The Intern Did It

     |    Wednesday, der 11. July 2012

I would like to thank the perpetrators of this blog for allowing me to be the absolute last person on the Internet to pick up and examine the story of young Emily White, the 20-year-old intern at National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered show who published a post on the show’s blog admitting that although her library of music has over 11,000 songs, she’s only bought 15 CDs in her life and didn’t pay for the rest of the music.


This confession — and in particular Ms. White’s admitting that she frankly felt no guilt for making it — predictably elicited howls of outrage, most notably from David Lowery, founding member of post-punk jokesters Camper van Beethoven and, later, a more serious outfit called Cracker, who did a post for The Trichordist, a site that subtitles itself „Artists for an Ethical Internet,“ in which he lovingly explained to her why this was a bad thing. (I admit to not having followed Mr. Lowery’s career since Cracker kind of fell apart, and was quite surprised to learn that he was now teaching a course in the economics of the music industry at the University of Georgia, which, because it presumably generates a kind of steady income that none of his bands ever did, somewhat, but only slightly, blunts my sympathy for him). And Lowery’s response, predictably, caused a bunch of other people, including the always-charming Steve Albini, to pen a response to him, telling him to get over it, already, we’re living in a new golden age.


All of this happened in late June, an eon ago in Internet time, so if you’ve already had your fill of the whole thing, I’ll excuse you from reading on. But an interesting thing happened as this was bounding around Facebook. A guy I know slightly, the great jazz critic Howard Mandel, asked how come it’s always the musicians whose troubles get highlighted, which, coming from an advocate for jazz, I found curious. But he’s right.


To review: the great sinner Ms. White told us that among the 11,000 songs she owns, only a tiny percentage were paid for. However, among the other things she tells us is that she worked for a college radio station where she had access to all of its CDs, that her senior prom date took her iPod and returned it full of music by his favorite artists, and that she did, in fact, buy some of the music she has, including those lonely CDs. The college radio station, she says, is now all digital, its CDs gone. Well, you horrible little thing, my situation is almost exactly the same, with a gap of several decades. The difference is, in my case the product was analog, and as such it was irreproducable by me. I could, once the hardware became available, make high-quality cassette copies of material on the records, which I got from record companies who mailed records to me because I wrote for publications which, they thought, influenced public taste and sales. And they sent me everything. Some of it I kept (and I have no idea how many „songs“ I might have had on what finally amounted to around 13,000 LPs), most of it I didn’t: I sold it or traded it for records I actually did want. So if we count that last transaction as a sale — since it always occurred at a record store — I still „bought“ only a small percentage of my music library.


But that was then. The advent of digital recording — or, more precisely, the release of digital recording on digital media, most specifically the compact disc — meant that, once the hardware caught up, perfect copies could be made and passed on. And that’s what the aggrieved artist, Mr. Lowery, is complaining about. It should be noted in all fairness, though, that although Camper van Beethoven began on a homemade record label staffed by enthusiasts, by the end of its run it was on a major label, and Cracker’s entire career, so far as I know, was in the hands of Virgin Records, another major. Lowery notes that anyone can go to a torrent site, find a Cracker album, and download a copy that’s every bit as good as the one you can no longer find in a record store (if you can find a record store) and he doesn’t see a penny from it. Albini et. al. make the point that he saw very few pennies from Cracker as it was, because that’s how the majors rolled, and they’re right. No wonder he’s reduced to teaching economics at U. Ga.: unlike, say, Jeff Beck, he’s probably never had enough at hand to invest or stash away in a bank account.


Albini and friends also make the point that today’s recording artists, operating under their own steam, make more off of a sale than the serfs toiling for the likes of Virgin ever did, and breaks out the old statistics that only 2% of artists back then broke even with the record companies. Of course, they don’t mention that there are, because of this democratization of the ability to record and release, far more artists than ever competing for that larger slice of the pie and that some astonishing number of thousands of albums released through CD Baby last year sold zero copies last year. None. Bupkis. That, my friends, is called cultural overproduction.


And, because I hear Mr. Mandel clamoring in the back of my brain, I do have to return to his question: why is it just the musicians we hear from on this issue? I’ve gone to torrent sites and noticed that there are computer games (an industry that vastly out-earns the music business at this point, incidentally), films, and, yes, books out there, ready for immediate download. Is there a connection between the fact that all of this stuff is available, albeit illegally, for free and the fact that Mandel and I are expected to write for free for hugely capitalized sites like the Huffington Post or Salon? (No links: why give ‚em the damn clicks?) Is there a sense that consumers are entitled to the use of other people’s creative endeavors for free? You bet there is. Is Emily White guilty of this? Hell, no. If anything, she’s more conscientious than a lot of people her age, and she’s laid it out for us clearly.


The issue here is not that a young professional in the music business who’s currently working for a radio show that exposes music to a huge audience which then, at least in theory, goes out and buys it, hasn’t paid for her music library, for the most part. The issue is that digital reproduction of any file whatever has led to a wholesale abandonment of personal ethics and that, a few weeks ago, the hive mind scapegoated the wrong person. As you were, troops, and remember: suffering does not make for greater art, so pay up.