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Your romantic notion doesn’t pay my rent: David Lowery, Emily White and the future of music

‘Starving Artist’ by Ebony Lace.
A short while ago, Emily White, who is an intern at NPR, made a blog post in which she admitted that, despite having 11,000 songs on her iTunes, she had paid for a grand total of 15 CDs in her 21 years of existence. Is that statistic shocking? It certainly was to David Lowery, singer with Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, who on Monday wrote a detailed, open-letter-style response to White.

This open-letter has been blowing up on social networks and music sites over the last few days, and I wanted to share it here as it’s pertinent to my own situation and I’m keen to see what other DM readers think. In the essay, Lowery asks White to think about how her actions and attitude has effected the music industry as a whole. He uses facts and figures to back up his assertions, and while not everyone is going to agree with what he writes, it’s an excellent essay that is well worth reading:

I must disagree with the underlying premise of what you have written. Fairly compensating musicians is not a problem that is up to governments and large corporations to solve. It is not up to them to make it “convenient” so you don’t behave unethically. (Besides–is it really that inconvenient to download a song from iTunes into your iPhone? Is it that hard to type in your password? I think millions would disagree.)

Rather, fairness for musicians is a problem that requires each of us to individually look at our own actions, values and choices and try to anticipate the consequences of our choices. I would suggest to you that, like so many other policies in our society, it is up to us individually to put pressure on our governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly when it comes to artists rights. Not the other way around. We cannot wait for these entities to act in the myriad little transactions that make up an ethical life. I’d suggest to you that, as a 21-year old adult who wants to work in the music business, it is especially important for you to come to grips with these very personal ethical issues.


What the corporate backed Free Culture movement is asking us to do is analogous to changing our morality and principles to allow the equivalent of looting. Say there is a neighborhood in your local big city. Let’s call it The ‘Net. In this neighborhood there are record stores. Because of some antiquated laws, The ‘Net was never assigned a police force. So in this neighborhood people simply loot all the products from the shelves of the record store. People know it’s wrong, but they do it because they know they will rarely be punished for doing so. What the commercial Free Culture movement (see the “hybrid economy”) is saying is that instead of putting a police force in this neighborhood we should simply change our values and morality to accept this behavior. We should change our morality and ethics to accept looting because it is simply possible to get away with it.  And nothing says freedom like getting away with it, right?

This article presents (in a roundabout way) two things I have been brewing over for a long time, in regards to file sharing.

The first one is this: why does the onus always seem to be on the creator of art to accept that their product should be free, rather than on the consumer to analyze the impact of their actions on the quality of art?

It has happened here on DM in the past, especially in heated comments threads under posts about Pirate Bay, where the question that tended to get asked the most was “why should an artist expect to get paid money for what they do?”  (Unfortunately, since we switched over to the Disqus comment system last month, all our old comment threads have been wiped, but readers are more than welcome to keep the discourse going right here.)

Well, as an artist, the most immediate way to refute that question would be to ask “why should you expect to receive art for free?” But to take it further, here is another question that is never, ever asked, and to me taps into the root of the whole problem: “if you are not willing to pay for music, then why exactly do you collect music?”

Seriously, though. Why? Yes, music is lovely (I should know as I have dedicated my life to making, playing and writing about it) but then so is beer, and if I expected to get drunk every day without paying any money for the privilege, I would quickly get the reputation of being an unpopular scrounger. It’s basic economics, but it’s still a concept many fail to grasp, or would rather substitute with the victim-blaming that it’s the artist’s fault for expecting to get paid.

So, to put it more Marxist-friendly terms: “why does a person consume a form of art?”

I should make this clear at this point, I have been a very heavy collector and consumer of music myself in the past, my forte being rare disco and obscure deep house. So I get it! I get the buzz of obtaining new music (not to mention that, being a DJ, I need to have access to new music). But there came a point when I realized that NO, I couldn’t own every single disco record ever made—thank you, Daniel Wang—but also, why in the hell would I want to?!

As a musician I have found that I learn more about music by concentrating on a smaller group of records/artists and listening to them more intently than I do from consuming vast swathes of music and not really getting around to listening to much of it. While a lot of this has to do with my own route from consumer to creator, the thought still niggles at the back of my head: have music consumers been driven into such a blind state of consumption that they simply MUST have everything, regardless of the cost to the medium itself?

