Why We’re Still Paying for Music

Emily White couldn’t have known that she would end up dominating the discussions of everyone who sort of cares about the music industry. The 21-year-old NPR intern wrote a casual blog post in which she made the broad statement, “I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for album,” before saying she believes a “Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone” would be worth paying for, despite the fact that this service already exists–and it’s called Spotify.

Music business professor David Lowery proceeded to respond to young Emily by making a very lengthy rebuttal, which included phrases like “I also deeply empathize with your generation” and “Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!”

White may have been short-sighted, but Lowery’s response was overblown and condescending, as noted by numerous people, including Bob Lefsetz and Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes. Ultimately, owning music is an issue that’s personal to everyone.

I spent four years living in Nashville, which is home to the national treasure that is Grimey’s. Regularly appearing on lists of the best record shops in the country, it features a friendly staff and plenty of high-profile in-store performances. There were times that I walked out having purchased 15 CDs in one go (admittedly, many of those might have been from Grimey’s extensive stock of pre-loved merchandise, but I was still supporting a business I love).

A few blocks away from Grimey’s is Third Man Records, Jack White’s shrine to Jack White and proof that people are willing to pay for music. A copy of his liquid-filled “Sixteen Saltines” vinyl is currently on eBay for $450. Sure, novelty sells, but it’s ultimately the man himself that keeps records moving at Third Man, and the artists have already been paid by the time their (limited edition, oddly shaped or colored) records are resold online.

Which brings us to another point that’s been hammered in over the past few days: music has to be good enough to spend money on. The best stuff is obviously going to be a potential buyer’s priority, and that means artists have to prove that they are talented and worthy of earning real money.

Like Emily White, I get a lot of music sent to me for free. But as a writer, it’s also my job to think about the people behind the songs, and I’m more likely to go back and buy music I feel personally connected to. I have a promo CD of Sondre Lerche’s self-titled 2011 album, and I have a second copy that I purchased at one of his shows, because he makes very pleasant music and seems like a very pleasant man. I will always pay for We Are Scientists’ music, because I’ve only had positive interactions with them, going back years before I even thought I would be a music journalist. If I meet an artist and have a particularly good experience, chances are that I will go back and buy their record and reinforce whatever evangelism I’ve already done for them.

Personally interacting with musicians is something many people can’t or don’t want to do. But artists are more accessible than ever, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, with the purpose of maintaining fanbases. Sure, listeners may be initially downloading the songs for free, but a winning personality goes a long way. Does the issue become a lack of connection?

There’s no easy answer to the questions raised by White and Lowery, other than that they can’t be reduced to generational generalizations. I just know that I’m still in love with physical formats.

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