Consumer Beware


Musicians have to make a living, too.

by John D

Every month I like to listen to an album as I write and highlight that particular album in the hope that I might turn you on to something new. This time around I am listening to Rhett Miller’s The Dreamer (released early June). Recognize the name? You should, because Miller is the front man for the alt-country pioneers The Old 97s. The Old 97s are still going strong and show no signs of letting up, so don’t worry about an ominous sounding “solo album release.” This is actually his fifth solo album in the last 10 years, and I think he keeps getting better. Tracks of note: The Beatlesesque “I’ll Try To” and “Out of Love,” with one of the best lyrics I have heard in a long time: “I only miss you when I am with you… I am only happy when I’m singing a sad sad song.” (Full disclosure: I am predisposed to liking anything Rhett or The Old 97s put out because, having met and interviewed them, they are what is right about the music business: a genuine group of guys, hard working, and evolving as the music business is in constant flux (and happen to put on a fantastic live show).

So let’s talk about the music business. If you are a fan of music you may have heard about the NPR music intern Emily White. Emily, in her early 20s, was asked to write a blog for NPR Music, and whether she was asked to address a particular topic, I applaud her for writing what she did. For those of you that are not familiar with Emily’s topic, I will loosely quote her, and in essence distill her blog into a simple statement, “I’ve bought only 15 CDs in my life…and there are 11,000 songs on my iPod.”

Before we go any further, I want to discuss some simple math. If the average album has 10 songs, that is 1,100 albums. She has purchased roughly 1 percent of the music that she owns. Lets look at the iTunes model now. If each song were $1 that would be $11,000 (see I told you it was simple math) that had been generated for the artist (of course, when signed with a label, the artists receive a fraction of that money). She has purchased 15 CDs. At an average cost of $10 that is $150 spent. Which is once again around 1 percent of the money that she would have spent had she purchased all of her music. Let’s draw this analogy a bit further… go to the grocery store and buy a week’s worth of groceries. Now go to the cashier and pay for the coffee and a loaf of bread. It is safe to say that this would not fly.

Yet it is common practice when it comes to how people come to possess music (and yes, the grocery store analogy isn’t the best because groceries are not something you can use more than once, but it does illustrate the a point). Even worse, we have ALL procured some of our music this way. So, young Emily White publishes her blog, and it spreads like wildfire across the Internet. David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker) posts an open letter to Emily on why she is wrong. Kudos to David for writing a well-thought out and polite letter that goes in to great detail about why she is wrong and how she can rectify her “activities.” Kudos to Emily for being brave enough to write about this subject and do so in an honest manner.

Wow, I feel as if I have said a lot without really saying anything, but now I get to my point. Gone are the days of the big record label having a strangle hold on what is available AND being the tastemakers for the nation. They are no longer the gate keepers of music. This, I feel, is a very good thing. Now, at ever increasing rate, it is small record labels or even the artists themselves who are in charge of the business side of their music. Unfortunately, being a great band does not mean you have great business acumen.

So what exactly is the point of this meandering diatribe? I implore you, as a consumer, to be conscientious when obtaining music. You should be aware that this is how musicians make a living. This is how your favorite musicians make a living, and if they are unable to do so they will no longer make music. It should also be food for thought that as a consumer you are directly responsible for shaping the music business.

Hear this in August

•WYE OAK 8/5 The Bottletree.

A two-piece indie rock band that leans towards noise pop. A great laid-back show for a Sunday night.

•Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit 8/17 WorkPlay.

Sure, he just played a month or two ago, but it’s the full band, and he is that good.

•Old Crow Medicine Show and The Lumineers 8/23 Alabama Theater.

Old Crow fans love them, but expect The Lumineers to make this an even better show

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