The New Sound – A Response to the Emily White Commotion

NPR intern Emily White has come under a brush-fire of criticism for being guilty of two things. Music piracy, to which she confesses, and being naively honest.

White belongs to a generation of customers, or in the parlance of my tech day-job; users, who have come to expect simple, frictionless access to media to accommodate their lifestyle.

Is it egotistical and reckless not to consider the larger business consequence of consumption? Yes it is, but I don’t think outright immorality is what we have here. White’s generation have been shown to be more socially conscious , with their fair-trade coffee and local sourced restaurants, then previous generations. Her generation is certainly provided with easy access to more real-time information in order to make informed decisions then any previous generation.

But Technology Giveth, and it taketh Away.

Access to information comes in many forms. Sometime information comes as social and web sites. Sometimes information comes as sharable files. Sometimes these files have audio media. Technology is amoral and it inadvertently leads to immoral, or at least questionable, results. There’s an entire generation who’s source of music wasn’t like mine – Peaches, Sam Goody and Tower Records. It’s the infinite isles of online shared music shared globally and at the speed of light. It’s an inexhaustible inventory with the doors unguarded and wide open 24-7. The old regime, or the big-label bubble as I like to think of it, was gone almost overnight.

But Napster was a wake up call not a time bomb. Like the Linda Chorney and the Americana AOTY GRAMMY nom broo-haha, the Emily White post blow-back is more about attacking the messenger instead of looking for a larger technology, business and behavioral changes in the air. Then the industry having the courage of self-assessment and pivot to meet the new conditions.

The current environment of attack and blame from the top of an LA corner office down to the working stiff PR agent wasted energy and a missed opportunity. If this business side of the industry used the same creativity exhibited by the producers of the music this could be the enlightenment instead of the professed dark ages.

Renee Hopkins, Senior Editor of Texas Enterprise and Media Relations Manager at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business tweeted to me when I asked about her to weigh in on this topic ” *Anyone* involved – record co, artist, tech firm, listener – could create new biz model for digital distribution of music. Record co’s didn’t figure out digital distrib biz model either, so indirectly encouraged culture of free, sold out artists. Artists need new biz model based on wider distribution/lower margins. But they dont get it. #disruption” (I know this is over 140 characters, this is a compilation of three tweets )

She’s right.

Then there’s the moral dissonance. Yes there was convenience in ripping and sharing music but does that make it right? What about the creators of the music? Dwindling school music programs and little support in most towns for local bands made music an abstraction in people’s life. The culture of music of the local barn dance from you great-grandparents life is long over. add to that knee-jerk big label lawsuits against fans, and you have
animosity with little context to the of working musicians and lets face it, the vast majority of musicians fall into that category.

The tech might be new but the business environment appears to me as being very much like the old ways. While reading the excellent book “Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers” (Igniter books) I was struck by the hardships and daily hustling that Ira and his brother Charlie endured to escape the back-breaking toil of the Alabama family farm and make a name for themselves. Their routine was early morning radio (the Internet of it’s day) performances -usually for free. Followed by local business performances, – also usually for free/ These provided a few opportunities for merch sales , typically lyric sheets or if lucky, your vinyl form the back of the car. These free performances (free music) allowed exposure and led to a wider tour schedule (without the benefit on an interstate highway system) and established a career and, because of the quality of the music, a legacy.

Then there was the Louvin’s stern, sharecropping father who, though opened the door to music for the boys by making them perform in church, held contempt of the “soft’ life they must have led after perusing it as a vocation. Ira had the idea to invite the old man on the road for a couple of weeks to which their father agreed, thinking it vacation of sorts. After two weeks of bad road food and strange motels the old man was begging to get back home with a renewed respect for the life his boys led.

I recall the stories above to illustrate the point that music as a vocation is not new. Miles of roads and night after night of seedy bars is a common way of learning the ropes and paying your dues. Luckily the Internet allows you to take the temperature of a city and get out the word of your impending show from a phone. Life on the road, for good and bad, can be shared with fans through social media and that close connection can lead to a higher moral barrier against theft. You turn yourself from an agent of the big label system to a human being working for a living. One of them creating something of value.