And I ask this because sometimes it feels like the artists, the people who make our society more tolerable, more beautiful and even more inspirational, have been thrown to the wolves. One of the most common “validations” for the file sharing of music among consumers and listeners is that the labels have been exploiting us for years, so fuck ‘em. While this may be true, it’s very short-sighted and supremely selfish, as it (deliberately?) disregards the damage caused to the artists and, in turn, the musical landscape by the devaluation of the actual product. And while their work has been deemed financially worthless by the people who consume it (people who, presumably, want to hear/read/see/feel more of what the artist has to offer), what opinion do artists most often hear coming from the public in relation to art? That the quality is getting worse and worse. Well, I’m afraid these two things are not unconnected.

And here’s the second point that really irks me.

First and foremost, beyond being a writer and a blogger, I consider myself a musician. I create music regularly, I work hard at it, and I try and funnel all my non-music-creating activities back into helping me make more music. One day I would dearly love to be able to live off the money generated by my music. So, am I somehow wrong (or perhaps even evil) because I want this?

Some would say that I am, that somehow I am not a “true” artist because I have brought money into the equation and have aspirations to become “professional.” (How exactly does being considered a professional in your field invalidate what you do?!) To these folks I must stay clean and unsullied by money at all times, lest I become some kind of artistic “whore.” (And I LOVE getting called a “whore,” especially by people who can’t stop themselves downloading music like a junkie can’t say no to a fix.)

Well, newsflash: your romantic notion doesn’t pay my rent.

I need money to go on creating my art. I need money to live, and to peruse that at which I am good at. I need money to invest in the equipment I need to make music. I need money so I can spend time learning how to use that equipment properly, not to mention spending time on that actual art of music itself i.e. writing and arranging melodies, rhythms and lyrics. I need money to finance distribution in all its forms and the production of physical media. If I am to progress and be the best artist I can possibly be, I need the time and money afforded by being a professional in my field. I could make some bucks out of t-shirts sales, I am told, but I am not in this to be a t-shirt designer. I am in this to be a musician.

And another point that I should clarify: I have been heavily involved in “free culture.” From 2007 till this year I ran a label that dealt primarily with free downloads. I have released music through other labels that work on a similar basis.  Simply put, I love giving people some of my music for free. But not all of it. If I have a potential Number One song in my brain, something I feel could give me an ongoing, long-term income, and thus the freedom to peruse my art to a higher level, why would should I give that away for free?

I will always go on making music, of course. I don’t think I will ever stop playing with my Ableton and my Akai controller (until something better comes along) and I know now that, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t stop my brain writing strange little melodies all on its own. But while I will go on making music, I will also keep feeling the frustration of not being able to reach my full potential, of not progressing and of missing opportunities of creating bigger, wilder, greater art. Of using 40-piece choirs and 24 track analog desks, of playing around with original Moogs and top of the range compressors. And where exactly would the incentive for me to share my music with the world be, if the world isn’t willing to share something in return?

As uncommercial or abrasive as my music sometimes is, I consider it to be worthy of as big a fucking audience as possible. I don’t want it to stay in a niche, preaching to the already converted, I want it to travel and affect as many people as it can. And that’s another thing that costs money. Simply “putting it out there” is NOT enough, artists are still reliant on proven methods of PR and old/new media communications to make people aware of their work.

Here’s a case in point. Last year I made an album, and after punting it around to various labels who turned it down, I decided just to put it out there for free. It’s called “AKA” and there are a lot of guests featured, many of them MCs and vocalists from underground gay and drag scenes, but they all have something unique, refreshing and different to say. I want to give them the biggest platform I possibly can to get their messages across. So go at it, get the album, (directly here, or listen first here) it won’t cost you a thing, and if you don’t like it, you can have your money back. But I will still have to invest money in this project to see that it goes beyond small niche markets and has a chance of being picked up in the mainstream. Because I believe it deserves to be in the mainstream.

“AKA” is my fourth free download album release, and I hope it is my last. Not because I dislike giving away my music for free, or because I want to start sucking corporate cock. But because free culture is not sustainable, not for me anyway. Or for artists who want to progress beyond the bedroom and take their work out to a mass audience. An audience that is constantly telling us it WANTS and NEEDS new and exciting music, maybe the very kind of music we are creating. For artists who want to kick it up a level and become *gasp* professional musicians. Not t-shirt designers, not concert promoters, not writers-who-make-music-on-the-side, but PROFESSIONAL MUSICIANS.

Asking for money for your output is NOT a crime. No-one is expecting to get rich off music, just to be paid our dues.

I may be wrong, but I believe that we’ll never see another David Bowie or another Prince or another Beatles again. Not because talents such as there’s aren’t out there, but because the financial system that allowed those talents to flourish, and that in turn made the consumers used to obtaining a high level of art on a regular basis, are gone. That is in no way an excuse for the almost-criminal activities of major labels, and smaller labels for that matter, rather it’s just a statement of fact. Without access to the high calibre musicians/producers/engineers/designers/promoters/managers/etc that was afforded these artists through the label network, none of them would have been able to create their most seminal works of art, works that defined eras, inspired movements, elevated art forms. And, lest we not forget, raised the expectations of listeners to such a level that all else pales.

