The last thing the Internet needs is another analysis of the ethics of downloading music vs. buying it. Or the viability of the music industry’s current business model. Or the death of format. Or how streaming services are screwing over artists. And I’d like to reassure you that this isn’t really one of them. But after reading more than a month’s worth of well-intentioned but sometimes too impassioned reactions to a pair of columns that mention all of these topics, I can’t help but add my own two cents about how, why and by what means we consume music. You may start groaning… now.
Let’s begin with the instigator: In June, NPR ran a column titled “I never owned any music to begin with,” written by Emily White, a 21-year-old intern who is a self-professed “avid music listener, concertgoer and college radio DJ” and whose “world is music centric.” The controversial statements, if you can call them as such, are when White admits to having only purchased 15 CDs in her lifetime, seems to think of music only in digital terms rather than physical format, and the general conclusion that she essentially has no plans to buy any albums in the future, even though she dreams of a Spotify-like service with universal access and fair royalties to artists.
Thus started a shitstorm of Internet condescension, rancor, debate, hyperbole and all those other fun things that people do behind the security of a computer screen. Some people did so articulately: David Lowery, of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoveen, wrote a particularly thoughtful and thorough response, in which he offered a respectful disagreement while also mentioning the sometimes dire implications of letting musicians go uncompensated. Meanwhile, some of the comments on NPR were a little venomous, if confusing (“Life is not a bowl of internships”), and some were just hilarious (“WHAT WERE THE 15 CDS???”).
Speaking as an avid, insatiable consumer of music, White’s blog post sorta bummed me out. Not because I think it spells doom for the industry, or because I think these damn kids need to get off my lawn, or because it’s unfair to artists (there’s an argument for that but I’m leaving it to the artists themselves to better articulate). It bums me out because buying records is something I’ve always enjoyed doing — on the weekend, on a lunch break, or on a Tuesday, when new albums are put out on the shelves. Maybe I’m old-fashioned (I’m only 9 years older than White, for the record), but I take great joy in being able to pick up some new musical treasures and put them on the turntable when I get home. It’s like that “Peanuts” comic where Linus tells Lucy, “buying records cheers me up.”
In the interest of honesty, though, I feel compelled to explain that buying physical records is not my primary source of obtaining music. Digital promos sent from record labels is — as is the case for any and all other music journalists. Now, that’s never prevented me from buying music, sometimes even the same albums that I’ve been writing about (we don’t get many promos on vinyl). But once you’ve allowed your hard drive to clog up with countless advances, it’s easy to build up a detachment to the hoard of mp3s you’ve amassed, and you eventually feel the need to reconnect with music on a more attentive, tangible level. This is one of the reasons why I primarily buy vinyl. The ritual of it, for starters, makes it much hard to allow the music to fade into the background. But even more than that, it sounds remarkably better than digital music. Last week I picked up a used copy of Black Sabbath’s first album for $10, and can honestly say, with its deep, rich and ominous tones, it’s one of the best purchases I’ve made all year. And it’s been on this planet at least 10 years longer than I have, which makes a good case for durability as well.
The first and most important reason for why I buy music, and should always be anyone’s number one reason, is that I like it. I’m not going to buy a record by an artist whose records don’t appeal to me, even if I think they’re perfectly nice people. I’m no cheerleader for capitalism, but this is one area in which the free market makes perfect sense, particularly if the entire product is impressive. For instance, this month I geeked out on getting my copy of my favorite album of the year thus far, Baroness’ Yellow and Green, in yellow and green vinyl, of course (which sounds awesome, “Cocainium” is just… oh man). But there is something to be said of finding something to celebrate in an artist’s character as well. Every musician is a human being and is essentially doing their best, and that’s pretty much true across the board (there are exceptions), but there’s also the satisfaction in knowing your money is going toward an artist you respect and admire as well. I would have happily paid for Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange anyway, but that the singer approached his audience with a heartfelt and honest statement about his sexuality in an unguarded, vulnerable manner (particularly in a genre so frequently concerned with hypermasculine sexual conquest) probably accelerated my purchase by a few weeks at least.
I tend not to buy a lot of stuff, in general — my wife and I tend to agree that we don’t need more objects taking up space in our house. But I do buy, on average, two to four records a month. I don’t necessarily think that’s a lot, but I realize it’s more than the typical person buys. In fact, most evidence points to the average person buying less than one album per month, so I suppose I’m in the minority. But music is something that I value, and as such budget for it. That Emily White doesn’t isn’t necessarily a result of being born to a younger generation; plenty of people don’t buy any music at all. The difference is that most of them don’t actually listen to that much music. So, I don’t care to render any judgments on how or why people spend their money on music, or don’t. I think there’s value in seeking out as much music as possible, and sometimes that means streaming it, sometimes that means downloading it, and sometimes that means going to the record shop and putting down cash for a few pieces of vinyl.
I can only speak for myself, but I know this: I want my favorite artists to keep making records, and because of that, I like to do my small part in encouraging that to continue. In music, just as it is in journalism, nobody expects to get rich. But knowing that there’s an audience to support it can sometimes mean the difference between working even harder at it or giving it up altogether.