Dave Allen

The Internet could not care less about your mediocre band

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If you are new to this debate or just joining the fray I’d like to point you to two links that are relevant to this very heated discussion: Who Cares About the Future of Music? and Cash Music a non-profit company, of which I am on the board and an adviser, that builds platforms for artists to build into their own websites allowing them to sell their music, T-shirts, concert tickets etc, and keep 100% of their proceeds.

In defense of NPR’s Emily White.

Last week I read with fascination the outcry of the self-appointed, self-centered “defenders” of musicians vs the Internet. i.e. musicians. The brouhaha had been kindled by a 20 year-old intern at NPR, Emily White, who made a confession that upset the maudlin, mildly-talented David Lowery and grownups in general who can write. They piled on trying to savage her, but not to worry; as UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher most famously retorted after being criticized by Geoffrey Howe, a member of her cabinet – “..it was like being savaged by a dead sheep.” So yes, bring on the dead sheep.

Why were people jumping all over Emily? Her post was titled: I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With. Here’s the first part of her post:

A few days before my internship at All Songs Considered started, Bob Boilen posted an article titled “I Just Deleted All My Music” on this blog. The post is about entrusting his huge personal music library to the cloud. Though this seemed like a bold step to many people who responded to the article, to me, it didn’t seem so bold at all.

I never went through the transition from physical to digital. I’m almost 21, and since I first began to love music I’ve been spoiled by the Internet.

I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric. I’ve only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs.

I wish I could say I miss album packaging and liner notes and rue the decline in album sales the digital world has caused. But the truth is, I’ve never supported physical music as a consumer. As monumental a role as musicians and albums have played in my life, I’ve never invested money in them aside from concert tickets and T-shirts.

But I didn’t illegally download (most) of my songs. A few are, admittedly, from a stint in the 5th grade with the file-sharing program Kazaa. Some are from my family. I’ve swapped hundreds of mix CDs with friends. My senior prom date took my iPod home once and returned it to me with 15 gigs of Big Star, The Velvet Underground and Yo La Tengo (I owe him one).

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. The walls were lined with hundreds of albums sent by promo companies and labels to our station over the years.

All of those CDs are gone. My station’s library is completely digital now, and so is my listening experience.

This is a 20 year old student telling it like it is. My only concern is that she may have never heard the sonorous sound of a vinyl recording. Other than that she has my utmost support.

Musicians (and as a member of Gang of Four I include myself here) don’t automatically deserve to make a living. They are not a special subset of society that should be supported at all cost. If that were the case there would surely be an honest argument against the States who are laying off teachers, police and firefighters; teachers educate our children, police and firefighters protect us from harm and sometimes death. Musicians, like all artists, are part of the foundation of our cultural groundswell and music is part of our reptilian past – every living thing has a heartbeat. Yet we talk of the “music business” and that’s where The Rime of the Ancient Mariner comes in..

The constant whining by David Lowery (this isn’t the first time) proves only that, whether he knows it or not, he doesn’t understand the Internet and how people use it (more on this later in the post.) Like many, many people who have had their lives or businesses upended by the Internet, his nostalgia runs so deep he wants everything to be the way it used to be. Ain’t gonna happen. If he looked long and hard in the mirror he might confess to himself that the way it used to be was a tragedy for the majority of musicians, and probably not that great for himself either, as his bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, like Gang of Four, were not exactly in the upper echelons of fame. We scraped out a living by touring and yes, David, selling T-shirts. The adage that musicians always pay back the mortgage to the labels but never own the house is entirely true in so many cases. We can’t blame the Internet for that.

This is where Lowery outlines his case. I take issue with it in its entirety because Lowery is attempting to solve the wrong problem. He is attempting in the present to solve a problem of the past – lack of music sales; ergo, damage to musicians income levels or lack thereof since the advent of the Internet. (Oddly he doesn’t mention that the music industry is most likely the only industry to ever, ever, sue its own customers. An inconvenient truth.) He even lays out in fine detail how much Emily would owe if she’d paid for all of her music (most of which came from the labels as “promos”. Once again Lowery doesn’t mention how music writers and radio DJ’s sold those promos to record stores..just saying.) He then asks her to cough up the dough for starving musicians.

