The Internet: land of opportunity or just a different way for musicians to starve?

Sometimes its good to be challenged, to step back and question if your beliefs still hold water.

I recently read a very thought provoking (but VERY long) article from David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker (I seriously love both bands): Meet the New Boss, Worse Than the Old Boss? I don’t agree with all of his points, but I can see where he’s coming from.

Like I said, it’s quite long, but it’s worth reading when you have time. You can skip around a bit and still get the gist of it, which is that the freedom and opportunity many of us thought the Internet would give musicians is not panning out, that tech industry giants — Apple, Google, Amazon, Spotify, etc. — are simply taking on the role that the music industry giants used to, and controlling the flow of content.

Only they actually appear to care even less about musicians than the cynical record executives did. According to Lowery, the potential for a musician to actually earn a living from what he creates seems to be diminishing, not growing. The new gatekeepers seem to want all content to be dirt cheap or free. Never mind that musicians are human beings who have to eat and pay rent. Lowery makes some good points.

I sometimes think of 2002 as a mini-golden age for rock ‘n’ roll. It was a time of discovery for me. I found so many great bands during that time. In part, it’s because I had recently moved into the orbit of KTSW, the excellent college radio station at Texas State University in San Marcos (formerly Southwest Texas State University).

But I also have a pet theory. I think there was a brief period in the early ’00s when the Internet helped independent artists find their audience and actually helped them. After that, the Internet turned into a drain for content and began hurting them, just like the major label artists.

If you had told me that at the time, I would’ve argued. I totally bought into the whole cyberpunk ethos (see my blog post on the subject). Ideas like: information wants to be free, always yield to the hands-on imperative, the street finds its own uses for things. Those ideas, and the sheer potential of computers and the Internet captivated me.

On some level I still believe those things. I enjoy the freedom of expression the Internet gives us and hamfisted attempts to stop copyright violations such as SOPA put that freedom at serious risk. It’s also not cut-and-dried. If you clamp down too hard on that sort of thing, you will eliminate some very creative works. I’ve blogged on that subject before.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that all that “sharing” I defended so hard for so many years, may indeed have been hurting many of my favorite musicians. As someone who works in journalism, I’m also a content creator, and my industry is also struggling because of the Internet. It would be very hypocritical of me to tell musicians to suck it up, when I am facing many of the same challenges.

That doesn’t mean I think we can or should go back to the old model, but it sometimes seems to me that we’ve raised a generation of people to believe that they should never pay for creative content. It would be nice if people who call themselves music fans would show some appreciation and spend a little money on the musicians they say they love. You can’t really call yourself a music lover if you’re OK with the musicians starving or winding up on the street. If we want artists to keep creating, we should throw a little money their way.

I quit trying to download the Internet years ago and now I pay for music when I can. I’m more likely to buy digital files than CDs, but I do buy them. It’s kind of hard to say after I’ve found some music I love and played it a few dozen times that the artist’s digital album is not worth $10 or $15. I’m pinching pennies too, but I can afford that every once in a while.

There are some signs of hope. As Lowery says in his article, Bandcamp and CD Baby appear to operate with artists in mind. They aren’t huge in the scheme of things, but I believe they are helping. Another interesting development is the rise of entities like Patronism and the Eye and the Sky Collective, which curate good music and create a system for fans who want to support and interact with them to do so.

If we can get musicians and music lovers on the same page maybe we can both get what we want: great music for us and the ability to pay rent and put food on the table for the artists.

I would love to get some comments on this subject, especially from musicians.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Internet: land of opportunity or just a different way for musicians to starve?

  1. A similar thing is happening in the publishing industry, the self-publishing revolution has hurt writers for the public expect us to just release a novel and charge only 99 cents for an e-book version. How on earth are musicians and artists meant to survive if the art we work so hard on is hardly rewarded? sigh…

  2. Pingback: Terre Internet, opportunité ou crêve- la -faim pour les musiciens ? « Pourquoi je n'aime pas le beurre de cacahuetes…

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