The public WANTS another Beatles/Bowie/Prince, an iconic, genuinely brilliant artist or band, for and of our age, yet to me the public doesn’t seem willing to pay for that.

So where do we go from here?


Posted by Niall O'Conghaile | Leave a comment
Rebellion in Spain
02:36 pm

Current Events


Forget the Rapture, Spain is where the action is, as tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the street for a sixth day. In Madrid, some 25,000 protesters occupied the Puerta del Sol Square, while others gathered in Barcelona, Valencia and Seville.

The protests, which started last Sunday, are against the the austerity measures implemented by the current government, the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE), in May 2010. The government’s policies have been blamed for the steep rise in the country’s unemployment to 21.3%, and for the calamitous state of the economy.

The demonstrations come ahead of the May 22 Municipal and Regional Elections, when it is expected the ruling Socialist Party will take a “drubbing”. Political rallies are banned under Spanish law on the day before elections, in order to allow a “day of reflection”. Though a police crackdown was feared by some protesters, Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said the police were “not going to resolve one problem by creating another”.

The main issue with the protesters is a desire for change:

One of the protesters, Carlos Gomez told the BBC:

This is an historic moment. Thousands of people have been camping in Sol since last Sunday with no flags or affiliation to any party.

Young people, old people, families, it does not matter. Everything is organised. There are tents to place your suggestions to the movement.
There are tents with food, where people are giving to the campers, tents with political debates, even one for childcare. We are not just asking for jobs. We are asking for a change in the political system.

We have no option but to vote for the two biggest parties in Spain, who are more or less the same. They are unable to solve any problem, it is just a nest of corruption.We are tired. In short, we want a working democracy. We want a change..

Paco, Valencia:

The protests are not really anti-government, but rather anti-big political parties, both the one in power and the main ones in opposition.

It’s an anti-capitalism, anti-market ruled society, anti-banks, anti-political corruption, anti-failed democracy, anti-degraded democracy and pro-real democracy protest.

It’s a protest that wants a better, real future, not the future that the government or parties in opposition seem to be able to provide.

The manifestos and proposals are quite left-leaning ideologically, but not linked to any political party, because right now, most of us don’t feel represented by them.

Paula, Vigo, Spain:

The protests began against Spanish electoral law, as we want that to change.

Then other movements started joining in and many political parties tried to make the protests their own.

But this movement is affiliated to no political party whatsoever.

There are young people, old people, unemployed, civil servants, pensioners, immigrants, campaigners for local languages, freelancers, right-wingers and left-wingers all taking part.

It is a beautiful movement.

The protests have brought comparisons with the recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia. However, there is a major difference - Spain’s economy is tied into the Eurozone, which means if the country is bailed out, they will be “owned” by the EU. Where previously Spain could have devalued their currency, this is no longer possible as the Eurozone, which is made up of 17 member states including Spain, has one shared currency - the Euro. Deputy Prime Minister, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcalba has said Spain won’t be another domino (like Greece, Ireland and Portugal) but a “dam protecting the eurozone.”  It may all be just wishful thinking on the government’s behalf, but whatever happens next, tomorrow’s Municipal and Regional Elections will be the first small step towards change; and while demonstrations may be nothing new in Spain, it will be interesting to see where this one goes over the coming days.

More pictures from the protest in Madrid here.

Live stream from Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid, here

Vlog from inside Madrid’s Puerta del Sol Square, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Portugal brings a little revolution to the Eurovision Song Contest

Once again, it’s the Eurovision Song Contest - that annual shindig where people who should know better represent their country in a live televised song competition. Even if you haven’t heard of Eurovision, you’re bound to have heard some of the past winners, such as: Abba with “Waterloo”, Teach-In with “Ding-a-Dong”, Lulu with “Boom-Bang-a-Bang”, France Gall with “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”, Dana International with “Diva”, Bucks Fizz “Making Your Mind Up” and Johnny Logan, with..well, Johnny’s your actual Mr Eurovision, having won the competition on three separate occasions.

This year the Eurovision has been slightly overshadowed by the (near) bankruptcy of certain Euro-zone countries and their bail out. This financial melt-down has inspired Portugal to select Homens Da Luta with their rousing radical ditty, “The Struggle Is Joy”, as their offiiclal entry into the competition.