He also rather insensitively points out, while undermining his argument, that “the average income of a musician that files taxes is something like 35k a year w/o benefits.” That’s almost $10k more than the current US median wage. There are around 8 million unemployed people here in the USA, many without a place to call home, who would gladly take that income. I find him so condescending that I want to break something right now.

I also find it disgusting that Lowery conjoins the deaths by suicide of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous to this topic. He knows very well that those two brave artists, much braver than he, suffered through circumstances that were extremely personal and difficult to control. Had they been musicians or not, had nothing to do with the incredibly unfortunate outcome of their lives. It only goes to show how shallow and specious his entire argument is if he has to pivot it on their deaths.

Jay Frank wrote a post in response to all of this. In it he points out that Lowery need not worry about people downloading his music. Frank provides us a snapshot of a Google search: “when I went to look on Google Insights to see the level of demand for free music by David Lowery’s group Camper Van Beethoven, the message I get is, “Not enough search volume to show graphs.” “This basically means, from what I can gather, that less than 50 people per month in the entire world are even showing intent to steal his music. Statisticians basically refer to this as essentially zero.”

Here’s Emily again:

If my laptop died and my hard-drive disappeared tomorrow, I would certainly mourn the loss of my 100-plus playlists, particularly the archives of all of my college radio shows. But I’d also be able to rebuild my “library” fairly easily. If I wanted to listen to something I didn’t already have in my patchwork collection, I could stream it on Spotify.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.

That last line is the most important in this context. It also spells doom for musicians wanting to make a living by just selling music. The convenience that Emily is searching for is, as she mentions, provided by Spotify – by doing so she shows us that a musician’s enemy is not the music downloader. The enemy is Spotify, MOG, Rdio et al who license entire music catalogs from labels at great cost. The labels (in my case Warner Bros) then pay a pittance in royalties to the artists. The winners in this vast charade are the labels and venture capitalists.

Believe me I know. I recently received a royalty statement from Warner Bros in which I found that one of our most popular songs, ‘Natural’s Not In It’ had been streamed or downloaded through paid online services, almost 7000 times. That netted me $17.35. Now that was just one song out of our entire Gang of Four catalog. The statement amount in total, my share, came to $21.08. There was a big, red-inked stamped message on the last page that read, “Under $25 do not pay.”

Lowery points out in his passive/aggressive “Letter to Emily” that people are buying less music these days. I wonder if it has ever occurred to him that maybe that’s because they are being served up an all-you-can-eat cheap buffet of music from the likes of Spotify?

Anyway, I thought that this issue was long behind us. I wrote about where music and musicians were heading back in 2008. Here’s an updated version of The End of the Music Album as the Organizing Principle. And here’s Dear Musicians, Please Be Brilliant or Get Out of the Way.

Anyway, back to the Internet.

In what may, or may not, have been a misstep, Lowery posted his rant to The Trichordist blog whose tag line, Artists For An Ethical Internet, says it all. In using that tag line they show in brilliant light how much they misunderstand what the Internet is. And by doing so they undermine the very validity of their presence on the Internet. They can yell at the Internet into infinity and it will never blink.

The Internet can not be ethical. Only users of the Internet can be said to be ethical, moral, or philosophical; they may be terrorists, kidnappers, racists, deviants; they could also be atheists, religious zealots or spiritualists; they might be gay, straight, bi, married, divorced; employed, destitute…the list goes on. Whoever they may be they are users. The Internet is its own thing. The Internet doesn’t give a damn about musicians or your mediocre band.

And finally there’s this – Lowery writes about “immoral and unethical business models.” And includes this – “..they are “legitimate” companies like Google.” What’s with the quotes around “legitimate” does Lowery think Google is not legitimate? No, he thinks Google is the problem (read Devil..) because Google in his mind owns the “Unethical Internet” because of its advertising prowess. And I quote – “Google is also selling ads in this neighborhood and sharing the revenue with everyone except the people who make the stuff being looted.” Looted! Unbelievable.

