albeit at a station staunchly committed to physical formats. We're roughly the same age, and therefore have a comparable viewpoint on the record industry's battle with streaming and music piracy. But despite these similarities, we diverge wholly on the thesis she uses to end this piece: "It's really time to start paying the creators instead of the containers."

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

Maybe that's an experiential difference based around my upbringing. One of my most vivid early musical memories was the day I was finally deemed old enough by my parents to put that Stray Cats record on the platter myself. As I held Built for Speed in my tiny hands, I felt the weight, smelled the musty aroma, and fell in love.

Years later, I remember biking over to my neighborhood record store, Roadrunner, in South Minneapolis. Most of the time, the gruff but indulgent owner would let kids like us window shop for at least a half hour, but that day I had brought with enough money from my summer job to finally purchase London Calling from them on wax. And here's a strange thing: despite the fact that that album was an utterly replaceable, mass-manufactured container for popular music, the owner was sad to see it go.

Like Emily, I've believe that artists should be handsomely compensated for their creative works. But the music business is not a binary. Too often these arguments get lumped into "Creatives" versus "Industry," but anyone who's ever attempted to self-release an album knows this is far from the truth. Record labels, manufacturing companies, distribution companies, record stores, and yes, streaming services are all facets of what is increasingly being viewed by members of my generation as the monolithic, capital "I" Industry. And that's a damn shame, because many of the people working in manufacturing and distribution have made it their life's work to create gorgeous containers, and the streaming boom has utterly gutted their corner of the industry.
Two local companies that come to mind are Copycats Media and Noiseland Industries, both of which have been hit hard by piracy and the shift towards streaming-oriented platforms. But both have also found unique ways to meet the demand of a market increasingly centered on digital music transactions, while continuing to produce the high-quality containers that are the hallmark of their business.

Copycats has tailored their model of CD and DVD duplication to scale all the way down to the kind of no-frills short-run production utilized by countless artists around the Twin Cities. It's the exact kind of cheap-and-quick cardboard sleeves and jewel cases that I used to drool over at punk show merch tables, and the ones that now line my CD collection and remind me fondly of the specific shows or record stores I scored them at. As if that wasn't enough, they also regularly make their product available to nonprofits in need of their expertise. Every single track that wasn't serviced to my college radio station was burned onto a Copycats disc, thanks to their charitable partnership.

Noiseland Industries has also adjusted the vinyl-production platform that made them nationally renowned by making a nod to digital demand and offering download cards via their Soundtrax service. The option has proven incredibly popular, as it allows artists committed to the physical music mediums a chance to sell a container to those who would chose to purchase one, and hand business-card sized albums to the rest. Isn't this whole debate about empowering artists in the first place? Spotify is a massive, opaque company with colossal amounts of monetary interests riding on its success. It will never be the champion of the kind of artists that have been hurt most by its arrival. Noiseland and Copycats, in contrast, have offices in town and 612 phone numbers.

Here's Noiseland's clear vinyl for the Blind Shake record "Seriousness"
Here's Noiseland's clear vinyl for the Blind Shake record "Seriousness"

While Ms. White may long for a completely digital future, subscription based services are "as commonplace as phone and water bills," I sincerely hope that the future lies in the hands of companies like Noiseland and Copycats. The ramifications of a Comcast-sized music streaming giant are too horrific to go into here. Instead, I'll close with a hope that the companies that worked overnight to manufacture her 15 or so legitimately purchased CD's are still running, and the record stores they distribute to as well. Maybe then more kids like me can learn just how beautiful containers can be.

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