I Hate My Generation

A recent letter from Cracker’s David Lowery to Emily White of NPR has quickly gone viral in the last couple of days provoking much reaction from the music biz and it is, in my opinion, important reading for anyone who is an artist or supports the arts. The tumult of the rapidly changing music industry is complicated and divisive. Everyone has an opinion on what should stay or go but at the end of the day, the artist is always the one losing out. Lowery's summation of the philosophical issues at stake and how corporate interests obfuscate, if not entirely redirect the discussion amongst music consumers is shrewd and incisive in ways that kinda make me feel dumb for not seeing this perspective before. In evaluating my own downloading habits, it’s hard not to come up with anything more than empty justifications about why I let myself, well... steal.

I do purchase the lion’s share of my music but I’ve bit-torrented enough to know better. What Lowery really nails is both the way we have allowed and perpetuated the erosion of an artist’s worth in our culture and also just how real a cost there can be to artists, highlighting the particularly tragic losses of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) – two songwriters I greatly admired. They may be extreme cases but I don’t know anyone attempting to earn a living creatively (musicians, writers, photographers, actors, etc.) who hasn’t felt a shift for the worse in those efforts with the emergence of an “everything for free” consumer attitude when it comes to content via the Internet. Most still flummoxed by effective ways to monetize websites, employers’ budgets shrivel. Dwindling advertising, government funding and donation bases all mean less staff, most on a freelance or contract basis, who are forced to work for less than a long-held market worth.

So, yeah, great, Hippie 2.0, it’s a nice idea: art and expression should be free; so should health care and university and doughnuts but they aren’t. I don’t contend that it’s a right to earn an artistic living but that doesn’t mean that those who might, even in the most modest terms, shouldn’t. This isn’t Darwinism at work: this is about where we choose to spend our money. The case is being made that the shiny toys we fill our lives with are nothing without something to fill them with, and maybe that should be worth a few bucks in light of the few hundred or thousand we spend on the husks. I only recently bought my first IPhone so this dilemma is freshly apparent to me. As is the addiction I now have to those insidious Angry Birds.

I have to imagine that the bit-torrent model of collecting music also affects how we listen to it. If you have the equivalent of unlimited means to go into a store and buy one of everything on the shelf, and such a concept appeals to you, why wouldn’t you? People fill up entire hard-drives with a music collection that is all but impossible to really appreciate. Even in my record-buying prime, when I might get four or five CD’s a paycheck, it took a long time to absorb and connect to each of those records the same way. It took more time and focused listening than most of us allot these days to any one activity.

Our entertainment choices are vast. When was the last time you invited a friend over to listen to a new record? I’m not sure this is a by-product of digital culture, maybe just my age. “Yah, bud, when I’m done writing my thesis, preparing my PowerPoint presentation, wiping my kid’s ass and grouting the tile in the guest bathroom, I’ll come over and check out the new White Rabbits record with you. Between all the important text messages I’m going to get throughout.” My own general level of anxiousness may also be to blame. If I’m listening to that record, then I’m not doing something else, and surely that something else is more urgent!!!! (Whoah... exclamation outburst. Sorry.)

From a creator’s perspective, the fact of having to constantly justify my worth is demoralizing. Yes, of course, it’s what we all do every day: to get love, to get raises, to get you to buy my record and there’s no simple determination of quality – it’s not basic math, an equation unarguably resolved. I know some people cherish what I do and some people hate it and most people have no idea who I am and that’s all okay. But this emotional tear-down/rebuild is what we do in our heads all fucking day. Endless judgment. We wonder if we’re actually any good, if we have any business putting ourselves on stage or on record or on paper, if we shouldn’t just get a business degree. Higher incomes and prestige seem to stay in those gated neighbourhoods. God help you if you have talents in the humanities: enjoy your lifetime two-room apartment. That might be a metaphor, I’m undecided.

Some artists have indefatigable resolve and egos that surpass their abilities. Some are just the right combination of savvy and creative and love the hustle. I’m just scared of most things. Regardless, we do it in the hopes that it might become some kind of career. These days, people seem to have become just fine with the notion that the arts should only be a hobby. I almost feel, if I was to give in to my most cynical suspicions, that people love getting music and books and movies for free because it feeds an age-old subconscious pettiness: you’re no better than me, that’s not art, I could do that, I was in a band once...

I shouldn’t go there. We all like free stuff. My perspective is also unavoidably coloured by having been raised on one type of music acquisition entirely to seeing it change dramatically, maybe permananetly. I'm not pining for any good old days but I can't get myself in the head of a 15 year-old who likley has only dowloaded their music, whether paid or shared. Music Industry guru Bob Lefsetz posted a reply to Lowery's letter that seemed to think Lowery was just cranky and bitter and that if he'd written better songs, he'd have sold more records. He defends the model of Spotify - which I've never tried so can't really comment on - and urges embracing the new model, whatever it may become, saying Lowery has missed the bigger picture. I think Lefsetz may be the one a bit off the mark this time, more shadow-boxing against arguments Lowery never actually made than hearing Lowery's version of the big picture. He acuses Lowery of talking in an echo chamber and bullying an NPR intern but here Lefsetz sounds like the barstool crank. Lowery seems neither bitter nor stuck in the past, he's just using White's comments as a launching point for asking the consumer to think about their role and how market forces can shape our personal ideologies. This post on Billboard is actually a much more compelling argument about stealing music, claiming maybe it's not the epidemic we think it is. The author, Jay Frank, sets a more encouraging tone and there are several Intruiging reseach links there - check it out.  

Anyway, the more I think about Lowery’s letter, the more I find most of his arguments irrefutable. He’s perhaps a bit too generous in his description of record companies’ contracts but he understands how fundamentally broken our relationship to music is right now. A capitalistic society demands we monetize just about everything. While that’s what we have, we still have to find room for all types of purpose, even those that aren’t so profitable. I covet the income of a doctor or an accountant but I have neither interest nor aptitude in those fields. If my prioroties were different, I could have chosen a different path so I'm reconciled to the ups and downs of my pursuits. Still, I work daily to better my craft, not more so than those professionals do, but not necessarily less. So what am I worth? Market says, not a whole hell of a lot. Is it just, as Bob Lefsetz contends, that I don't make good enough music? Possibly. But then no one can download an appendectomy, so it's probably not a fair comparison. 

However, that doctor and accountant and I may intertwine unexpectedly. My need for their talents may be obvious upon injury or my money-laundering scheme coming to fruition but their need for mine might be less tangible. I just might help them through a tough day down the road or score a significant moment in their lives, and they may never know it’s my voice in the background.

If you can’t see what value the arts bring to your life, you’re a goddamned blind fool. Someone designed the chair you’re sitting in. Someone thought about the shape and colour and fabric and mechanics of it. Someone might have had Styx or Segovia flooding into their ear canals while they drafted the concept or beveled its edges or Photoshopped the ad for the catalogue. Now think about what it cost you. Was it a fair price for that chair? Is it comfortable? You took the time to pick it out and thought about how it reflected your taste and personality. It’s starting to take the shape of your ass. Now what song have you been humming to yourself all morning? Yes, the answer is “Call Me Maybe”, I know, I know, but seriously… what’s it worth to you? What did it cost?


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