He then rambles on about the “cost” of free music downloading – the $1000 laptop, the costly iPhone or Tablet, as if people only use these products to download music! He also falls into the same trap that U2′s manager, the ISP bully Paul McGuinness, falls into – blame the ISP’s for allowing access to the Internet, where as we know, people only go to steal music.. McGuinness is so well informed about the Internet that in the Billboard article I linked to he talks about the Googles! And he also said this about Apple and Google – “They didn’t invent the MP3, they just made the best one.” Erm.., what?

Clearly this a fool’s errand. At least we know who the fools are. They are what the economist Paul Krugman calls “Very Serious People,” for only they know how to fix things. Unfortunately, everything they do or say has no grounding in reality.

Grownups fear youth. That’s unfortunate. By sharing her reality, Emily White shows us she is grounded.

[Update] This just in, literally. @AmazonMP3 If you wanna get 19 of Paul Simon’s solo hits for $2.99, youre gonna have to do it by tomorrow: amzn.to/KHsARp Now who’s fooling who about the declining incomes of musicians?


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  • Alex

    Hi Dave,

    While I can see your point that musicians shouldn’t expect to make decent money let alone even a living, I do have to wonder– do you include independent film producers, photographers, video game designers and writers in that camp, too? Because their work is taken all the time as well.
    If I illustrate storyboards, or if I am a freelance copywriter for an ad agency, and my client doesn’t pay me my day rate, do I chalk it up to the modern age, and just get another job?
    If I am a band like Beach House and the ad agency or client in question chooses not to use my music, but instead makes a sound alike, should I raise my fist in the air that I’m with the times?
    Perhaps you can provide me with occupations that you have given your approval of being fit for making a living in the singular sense.
    Because while i haven’t done all of the jobs above, I have done more than a few, and I’ve been burned a few times by people who think my work isn’t worth anything. And frankly I can’t afford to be burned any more.
    Any suggestions would be very helpful.

  • Mal

    Dave, you haven’t done anything at all creative in decades. Who cares what you think?

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  • http://www.putthatshitonthelist.com lukeoneil47

    I feel like making light of Lowery’s hypothetical internet downloads is a bit disingenuous. It’s like when Republicans criticize wealthy Democrats for trying to enact minimum wage legislation. Are people only allowed to speak out for causes that directly impact their own pocketbooks?

    That said, I’m somewhere in the middle on this argument. I wish Spotify or something like it would crop up that is a lot more fair for musicians. I don’t mind paying for music, I would just like to see more of it go to the people who made it.

  • George Lenker

    I can see, and respect, some of your points. I also can see, and respect David’s. I won’t blather on about my areas of disagreement with you. Others have made similar cases already and you’ve been very responsive. Kudos.

    However, I must take issue with one of your points (which no one has addressed): You have stressed several times that Emily didn’t illegally download music. This is technically correct but let’s be real: She ripped (off) tons of tunes from the NPR library. So while she didn’t “download” them from file-sharing sites, what she did was not so different. And do we know how many of those songs she let her friends rip to their libraries? No.

    So, make your points, fine. But let’s not pretend what she did wasn’t virtually the same as downloading them from a site. One can consider it stealing (as I do) or not, but it’s the same as downloading.

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece,


  • Ant

    I’ve just reached the 30 mark, I still remember buying my first album on casette, and remember the joy of waiting at the record shop at 8:59 to run in and get the album that I’d been waiting months for and spending weeks listening to it over and over, but increasingly over the years my life has become more and more digitised. I spend most of my time at or near a computer or phone, and while I have a collection of over 500 CD’s at home, I never listen to them. As soon as storage was reasonable they were copied straight onto the computer. Since spotify came out, I don’t think I’ve bought more than 2 albums. That is my source for music.

