If you're the kind of person who reads a local music blog, you've probably heard about NPR-intern Emily White's well-intentioned but horribly executed blog post about music piracy for the site's All Songs Considered blog. It's an article that generated controversy for the usual reasons that spring up with this topic--it touches on intellectual property rights and the music industry's dismal economic state, while providing the perfect occasion for lots of predictable "kids these days" generational warmongering.
Jason Thrasher In a recent blog post, songwriter David Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) laid out the consequences of not paying for music holds for working musicians.
Nearly as widely circulated was musician David Lowery's more-than-thorough response to White's piece. Aside from one insultingly egregious passage where he insinuates that piracy can be directly blamed for musician suicides, it's reasonable, edifying, and, unless you're completely devoid of a moral compass, difficult to disagree with: We should all be doing more to help musicians earn a fair living.
So to that end, I took my boss's advice and signed up for a Rhapsody account. I, like White, have been in a privileged position as a young music consumer. I've had access to free music through both Seattle Weekly and through DJing at the UW's student radio station, and this led to me buying far less music than I had in the past. Lowery's piece was the main factor in my decision, but, for honesty's sake, losing access to the radio station's library played a role as well.
As much as I like Rhapsody so far--it's easy to use, and it grants me access to the wide variety of music I'm so lucky to have become accustomed to--it makes me wonder if more accessibility is really the solution. Ignoring the obvious fact that my personal consumption habits, or those of any other singular individual, are practically irrelevant on a macro level, streaming services are another example of the abstraction that's led to my generation discounting the value of music.We all know that pirating music is the same as stealing. No matter how much some try to hedge around this fact, it's inarguable, or at least it should be. But what's also inarguable--and what, for me, is the crux of this issue--is that for many in my generation, pirating music doesn't feel like stealing. Reduced to digital files, music doesn't have the same tangible impact as a physical object like a CD or record. Streaming services take this process one step further--now, listeners no longer possess the music they listen to, but have intermittent access to someone else's gigantic record collection.
The issue of ownership often gets brushed aside, but it's an important one. When you own something, you feel responsible for it, and when you pay for physical copies of music, it's easier to feel responsible for the artistic endeavors of those who created it. Perhaps less expensive downloads or CDs are the solution, but with the average price of a CD hovering around $10, a decrease from $18 in 2002, I wonder how much lower they can conceivably go. Besides, people my age have shown they're reluctant to pay for music on a per-song or per-album basis, no matter how low the cost. That spending on music has decreased 47 percent since the early '70s is a testament to this fact.
Combating piracy, then, is a problem of determining how to assign value to what's become an increasingly abstracted commodity, and it's going to take a sweeping shift in consumer habits that seems increasingly unlikely in the age of the Internet. Basically, it's going to take lots of young people making a conscious decision to pay for something they're not accustomed to paying for. Call me a cynic, but it's hard to believe that will ever happen, barring government intervention or some sort of widespread, "artist rights" cultural movement.
For now, it looks like paid streaming services are the best solution--they provide the most convenient entry point to the widest variety of music. But they're also an imperfect solution for my generation because they perpetuate the same issues that led them to not want to pay for music in the first place. They're an abstraction of an abstraction, and in this sense, they still devalue music by creating even more distance between the listener and the people behind the music. That's why, as a 20-year-old who'll soon be paying for a Rhapsody account, it's hard to feel like my actions are really making a difference.