An odd thing happened recently: while I was teaching a class at the University of Massachusetts, a student was served with a subpoena for illegal music downloading. I don’t think that busting college students doing what the cultural encourages them to do is the answer to the problem, but I was not very sympathetic when the young man told me, “I just fundamentally don’t believe anyone should have to pay for music.”

How many of us would spend three years in law school, pass the bar, and spend an entire legal career giving away our services? Would we go through a carpentry apprenticeship program and build houses for free? Would we get an MBA, build a factory, and let anyone who wanted our product walk into the warehouse and take it? Then why in the name of Ani Difranco would we think we are entitled to free music?

I invoked Difranco for a reason. I was in Portland, Maine this past weekend and Difanco was performing in support of “Record Store Day,” a nationwide event to support non-chain music retailers. Unless you live in a town with an independent music merchant you probably had no idea that April 18 was Record Store Day. That would be most of you. (See “I Need That Record”—Movie Madness) There are only a few thousand left in the entire country. Massachusetts has just twelve, but we’re practically swimming in them compared to places such as West Virginia (3), Nevada (5), and Louisiana (5). Mississippi, the heartland of the blues, has just two indies in the entire state.

It’s easy to blame corporate rock, corporate news, and corporate radio for this mess, but we also need to blame ourselves. Somewhere along the line we stopped believing that musicians were hired help and started thinking of them as chattel. Perhaps it began with the Diggers and the Grateful Dead in the 1960s. The Diggers wanted to live in a “free” society, which they meant literally. Theirs was the ultimate anti-materialist, anti-money dream, but to affect it they became a tie-dyed Mafiosi who shook down local merchants and musicians. All that happened was that San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury ceased to be a hippie haven and instead became an urban nightmare of drug dealers, con artists, petty thieves, and violent sociopaths.

The Grateful Dead was more benign, but they added to the problem. The Dead allowed anyone to tape their shows and distribute the music for free. That business model worked for them because when they started the practice they were famous enough to make their dough on concerts, residuals, and merchandise. One might admire such an ethos from an established band, but the key and problematic word is “established.” Without meaning to do so, The Grateful Dead—and those emulating them—set the expectation that we could have something for nothing.

The effect is to kill music at the source. Just like most people never heard of Record Store Day, we’ll never hear future Grateful Deads or Ani Difrancos if we live in a world in which only established artists can support themselves. The only way to become “established” enough to give away music is spending a lot of time playing for tips, cadging meals and lodging from local promoters, and living out of a rented car. (See “Local Heroes,” Celtic Corner) The performers who played in support of Record Store Day—such as Difranco, Bad Religion, Tea Leaf Green, Neko Case, and The Decemberists—are ones you’d never have known if there was no independent music scene. If music production is left to the Big Four—Warner, Sony, EMI, and Universal—then by all means let’s all become pirates and steal the bastards blind. But if you want music that’s diverse, challenging, and fresh you need to pony up. Check out the reviews on this blog; unless the artists herein can sell a few CDS most of them can’t work. Now listen to their work and imagine how impoverished our world would be if their voices were silenced.--LV

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Dead weren't "established" when they first permitting taping of shows. Nor is there any evidence that they did it for commerce or a disdain for commerce. With very few exceptions, they charged admission to all their shows and regularly released commercial albums for sale. Later, of course, they expanded their sales to include remastered tapes of their live shows. Based on what the band members themselves said (repeatedly), they did so because they viewed each show as an ephemeral event that existed for them only in that moment. It was no Rolling Stones concert or Broadway musical in which the same thing happens every night. Also, the show necessarily included the immediate interaction with the audience, something that cannot be taped. That's what they charged for. Taping it? Garcia said: "When we're done with it, you can have it. We don't need it any more." In a sense, it was like McDonald's letting folks carry away empty hamburger wrappers for "free". The main point of it all had already been consumed. Now, whether this led some in the audience to arrive at a view that all music should be free, that's another matter that really has nothing to do with the Dead's taping policy. Also, the "free music" impulse that arose largely due to the ubiquity of digital music long post-dated the origins of Dead tapes my decades. The Napster kids never attended a Dead show.