    Consumer listening habits have changed, most people I know don’t even want full albums any more, they just cherry pick their favourite songs and bundle them into playlists. The Market and consumer behaviour has changed so drastically over the last 10 years, and the music industry is doing it’s best king Cannute impression trying to stop the world that has already raced past it. The majority of artists will need a backer, someone to put up the cash for the recordings and adverting, someone to promote them, but the out dated contracts and the mechanical rights and they still apply to digital sales are the thing crippling the industry, not the consumer.

  • Chris Whitten

    In the end I think it’s better to value good artists.
    I’ve read lots of good photographers are leaving their jobs, or being made redundant.
    If there is not much money in music, and music artists aren’t valued, lots of talented creative young people will find alternative careers – which is bad for music.
    I believe you get what you pay for.
    Whatever the new business model is, the priority for consumers should be supporting great music (or great photography, or great journalism).
    If everything is left up to simple market forces, we’ll end up with art that pays (generally populist, like Beiber and GaGa) and art that doesn’t pay will become a hobby.

  • http://www.ambersexton.com Amber

    BTW, I work in the photo industry, and a lot of photographers get their panties in a twist about people taking their photos. Photo usage is not something the public has ever had to buy before and trust me most people stealing your picture are not potential customers, since photo usage is generally a business to business transaction. It is not worth having your pictures so watermarked and impossible for photo editors to save by having your website as flash, because users that steal the pics wouldn’t buy them, and photo editors will often pass you by if you make it hard.

    Photographers also want to go back to the good old days, when many of them could make a living. But they also made money on a type of photo that is justifiably not worth much anymore. Mediocre photographers are definitely also wise to figure out the new way things work become awesome and indispensable.

  • http://www.ambersexton.com Amber

    As a person who was young in the pre-digital age, I also got much of my music for free. My and my friends made tapes, particularly good mix tapes were copied again. I raided my mom and dad’s albums, I made many of my own shirts with band names. I went out to see bands at local clubs in NYC, like CB’s and such and back then the clubs were crowded and bands had long guest lists I was usually able to get on.

    When I could I paid for new records, paid to see larger bands, bought a shirt. But not that much, most of the musicians I listened to were also not rich and not making a lot of money on their art. Not that I was begrudging them but my own finances didn’t allow me to purchase tons of new records and pay for arena concerts. But often I bought used records, and most of my friends still do that a lot, I don’t see how that’s adding to royalties much.

    Now because of digital music, I do have more of it than ever, thanks to torrents, but the amount I have to spend on music hasn’t changed much. When something comes to town I want to see live I usually have to pay, and now if I want a shirt I buy it. But honestly this whole argument is somewhat of a straw man, as you have pointed out. Musicians as a whole are not highly compensated, and those ‘lucky’ enough to have been able to record with major labels often don’t see many royalties.

  • http://www.north.com/author/dave-allen/ Dave Allen

    Will, we would make sure that our designs don’t leak. Our agency’s business model is to take note of the changes that will affect our business, and we did that a few years ago and adapted to the new digital reality. Musicians need a new business model too because everything has changed. I’m sorry that I don’t have a better answer than that.

  • http://www.north.com/author/dave-allen/ Dave Allen

    Robby, I appreciate your sentiments and I’m glad that you like my music. I’m also glad that you have access to it now, and for free. That’s entirely ok with me. I have no idea if that ad revenue is shared with the labels I am on. I don’t spend my time worrying about that, just as I have never spent my time worrying about how MTV ever paid royalties either. There are not many models out there that help musicians properly capture all available revenue streams so I’m not going chasing rainbows. The business has changed so dramatically in the last decade or more that it no longer resembles the business I became part of more than 30 years ago. And that’s fine. Nothing lasts forever.

  • http://www.north.com/author/dave-allen/ Dave Allen

    Tom, I’m not justifying stealing, nowhere in my post or comments have I justified stealing. Did you read the entire posts, all three of them, before commenting? Is it that you can’t be bothered? I find it disturbing. And where is this from – “I also believe that the hypothetical argument of “no one would ever buy the music they’re stealing anyways” is poor and irrelevant.” Not from my post for certain.