The band have come up with “a politics-packed staging of their routine” which, as the Wall Street Journal reports, includes: lighting to commemorate the country’s 1974 revolution, outfits symbolizing Portugal’s history (which, apparently, shares a lot with that of the Village People), and lyrics that tackle the Lusophone nation’s parlous economic state:
There’s no point in tightening the belt
There’s no point in complaining
There’s no point in frowning
And rage is pointless, it won’t help you

Indeed, the €78 billion ($115.69 billion) financial bailout the country agreed with the IMF and EU last week will likely cause the Portuguese economy to contract by around 2% in 2011 and 2012, meaning that Homens Da Luta can’t afford to do too well when it comes to the voting, as hosting the competition next year — the winner’s honor — would likely add to the country’s budget problems.

Many people advise you to watch out
Many people wish to silence you
Many people want you to feel resentful
Many people want to sell you the air itself

This, surely, is a thinly-veiled reference to the multiple downgrades suffered by the country recently and IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn saying the package will require a “sacrifice” by the Portuguese people.

Moreover, just as some question the compatibility of the EU bailout package with the bloc’s treaties, Homens Da Luta, are being purposely vague with their lyrics in order to stay on the right side of Section 4, Rule 9 of the Eurovision Song Contest, which, just to recap, states that “No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the Eurovision Song Contest.”

This kind of specific political message is what saw Georgia’s 2009 entry excluded on the grounds of it’s Putin-baiting lyrics, bringing an unprecedented convergence to geopolitical tension in the former Soviet bloc and magenta sequin disco hot pants. According to Homens Da Luta, though, the message is more of a generalist call to feel good about Portugal.

“Our song doesn’t speak badly of Germany or any other country,” lyricist Jel told the BBC. “We go to Germany to show Europe that Portuguese people are not sad people. We are happy people who want to live with all our brothers in Europe.”


Portugal’s Homens Da Luta sing ‘The Struggle Is Joy’, after the jump…
With thanks to Ewan Morrison

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Here’s to a Better Decade
05:59 am


Lack Thereof


The above graph plots U.S. job growth by decade. Um, sobering, isn’t it?

The U.S. economy has expanded at a healthy clip for most of the last 70 years, but by a wide range of measures, it stagnated in the first decade of the new millennium. Job growth was essentially zero, as modest job creation from 2003 to 2007 wasn’t enough to make up for two recessions in the decade. Rises in the nation’s economic output, as measured by gross domestic product, was weak. And household net worth, when adjusted for inflation, fell as stock prices stagnated, home prices declined in the second half of the decade and consumer debt skyrocketed.

Here’s to a better decade.

(Washington Post: The Lost Decade for the Economy)

Posted by Jason Louv | Leave a comment
How to Create 1.7 Million Clean Energy Jobs
05:19 pm


Clean Energy


Great article from Climate Progress on fixing the economy with green jobs. The score’s been clear for almost 18 months: Obama’s New Deal needs to be employing the out-of-work citizenry of the United States to develop a green infrastructure for the country. With energy independence as the goal, not only would we employ the unemployed and stimulate huge economic growth, we would also have work already provided for the vets coming back from the Middle East instead of a bottle of gin and a place in the soup line. We’d also undermine the need for future energy wars.

The challenges facing President Obama and the U.S. Congress have not gone away. Paul Krugman worries that ?

Posted by Jason Louv | Leave a comment
Marty Beckerman: Kill Fatty
03:43 pm


Marty Beckerman


Dangerous Minds pal Marty Beckerman just sent me his new article, “Kill Fatty,” a proposal of Swiftian proportions:

Overweight people are fucking abhorrent, which seems like an obvious and uncontroversial statement, but you cannot turn your head these days without gawking at the vile cascades of shapeless distended flesh that ubiquitously engulf your grotesque countrymen.

Look at these nauseating statistics:

1. 33 percent of Americans are overweight, according to the federal government.
2. Another 34 percent are obese, which is even worse.
3. Six percent are ?

Posted by Jason Louv | Leave a comment
Atomic Number 79
02:51 am


Federal Reserve


Scene the First: Some time around the early days of the universe, neutron stars collide. Superdense stars with the mass of our sun but contained in a diameter of only about a dozen miles. So dense that even a handful would be billions of tons. Unable to resist each other’s gravitational pull, these stars careen into each other, spiraling inward, colliding and producing explosions from which, among many other elements, gold is formed. It is these cosmic sex acts that are the origin of the gold that exists in our universe.

Scene the Second: In the latter days of our universe, our Earth forms, and there’s gold in them thar hills.

The animal kingdom loves shiny objects?

Posted by Jason Louv | Leave a comment