In 2000, Napster's Shawn Fanning stood on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, projecting every ounce of his fratty, everyman dude-ness. Sporting a ratty baseball cap and a befuddled smirk on his face, he stood center stage next to a grinning Carson Daly. Metallica were in the midst of their infamous lawsuit against Napster. Fanning, taunting the band, wore a black Metallica t-shirt out under the hot stage lights. MTV's producers took apparent glee in cutting back and forth between Fanning and the members of Metallica stewing in the audience. MTV basked in the controversy.
To most people I knew at the time, Metallica looked like assholes. For all their talk of “Artist Rights,” they were actually Millionaires filing suit against a helpless college kid trying to share music with his friends. Not very punk rock. Fanning, wearing the t-shirt and fighting the powers that be, played the part of rebel. A pop culture revolutionary. Metallica, Dr. Dre, Madonna and a slew of other successful artists were mired in the role of good guys turned money hungry, corporate entities.
At the time, I was just another Clash and Portishead fan coming out of a privileged suburban high school, taking great pains to separate “real,” “authentic” music from the commodified and supposedly tainted crap filling up my radio dial. It seemed perfectly rational that small, emerging bands and labels needed the internet's file-sharing exposure more than Metallica needed another few million dollars. In spirit, I sided with the internet and the barrage of basement-toiling artists it would subsequently promote. Metallica and their ilk could go fuck themselves.
I began downloading free songs in earnest during my sophomore year of college. I never used Napster -- my preferred peer-to-peer was Audiogalaxy. Armed with little in the way of funds, Audiogalaxy fed my ample appetite for new sounds. If I couldn't afford to buy the albums legally, I reasoned, the artist at least would want me to hear the music.
I found track listings online and burned full albums for myself. This means of discovery had its moments, but it was a sorry substitute for the joy of going to a local record shop, walking away with some mysterious document, and engaging with the ensuing disappointment or surprise. When pirating albums, I noticed that I cared less and less about the music. If the sounds didn't hit me over the head immediately, I rarely gave a new artist that third or fourth listen any rewarding “grower” requires. Worse, downloading music turned into a compulsive behavior. If I found myself with little to do, or little I felt like doing, I'd dick around on Audiogalaxy and download a few tracks without thinking.
When Audiogalaxy was taken down, I took that as a cue to cease my file-sharing days. I became happier for it.
But I didn't want to become some holier-than-thou critic of my friends who pirated music regularly. I still associated that critical position with Metallica, and few artists I respected complained about the changing shape of the music business. Big labels, ones I still held disdain for, were being ravaged, and I figured they deserved it on some level.
"Some bands may be able to cultivate a following large enough to make a good living through touring, but for how long?"
I held fast to my meaningful relationship with music -- music I paid for. I kept my opinions to myself. This seemed perfectly appropriate. But my position on downloading shifted somewhat over the past year, initially for the most selfish of reasons.
I began to record music of my own. Secluded for two months in rural Minnesota last summer, I planned to begin a novel but ended up with an album of demos. When I returned to Brooklyn in the Fall, I did the basic things I imagined one does with a batch of demos: send them to indie labels, pass them out to friends, make a MySpace page, try finding other musicians to play with, etc.
My mind naturally wandered and fantasized about my music someday being appreciated or noticed -- that easy fantasy of someone at a small, respected label hearing it and putting it out. It was a nice daydream. It still is.
I've worked part-time at a Brooklyn cafe for a couple of years, and I've gotten to know quite a few musicians as a result. Some of these musicians are from very well-established, Pitchfork-promoted bands. Others are in the emerging groups we've all read and written dozens of blog posts about over the last couple of years. Upon my return, I saw something more clearly than before -- they were all broke.
I'm broke, but I have good reason to be. Trying to break through with various projects is one thing, but these musicians had “broken” already. I'd assumed, falsely, that if I regularly read about a band or artist, if they put out records, toured successfully, garnered loads of great press, then they must be making a decent living -- at least by Brooklyn standards.
The most successful ones were doing okay, but toured constantly, still lived in your standard crappy Brooklyn apartment, and had little-to-no savings. And those “breaking through” were just trying to eat, getting virtually no money from their records and lucky to break even on touring. Dispiriting as this was for my not-too-serious music ambitions, more upsetting was turning around to see friends supposedly sensitive to the music scene downloading leaked albums, professing to “love” them, and freely burning them for others. I imagined communities of young, artsy, low-to-middle-to-high income people across the country doing the same thing. Then I imagined today's high school and college students who probably see no reason whatsoever to pay for their music. Why would they?
I noticed how rarely, in all the music journalism I read online, anyone treats the basic responsibility of paying for the music you love as anything but a farce. I think this remains partly due to the stubborn, symbolic association with Metallica (i.e., rich people/major labels) along with the understandable reticence smaller artists have to take a stand.