People have less qualms stealing from a big box store then from the mom and pop store on the corner. You’re more akin to the mom and pop shop, let the fans know this by engaging with your fans and humanizing yourself. To this day country performers, like politicians, make jokes and recall local color in the attempt to signal “I’m one of you.” Social media let’s you do this anytime you want with no concern for distance or time. But in the end it’s about the music.

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but i do know there are some out there if we look and stop wringing our hands like the buggy whip manufacture in the face of the Model A. I am a music blogger and , as of this writing, make no money for my efforts. I’m still struggling with how all this good-will and influence can be turned into cold, card cash. I want the financial freedom to do more, to hear and see more music and bring that music to a larger audience. I’m sure where I for in the new industry, but I know I do and I’ll figure it out, with your help.

Here’s to the new world!

4 Replies to “The New Sound – A Response to the Emily White Commotion”

  1. So we’re blaming the musicians now for our laziness and dishonesty?

    Please don’t insult your readers’ collective intelligence by trying to distract them with false analogies. There’s a big difference between the Louvin Brothers giving away free performances, in person and of their own volition, and downloaders stealing performances without the musicians’ consent. You don’t need to download to promote music: I’ve bought, and been satisfied with, a lot of stuff based on 10-second Amazon sound clips, which don’t give away a full performance. I often don’t even buy it from Amazon, for all y’all who don’t like Amazon; I just use it to hear the samples.

    The only bootlegged music I have is copied from recordings that are no longer in production and that I haven’t been able to get by any other means (and I replace bootlegs with legitimate albums whenever I can). Frankly, I think the Internet has been the best thing to happen to old-time music (my pet genre) in decades. I’ve been able to find albums I could never have gotten before, and legitimate distributors of it can now find a wide enough buyer base to make it worth their time to reissue it. I’m sure not going to shoot myself in the foot by stealing from them.

    This excuse about sticking it to big record companies and box stores is a crock: You can’t do it without sticking it to the artists, as well, and this attitude is self-serving and selfish. Most of the artists I see listed in your sidebar are significant, yes, but I’m pretty sure Dale Watson isn’t U2-level rich, so fans need to get the Hell over it and do the right thing. People like Emily White are not just messengers, they’re active participants. They’re thieves. Most of the music they take is available through legitimate sources, they simply choose not to obtain it by those channels.

    Music fans have to take responsibility for their actions and show their appreciation by supporting their favorite artists financially as well as . . . emotionally, or theoretically, or whatever. I already love their music–I shouldn’t need them to hold my hand and buy me an ice-cream cone for me to feel I should, you know, not rob them.

    Kids used to learn this when they were little: Don’t take what isn’t yours. This isn’t a problem that requires a revolutionary solution; it just requires fans to behave with a little self-control and decency.

  2. LBC — I too believe that piracy is stealing. And I don’t do it. And no one is blaming the musicians. But while shaming the downloaders feels good, that’s really the only benefit to it. How does it help the musicians to shame the downloaders with our virtuous stories of how we’ve been able to take advantage of new music-distribution technologies while not stealing from the artists? Makes us feel good, and then what?

    When established business models are blown up by technology, all stakeholders — customers, distributors, creators — have the opportunity to create new ones. The failure of record companies and big box stores to adapt to the changes in digital distribution technology was not the fault of the artists. But it is a reality, not an excuse. It’s a reality that affected artists greatly. What is the value in denying that? And what is the value in absolving the artists of their individual responsibility in figuring out how to navigate this new world? No one else gets a pass on that.

    Anyone who wants to can make music, but it is THEIR responsibility to figure out how to make money from it. crashed, but this part is about making money, not music. Create your own business model: Find a rich patron, create a new kind of distribution/performance model that benefits artists too (or participate in someone else’s), or just make the decision that you’d really rather just make music as a life-affirming, deeply satisfying hobby.

  3. Unlimited distribution of media, trivial both in ease of use and cost-wise is a reality, and it’s only going to get more real.

    As a musician myself, I say adapt or die. There are plenty of ways to make money with music beyond sales of recorded music; and it’s been shown many times that when a creator graciously chooses to release his work for free/pay-what-you-want, their fans will gladly “overpay”. Put out something good and reach out to your fans; you’ll make ends meet.

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