David Lowery made and makes some fantastic indie music, and writes deep, thoughtful blogposts on the state of the music industry that has both succored and frustrated him. Emily White is a college DJ and blogger whose stray thoughts on music as physical medium vs. free digital commodity got published by NPR. Sir Paul McCartney recorded Ram in an attempt to convince the world he wrote all of John Lennon’s Beatles stuff.
I kid, except I don’t: Have you listened to Ram? The thing these three people have in common is music, and its role in artistic achievement. White thinks music alone isn’t worth paying for, but the mechanism for receiving and sharing it might be. Lowery strongly retorts that music is the only thing that gives the mechanism any value, so why short the artists who create it? McCartney, perhaps more than anyone living, proved the power of music to establish an artist as a force in control of his or her commercial destiny. (The fallout from the Lowery-White tit-for-tat deluged Twitter on Sir Paul’s 70th birthday, and I love the synchronicity of that.)
When the Beatles ceased touring in 1966, no one at Capitol/EMI could tell them to get back on the bus. They’d sold too many records.
When McCartney and George Martin hired a string octet to record “Eleanor Rigby” on what was supposed to be a rock record, no one at Capitol/EMI could tell them to scrap the strings and plug back in. They’d sold too many records.
When the Beatles locked themselves into Abbey Road Studios for 129 days of late-night recording and mixing sessions, trying to create the most provocative, impressionistic and eclectic LP in rock to that point, no one at Capitol/EMI could order them into detox. They’d sold too many records. Also, detox hadn’t been invented.
Record sales were the gauge by which the companies measured an artist’s clout, much like box office determines “star power” when an actor wants to get a pet-project movie off the ground. It’s the only thing that kept artists of McCartney’s generation from being wholly steamrollered by the record labels, and in some cases — most cases — even that wasn’t enough. If you think it’s gotten better since then, that labels treat their signed artists fairly and respectfully on all fronts, Mr. Lowery would like a further word with you.
The attitude that prioritizes convenience over the content that is conveniently purchased subtracts the only bargaining chip that artists possess — their sole leverage with the distributors who stand to make money off their songs. Money, sad as it is to say, buys freedom. Had the Beatles not made money for themselves and the label through record sales, their studio explorations would’ve been confined to whatever hours they could eke out when not playing concerts to pay the bills. This constraint would force diminishing returns: A system by which people could possess music they wanted free of charge, had it existed in 1963 and after, would have meant no Sgt. Pepper, and probably no Rubber Soul. (“What’s a sitar?” the Capitol/EMI suit would’ve said.)
Maybe the other major point of this brouhaha is that NPR, once respected, is now letting its interns write and post whatever head-up-ass blitherings cross their minds. (White’s claim that “I didn’t illegally download (most) of my songs” is followed in the next paragraph with: “During my first semester at college, my music library more than tripled. I spent hours sitting on the floor of my college radio station, ripping music onto my laptop.” Translation: I didn’t illegally download (most) of my songs; rather, I physically stole [most of] them.) The grownups probably thought it was harmless to let the baby radio jock play, whether her argument held water for thinking readers or not. But for the same reasons we don’t let little kids drive our cars, their decision cost them.
Emily? Your senior prom date? Was trying to get into your pants.