We all know they'd be tarred and feathered for it, and are in the rare occurrence when true emotions come to the fore (David Sitek, Bradford Cox). And since everyone seems to download illegally, it appears unrealistic to imagine a movement for responsibility and respect coming from anywhere else, namely consumers who are getting whatever they want for free.
DIY culture is one of the more beautiful ideas to spawn from the artistic world. It's an attempt at Direct Democracy, compensating for lack of resources, empowerment for honest and organic ideas and creations. It's about artists/people getting a fair shake and pursuing personally meaningful ends. The “indie rock” scene has certainly seen itself in the context of that folk-garage-punk-DIY tradition. But the title, “Do-It-Yourself,” is insufficient. It reflects the personal empowerment aspect while masking something just as critical: mutual support and empowerment of a community.
Those older bands we revere were artists who lacked “skill,” but had overflowing amounts of talent and ambition. They got their thing together, put out records, toured. But to keep going, they needed folks at their shows. They needed fans to buy their records. Otherwise, today CBGB wouldn't matter for shit -- I repeat -- it wouldn't matter for shit.
There's a point of view, sometimes peddled by flaccid rock critics who apparently stand for nothing, that says everything will be fine. “Artists just need to tour more... The model has changed!” Yes, the model has changed. Artists and labels once made most of their money from selling records. Now consumers download said records for free. For every one song legally downloaded, eight songs are supposedly stolen. Those are not fighting chances, my friends.
"I don't see anything artful or transcendent in our favorite record stores closing."
Some argue that increased vinyl sales will make up for this. Indeed, vinyl sales jumped 89% in 2008. It has been uplifting to see the resurgence of vinyl and 7-inch culture, but here's the bad news: vinyl accounts for a miniscule percentage of all record sales. To be exact: 0.1% of all record sales in 2008 came from vinyl.
Others argue that bands simply need to forgo the hope of selling records and accept touring as their only realistic money-making option. Some bands may be able to cultivate a following large enough to make a good living through touring, but for how long? Not everyone is Radiohead. The chances of any band being able to survive, much less flourish, by that standard is a fraction of an impossibility.
It bears the question, do you really want your favorite band (you've pirated their last three albums) touring nine months out of the year? Their music will get worse, and the members will end up hating each other. Or you'll be seeing them star in the next Best Buy commercial... if they're very lucky. That's how these things go.
There's a romanticization of that image of the starving artist, someone willing to sacrifice their own well-being in order to live out a higher ideal via their work. But as a music fan, I don't see anything artful or transcendent in our favorite record stores closing, Touch and Go going out of business, talented musicians saying “fuck it” to enroll in law school because they're sick of stressing about rent, or a generation adapted to hearing an infinite shuffle of newly-pirated tracks blaring from an iPod dock or tinny computer speakers.
Living in New York, every so often you're broadsided by a particularly shitty day. Before it can end, you're forced to weather multiple, abhorrent subway transfers before getting home. Maybe it's raining outside and the train is traveling at the pace of a baby's crawl... until the train stops completely, and all you can do is wait. It feels like you're living in some compounded Hell.
You finally transfer into your next train and fortunately see an open seat... nope, someone just took it from you. You find a place to stand as the doors close and begin zoning out as soon as you pull away from the station. Too fazed from exhaustion to notice, two men with guitars enter your train car through a sliding exit door. It slams closed and they begin strumming their guitars, singing in Spanish -- some forlorn love song. Surprisingly, it's achingly beautiful, and their music lifts you out of your hellish day. Reminds you why you live where you do, why you're pursuing whatever sort of life you're pursuing. Maybe it even inspires you to make a change -- be less negative, look for more fulfilling work, or foster a more appreciative perspective of life. Your fellow passengers crane their necks to listen, in that rarest and most magical of metropolitan phenomena: spontaneous communal enjoyment.
But thankful as you may be, you had better give the guitarists your wrinkled dollar bill at the end. There's no reason to assume someone else will. And if no one gives up their cash, you won't be hearing any music on your packed train cars for very long. The musicians will be too busy picking up hours at a grocery store to make rent, no matter how badly they feel the “need” to play. And your day will remain as it was: unfulfilled and shitty.
If you find meaning and beauty from a musician's work and you want them to continue creating it -- then you are obliged to support them. If you like the idea of record stores, the people they employ, the values and spirit they promote -- then you are obliged to support them. If you're consistently doing one without the other, then on some level you, not Metallica, are the asshole. Out of basic politeness, I (probably) won't say any of this to your face and neither will your friends, your record store clerk, or your favorite band.
But it is the truth.