David Lowery on Artists Rights

In a recent article for the Trichordist website David Lowery wrote an impassioned response to an article by an NPR intern, Emily White. Her article was about how she didn’t pay for music (apart from around 15 CDs) and posed the question “All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?” Lowery’s response was a lengthy exploration of the impact of music theft and supporting the artists’ rights to fair compensation.

David Lowery

David Lowery

Lowery’s piece isn’t perfect (his views on Spotify are open to question), and I don’t agree with everything he argues, but it is an intelligent and passionate article that raises some very valid points and highlights the dangers of a system where artists are not financially rewarded for their work. It is also pretty hard hitting in places. Music piracy may not have directly lead to the deaths of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous, but if two artists of their caliber (and not forgetting the brilliant Jason Molina)  can’t make enough money to pay for their healthcare then something isn’t quite right.

Crucially the article isn’t an attack on Emily White (as many critics have claimed), it is explicit in being a response to her challenging some of her beliefs. It has also had a very positive effect in the amount of discussion it has raised, many people saluting Lowery for writing it and many others publishing counter arguments.

A different Emily White writes a clear and intelligent defense of her namesake and makes some very valid points about the changing face of music consumption and the other ways that Emily Whiten (and those of her generation) support artists. Crucially she misses the key point of the article, the issue of payment. Lowery isn’t saying people should buy CDs, he is saying they should pay for downloads, and that point is ignored in the article. She also gives an effusive “yes” to the questions “All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?” but ignores that fact that this is already the reality for people. If you change the question to “All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it and not have to pay for it. Is that too much to ask?” then things get a bit less black and white.

There have also been a whole raft of articles from the poetic to the passionate which argue that music should be free and artists should play for the simple gift of having an audience that allows them to express themselves. This argument sounds good, but troubles me for a number of reasons. Firstly I am not convinced that a world with only amateur musicians would be a good thing, for artists or fans alike. How would bands pay for tours and recording, and the music would have to play second fiddle to the day job. It would make international touring impossible for most artists, and our venues would be filled with the same sets of local artists. Secondly it suggests that someone who works hard on their art doesn’t deserve to be paid for it. I enjoy reading books, watching films and listening to music, I am very happy to pay money to support the people who create the art that I enjoy.

It is also a fact that somebody is making money out of the illegal download industry. Why should the Pirate Bay earn an estimated $14 million annually for the distribution of files and the artists don’t get a penny from their consumption?

Travis Morrison (of the Dismemberment Plan) writes an amusing piece looking at the  ways in which people used to steal music. There is a lot of truth in what he says, and Lowery can sound like the old “home taping is killing music” campaigns of the 1980s. However, the scale of things is fundamentally different now and the impact much greater. You would need a team of people to create enough mixtapes to contain the quantity of songs that people exchange in one go on a portable hard drive. You can get as much music in one hit, for free, as [people used to spend a lifetime collecting.

Jay Frank makes some interesting points and points to the sad fact that major labels are still winning when in comparison to the struggle that independents have to make money. However he, like several others, points to Lowery’s declining musical status as the real reason he is making less money. This may be true (and it is a crying shame as he is one of the best songwriters in the world) but it is not the point that Lowery was making. If an artist sells less then of course they make less money, if an artist is popular and all their music is downloaded illegally then that is a legitimate problem for them.

Lowery is a brilliant musician and passionate about artists rights to be rewarded for the great work they do, and not make money for ISPs and file-sharing sites instead – I find it hard to disagree with him on that. He may have some views that are open to question, but he has opened up a fascinating and challenging debate and for that he should be commended.

By Dorian Rogers



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