David Lowery, founder of Camper Van Beethoven ("Take the Skinheads Bowling," a well-known cover of the Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men") and Cracker ("Low," "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)"), wrote an open letter
to Emily White, a college-age intern at NPR's All Songs Considered, after she posted this
on the NPR blog. The issue at hand: Why college students--indeed, the entire "digital generation," or those who grew up in an era where music was more commonly ripped or downloaded than bought on a physical medium in a store--don't and quite possibly won't pay for music.
This is an issue close to my heart. I am not a member of the digital generation, although I was fortunate enough to begin working in what became generally known as the "Internet industry" almost 20 years ago. I love technology. I also love music. And for many of us who pre-date digital music, the process of buying music was something special and important in and of itself. I still remember the first (and only) 45 I ever bought with my own money: "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I remember saving my allowance to buy an album I just had
to have. I remember discovering "alternative" music in college and looking through the racks for hard-to-find albums at one record store after another.
As an adult, I wrote about music on a freelance basis for various local publications, reviewing albums and concerts and interviewing both local and nationally known artists. As a result, I know quite a few songwriters and musicians, some of them staggeringly talented. Not one of them is rich. Or anywhere close to it. In fact, most of them have to hold day jobs to pay the bills, and most don't have and can't afford health insurance.
Music is incredibly important to me. I can't imagine a world without it. I also can't imagine a mindset in which music is not worth paying for, in which being a musician or a songwriter is not a job worthy enough of payment for services rendered. We pay people to paint our houses, fix our cars, bring food to our table at a restaurant, but many of us won't pay the people who wrote and performed the song that instantly reminds us of our best friend, the song we danced to at our wedding, the song we listen to when we're sad. Why?
Lowery explores that question thoughtfully and cogently. He knows his subjects--the music business and the digital generation--firsthand as both an artist and a faculty member at the University of Georgia teaching about the economics of the music business. His students are Emily White's peers and share many of the views she expresses in her blog post.
White says her music library includes more than 11,000 songs--most ripped or downloaded legally--and and that she purchased only about 150 (15 CDs' worth) of them. Lowery totals up what it would have cost her to buy the remaining 10,850 songs, thereby supporting the artists she claims to love: $17.82 per month. He points out that while that may seem like a lot, it pales in comparison to what many people pay each month for a smartphone with a data plan, Internet service, cable/satellite TV, etc. It's also much less than the cost of the hardware (phone, iPod, laptop) White likely uses to listen to her music. "Why," he asks, "do you pay real money for this other stuff but not music? Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself? Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?"
And by doing so, Lowery points out, "your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking
it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!"
I don't agree with absolutely everything in Lowery's letter, but I do wholeheartedly agree that music is worth paying for and that not paying for music is a choice--an ethical and moral choice for which the individual bears responsibility. If you love music, please think about that the next time you hear a song you instantly love. Someone wrote that song. Several people made that recording and achieved the sound that excited you. They worked hard and created something special. Don't they deserve to be paid for it?