June 20, 2012

Competing Paradigms Create Self-Perpetuating Myths

"...fairness for musicians is a problem that requires each of us to individually look at our own actions, values and choices and try to anticipate the consequences of our choices. I would suggest to you that, like so many other policies in our society, it is up to us individually to put pressure on our governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly when it comes to artists rights. Not the other way around. "
So wrote University of Georgia professor David Lowery, formerly of the band Camper Van Beethoven, in response to a post on NPR's All Songs Considered blog in which a recent intern for the show attempted to illustrate from experience how little influence physical devices for encoding media had in her life. Her short post and his response emphasize once again that debates about physical vs. digital media are less about aesthetics and more about the economic models that each facilitates. Lowery is exhorting a more holistic, moral treatment of our decision-making, though I don't think the format of his response was justified by the specifics of the NPR blog post or that it was the best possible expiation he could have made for his ideas... but I'll say more about that in a second. Getting back to the economics; making digital media as gainful for musicians and artists as physical medias were able to in their heydays is still proving problematic. So, society reels at having to accommodate consumers who are unaccustomed to wealth and have been shown how to eat their cake without having to pay for it, while still dabbling in baking on the side. Today's society seems more complex than previous iterations, or is at least less apprehended for the moment, and so the needs and moralities that industry has to codify in order to survive are proportionately more complex, leaving us to linger in intellectual dissonance until the right horse gets backed by enough cash or sympathetic voices.

Having said that, I think Lowery's response was a little heavy-handed in linking his premise to the evidence. His piece plays on the idea that most of White's library was pirated, but in my experience an "11,000+" song iTunes library could fairly easily derive most of its bulk from free albums. You may have noticed a recent proliferation. NPR's intern even indicated a background in college radio, and I don't think anyone would suggest that music she acquired in that venue could be called into question. I for instance, have been a poor music writer, so I show my support how I can and some folks graciously share their music. The connection is more important, so long as it's sincere. In the context of Lowery's response to NPR, I think the dissonance comes from talking about "music" and talking about the "music industry", the latter explicitly being a regulated arena for monetizing the former. In this "day and age", as they say, the presumption should not be that any "industry" is the exclusive source for its genre of product. Music as an endeavor has a complex economy, but it only sometimes involves money. So, there should be no fundamental stigma associated with huge playlists you didn't pay for, but we tend to think that the emphasis should always be on individual agency - artists decided whether or not to join their respective "industry" and conscientious consumers that strive to support what they love happening in the industry should also be pro-active enough to support what happens outside of it. When our personal aesthetics are so neatly monetized and the "industry" becomes our primary source for aesthetic gratifaction, we end up with competing paradigms that blindly subsume real discourse into their respective narratives. The real risk is a status quo perpetuating our contemporary caricatures; pirates and hooligans, doddering executives and fresh faced start-ups. Nothing is so simple and everything is at risk, because those caricatures function as loop-holes for marketeers. The symbols and repertoire of those figures are easy to appropriate, particularly as the banality of the most lucrative pockets of the industry manage a brief standardization. 
"On a personal level, I have witnessed the impoverishment of many critically acclaimed but marginally commercial artists. In particular, two dear friends: Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Chestnutt. Both of these artists, despite growing global popularity, saw their incomes collapse in the last decade. There is no other explanation except for the fact that 'fans' made the unethical choice to take their music without compensating these artists."
Lowery underscores the tension between old and new paradigms by discussing two recently popular figures of famously marginal means. Their deaths were truly and profoundly tragic, but they are also graphic illustrations of a generational gap regarding the expectations that one can reasonably have of society. While a past generation saw music as a career and vocation, I have noticed members of my own generation begin to perceive their efforts as gently compromising themselves in order to advance in the industry that most prolifically represents the artistic endeavor they find most resonance in. The flipside seems to be that the old paradigm understands the new one's utility about as well as the new can identify faults in the old. Thanks to a trenchant establishment and rapid social change, philosophical and personal divergences start to fall along generational lines. One generation's learned behaviors are inhibiting the ability of the new to experiment with novel forms, because each looks to different theoretical models for composing their lives and their projects. Their is a superficial incompatibility because bad narratives construe that distinction  as "freeloaders" and "diamonds in the rough" or "exploitable outsiders". Most of the people I know with huge playlists of free music got it in exchange for other forms of advocacy.

Having said all of that, Lowery's thesis is clearly correct. Artists do deserve to be compensated for their work and music-appreciator's everywhere should consider it at least in part their responsibility to help precipitate a situation where that happens morally and efficiently. Even more critically, it should be a reminder to all of us - if one of us wins the lottery, let's leverage our winnings against the system. Man. In the meantime let's just remember, the format's aren't broken - our lives are just trying to figure out what behaviors they want to integrate, with very little external help or input. Love and be loved.

Read Lowery's original article here and the NPR post that precipitated it here.

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