  • Will Buckley

    Dave, you were right, I was kind off topic last night. Forgive me for my passion, it is just obvious that musicians need to make a sustainable wage.

    But I also fhought of your business and I couldn’t thinking about what would happen if your designs were leaked after hours and hours of work and they lost all their value. I would imagine your client would be very unhappy and you would be furious.

    So how is that different from musicians losing control of their work?

  • http://www.DarlingsOfChelsea.net Robby

    And Dave, I mean no disrespect, we just obviously disagree. I’m a rock musician and I love Gang of Four, but I don’t own any of your records. You’re a musical inspiration to me and many of the bands that I love.

    If we would have had this discussion ten years ago, I would have run down to my local record shop and bought your records. Instead, I just searched on Grooveshark and over 400 results came back, and within 15 seconds I was listening to “Entertainment!” for FREE. There was a video add for a terrible band that I first had to watch for 10 seconds and then clicked “close”. Now I’m streaming ALL of your music FOR FREE ALL DAY while Grooveshark makes money by showing me more ads from within their website (served by something called AdRoll which is like a Google Adsense ad). Then I watched your live videos on YourTube, where I don’t have to leave the comfort of my home or buy a concert ticket to even experience it, I had to see a few ads, but that’s ok with me.

    How much of that ad revenue are you/your band mates/EMI/Warner getting? NOTHING. Are you really saying this doesn’t piss you off ??? Come on.

  • http://www.tomwehrle.com Tom Wehrle

    You justify stealing if the demand is so low that Google Insights doesn’t graph it out. Weak. Incredibly weak. I also believe that the hypothetical argument of “no one would ever buy the music they’re stealing anyways” is poor and irrelevant. This is an ethics issue, to me.

    I fully understand that there are a lot of views on this, some artist care and feel they should be paid, others are thrilled their music is being downloaded for free. I think more often than not, it’s the newer artist that don’t realize the harm in people stealing their music. However, I do believe every artist should be able to determine all of this (whether they want to give away free downloads, or charge for them).

  • http://www.north.com/author/dave-allen/ Dave Allen

    Robby, I’m not denying anything, I’m just not necessarily agreeing with all of your points. That’s what we are debating. Steve Jobs certainly did an end run around the major labels who were too feckless to outwit him. If Steve had wanted to distribute music then he would have licensed it. He did not create iTunes to get around this licensing as you say. He started iTunes to sell music as an online music retailer. They are the world’s biggest music retailer, a milestone they achieved back in 2008! http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2008/04/03iTunes-Store-Top-Music-Retailer-in-the-US.html Why are you ragging on Apple, a company that sells more music than any other company in the world? I really don’t see the logic in that stance. Once you move to YouTube, Google and Apple as the enemy I’m afraid to say you appear to have lost the plot completely.

    Your enemies are obvious – you list them: Napster, Kazaa, Morpheus, Megaupload, PutLocker, PirateBay. I don’t know why Napster is in that list because they became a company that licenses music from the labels. The rest, and there are many more too, have been dealt with by the authorities as far as I know. Is that not good enough for you? What more can be done – in a concrete and workable fashion I mean?

  • http://www.north.com/author/dave-allen/ Dave Allen

    Joseph, thanks for contributing another clear-headed comment. Everything you say is correct and certainly practical re getting your music out there under your own control. I love that you understand that it’s about giving the music fan a choice of where to buy your music. And your point about music sharing via mixtapes or loaning of CDs doesn’t get addressed by the musicians who hate the sharing ability of the Internet.. Keep doing what you’re doing, it may well work out, and if it doesn’t at least you can rest on the knowledge that you gave it a really good try.

  • http://roychristopher.com Roy Christopher

    Didn’t Billy Corgan already solve all of these problems with fan retweets?

