Part of the problem
To begin with, NPR intern Emily White wrote a piece about how she never really had a physical music library. She misleadingly states that she “didn’t illegally download (most) of” her 11,000 song iTunes library. She didn’t illegally download it. She just ripped it from CDs that belonged to her college radio station, copied files from friends and family, and swapped burned CDs.
Despite not having “illegally downloaded” most of here music, she clearly hasn’t paid for it.
But I will stipulate that Ms. White isn’t part of the problem. Ms. White states that she is a frequent concert-goer, and it sounds like she’s also a Spotify subscriber. Even if she hasn’t paid for much music in the past, she’s clearly putting money into the music industry—more money than most people, I’d expect—and she clearly has a paid-for venue for listening to music now.
But some people, like Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowry will, apparently, not be happy unless we’re all buying shiny plastic discs or paying for inferior quality downloads from iTunes.
Despite claiming that his intention is not to “shame or embarrass” Ms. White, Mr. Lowry proceeds to do just that—while ignoring the fact that, unlike most people, Ms. White is patronizing the artists.
I’ll state, for the record, that I almost entirely disagree with Mr. Lowry. While I would agree that people who enjoy music needs to support that music, it is not our responsibility to ensure the artists get paid. I certainly want artists to get paid. And I both buy music and attend shows, which has the convenient side effect of doing just that. But I don’t grudge anyone who declines to buy CDs because they don’t want to waste resources on the necrotizing near-corpose of “Big Music”.
But all of that is beside the point. Because David Lowry crossed a line.
On a personal level, I have witnessed the impoverishment of many critically acclaimed but marginally commercial artists. In particular, two dear friends: Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Chesnutt. Both of these artists, despite growing global popularity, saw their total incomes fall in the last decade. There is no other explanation except for the fact that “fans” made the unethical choice to take their music without compensating these artists.
Shortly before Christmas 2009, Vic took his life. He was my neighbor, and I was there as they put him in the ambulance. On March 6th, 2010, Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart. Anybody who knew either of these musicians will tell you that the pair suffered depression. They will also tell you their situation was worsened by their financial situation. Vic was deeply in debt to hospitals and, at the time, was publicly complaining about losing his home. Mark was living in abject squalor in his remote studio in the Smokey Mountains without adequate access to the mental health care he so desperately needed.
I present these two stories to you not because I’m pointing fingers or want to shame you. I just want to illustrate that “small” personal decisions have very real consequences, particularly when millions of people make the decision not to compensate artists they supposedly “love”.
Mr. Lowry can put all the disclaimers he wants into the above paragraphs, but what it comes down to is that he is implying a cause and effect relationship between fans not buying enough shiny plastic discs, and two artists killing themselves. I’m sure economic issues contributed to Mr. Chestnutt’s (the case with which I am more familiar) tragic death. But I think that his fans are very far down the list of people to blame. Mr. Chestnutt’s problems were not just mental—he was in horrible, daily pain due to a car accident that had crippled him. If economic issues are to be blamed for his death, the core issue was not slow CD sales—it was a lack of access to affordable physical and mental healthcare that should have been his right has a human being.
I was deeply saddened to hear of Mr. Chestnutt’s death. It was a tragedy. But don’t try to make some poor young lady feel guilty about it because she doesn’t buy CDs, Mr. Lowry. Don’t exploit the death of your friend because you don’t thing some girl is buying enough music.