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June 19, 2012

David Lowery Is Still on a Tear, Which is a Shame

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

His initial target this time is Emily White, an intern at NPR's "All Songs Considered". Ms White noted that she has over 11,000 songs in her music library, yet has bought only 15 CDs in her life. The clear statement is that she acquired the vast majority of that music illegally. White is just the launching point, though, as Lowery continues to rant about the "Free Culture movement", which he believes is the propaganda arm of largely unnamed "technological and commercial interests."

If this is starting to sound like looney-up-the-creambun-and-jam stuff to you, then welcome to the club. This is really a shame, too, because Lowery continues to have really important and cogent points to make. It's just that they get lost in the froth sometimes. Let me focus on what I think are the important bits.

Lowery notes that the majority of record companies do in fact pay their artists. Despite numerous well-publicized examples of despicable behavior, it's generally true that buying major label-produced songs or CDs will cause artists to get money. I don't buy major label-released CDs myself, but that's for personal reasons. Whether the CD is major- or indie-label released, the artists (and their support crews, engineers, etc) will get some money from a purchase, whereas downloading 11,000 songs and not paying for any of them will cause no money to flow.

He also notes that the vast majority of artists are really poor. This is indisputable and a seriously bad situation - those of you who read this blog regularly have heard me banging on and on about how artists (of all sorts) need to get paid. However, the fact that musicians don't generally make a good living has been true for at least the last five decades and the advent of digital music hasn't changed it and shouldn't be blamed for it. Not to mention that the "critically acclaimed but marginally commercial artists" Lowery likes are that way because their labels dropped them like hot potatoes the instant their sales dropped below some accountant's decision point. Again, that's been true for a long time - if you want to blame someone for that, blame Reagan-era changes in depreciation tax credits. More or less overnight it became incredibly expensive for record, book, and other makers to keep inventories of things around. Either your album was a hit out of the gate or it got scrapped (or in the case of books, pulped). Again, all this predates digital music by a long time.

Lowery has obviously been affected by the (self-inflicted) deaths of musicians close to him. How that is connected to illegal downloading is left to the readers' imagination. Likewise, he has a great idea: pay $18/month and get the music you want. Except he isn't clear on how his theoretical model would work better than the other subscription services that have so far failed to gain significant traction (in part due to labels' unwillingness to license content), or how a new service would funnel more money back to musicians who aren't getting (he feels) enough from existing services like Spotify.

Lowery points out that services like Pandora and iTunes have gone a huge distance toward making music easily accessible. The user experience of these services is way the hell better than things that came before. So why isn't Emily White, and generally her peers, using this service? Lowery's answer has to do with cultural brainwashing and rants about Kim Dotcom, which is a shame because it's a really good question. I've been thinking for at least the last 6-8 years that if the user experience was good enough then people would prefer the higher quality and convenience. I make my living doing user experience and I believe deeply in the power of a good experience. Have I been deluding myself?

I might be wrong, but I won't find out whether or why by ranting about Google, Viacom, Kim Dotcom and pretty much everyone else on Lowery's hate list. I hope White will respond - it's hard to be called out by a major industry figure for something she seems to know she's done wrong. And, to his credit, Lowery is very kind toward her personally but his adamant angry stance may not invite the kind of response that would enlighten us.

Finally, Lowery cites unsourced figures again claiming that the music business is in terrible shape. The 90/10 rule has applied far longer than digital music has existed; if it's now the 99/1 rule instead of 90/10 you need to show why - again, see Drew Wilson. Lowery's experience isn't in question here - the question is why he's going so far off the deep end at points.

(thanks to +Tim Pierce for the original pointer.)

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