  • Joe

    Dave, yes the game has changed but I hope you don’t think it’s over. It will be a sad day if folks believe that the status quo is the best we can do? That nothing can be done about say, search engines and social sites making huge advertising profits from the traffic to illegal sites? Major Internet companies track your traffic and commercial site’s traffic all the time on the Internet in order to sell advertising. This same technology can be used to take the monetary reward out of shabby business practices.

    Principles are even more important than ever when change is happening. They were developed over time to guide us through any storm of human controversy or conflict. While circumstances may change, principles do not.

  • http://www.DarlingsOfChelsea.net Robby

    My whole point was that the TECHNOLOGY companies profit from the pirated music. There are too many companies to list but we can start with Napster, Kazaa, Morpheus, Megaupload, PutLocker, PirateBay and we can move on to the ones that are more in the grey but still very guilty; YouTube, Facebook, Google, Grooveshark, and yes Apple.


    One of the more telling phrases, from Steve Jobs himself “[S]ince Apple does not own or control any music itself, it must license the rights to distribute music from others.” Apple knowingly created the iTunes store to get around this licensing.

    And it’s not just music, it’s movies and books too:



    There are so many lawsuits that you just can’t deny it.




  • http://www.velvetcookierecords.com Joseph Barjack

    Hi Dave,

    I’ve been following all sides of this and I have to say it’s been an interesting read all around. One of the things that I’ve focused on is what the poster David (at 8:35 am) mentions that Emily wrote: “I do think we will pay for convenience.”

    Since digital music is the convenience the next step should be musicians posting songs/albums to their own webpages and linking each song or album to their paypal account for direct payment. This way the only fee that’s taken is paypal’s fee for being a middle man. I did this as an experiment for one of my labels where I posted the songs from my new album onto the site. I also posted the album via CD Baby to iTunes, Amazon, etc. This way there’s a chance for people to buy my album if they either stumble across my label via the web or stumble upon my album via the big digital stores. Granted, I’ve had no buyers of my songs either way but it is highly gratifying knowing that as an independent artist I can offer my album for sale in different digital marketplaces and still have control over my product via copyright.

    To me, the main thing here is giving your potential fan a choice of where to get your music. To make it available either directly from you or through mainstream outlets. During the early days of punk rock (note: I was born in 1982 but have done a great deal of research on it as I’m a huge fan. And Dave could elaborate on this too if he’d like) it was hard to get records into stores without major backing (especially in the US. Black Flag tried to get MCA distribution for “Damaged” but that ultimately backfired leading them to be caught in a legal battle over rights to their name and the record for two years after the release of the album). The alternative was to press the album yourself and sell it via mail order and at shows. The internet has broken down that barrier and now both major label and independent musicians can be found on iTunes and the like for a small fee. If punk rock taught us anything it’s to embrace change while retaining control over your own product. If someone bought my album and gave it to all their friends that would be damn cool. Seeing that I did the same thing for my friends with tapes (and later CDs) which is how we shared music in the 1990s.

  • http://www.north.com/author/dave-allen/ Dave Allen

    BTW, anyone got any thoughts on this: [Update] This just in, literally. @AmazonMP3 If you wanna get 19 of Paul Simon’s solo hits for $2.99, youre gonna have to do it by tomorrow: amzn.to/KHsARp Now who’s fooling who about the declining incomes of musicians?

  • http://www.north.com/author/dave-allen/ Dave Allen

    Zark, thank you for your very level-headed and succinct comment. You clearly understand that the game has changed forever.

  • http://www.north.com/author/dave-allen/ Dave Allen

    Joe, if you look through this thread of comments you will find that I have said many times that companies who illegally share copyrighted material should be shutdown under the appropriate prevailing, jurisdictional laws. I don’t know how many times I can say that today. Of course businesses and companies can be held accountable. You simply can’t make the entire global Internet accountable for many, many reasons that I don’t want to keep pursuing here.

  • Joe

    Dave, not sure why you seem to be avoiding my point? I specfically said Internet Companies and Businneses, and a company can be held accountable, as you point out. And the technology exists.