A month or so ago, Cracker front man (and music business school academic) David Lowery wrote "An Open Letter to Emily" which, as most people know by now was a response to a blog by Emily White, a not quite 21-year-old intern at NPR's "All Songs Considered".
Lowery's piece is a well reasoned, measured and documented explanation of how stealing music has hurt musicians and songwriters. The article went viral and was "shared" by everyone I know.
I read Lowery's piece before I read Emily White's blog post so I decided that in all fairness I needed to see exactly what she had to say. It turns out that as good as the “open letter” is, Lowery almost completely misses White's point. White's blog "I Never Owned any Music to Begin With" reveals an honest portrait of a young person growing up in the internet world. White is not championing stealing music (although she admits to having done so). She is also refreshingly not one of those people who jump on the bandwagon of "the new paradigm" (e.g. give the music away for free so you can sell a ticket and/or a t-shirt).
As an aside, the part of White's blog that probably irks Lowery and others is the section where she describes "sitting on the floor of my college radio station ripping music onto my laptop" from the promotional album sent to the radio stations by record companies. I submit that this has been done forever (through various forms of media) and that anybody who works in the music business at any level will admit that they love getting free stuff. Also, I think that people like Emily White are this generation's culture vultures – they love music, they absorb it and in some ways help illuminate what's good and bad for the rest of us. That's what college radio did before colleges started shutting down these stations. But, I digress.
White's major point is that while she has 11,000 songs in her iTunes library, she has only purchased 15 physical CDs in her lifetime. Her point is that she doesn't care about owning the physical artifact. For someone who grew up in the album era and still obsesses over his record collection, this is shocking. However I have witnessed the same phenomenon in my teenage daughter, who is a huge music fan and whose tastes are as eclectic as they come. She listens to music constantly, primarily through Pandora and songs purchased from iTunes. I just counted and she has exactly 30 CDs in her collection.
White is not arguing that music should be free and that David Lowery should not be paid. She is asking for "one massive Spotify-like catalogue of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices". I can remember fantasizing about the same thing as a kid – now it is very nearly a reality.
To those who argue that Spotify's payment system is unfair – I am not sure that the issue has been fully and finally determined ,yet but I can think of two initial responses. First at least someone is providing a mechanism that pays for music and therefore combats piracy and second, as old line music publishers used to say, music is "a penny business". For better or worse there are more sources of pennies now. Also, Spotify is now second to iTunes in terms of generating revenue for record companies – so it's not going anywhere. It has been said so many times before, we are witnessing a huge change in the way the music business is structured. It is painful for a lot of people, from performers to studio owners to lawyers but I can't help thinking that the core components of the business – artists and their fans are in a healthy position. The rest of us need to learn to adapt. I don’t like it any more than David Lowery but it is reality.