I have two stepsons who are in their twenties. When they were teenagers, I noticed that one of their least favorite holiday presents was the iTunes gift card. They could barely feign gratitude and they left the things unused. When I enquired about why they didn’t want free music, they explained that they could get all the free music they wanted online, and they didn’t need to download it song-by-song but could get whole albums just as easily.
My first thought was that this was some kind of illicit revival of Napster which I thought had been resolved all the way back in 2000 with the resolution of Metallica v. Napster. Peer-to-peer sharing of this type was illegal, so how could my kids be doing this? Soon enough I realized, however, that I was witnessing a generational change and that almost no one their age was buying music anymore.
My next thought was that the legal system had been overwhelmed by digital pirating and that musicians would soon be starving to death. The problem, I discovered, was so pervasive that there was really no point in me as a parent trying to fight against it. All that was left was to figure out how it might soon devastate writers.
Of course, the news industry had been staggering from the digital revolution for some time by that point, trying to find a way to avoid giving away its product for free. They explored paywalls and premium content, all the while trimming payroll and closing foreign desks. Nothing appeared to work, and unpunished pirating seemed like it would close off or undermine some of the few solutions that we’re being explored with some success.
The music industry had to adapt, and the patch so far has been for musicians to pretty much give up on selling CDs and instead focus on getting people to pay to see live performances. They tour more and they charge much more for their concerts.
This is interesting because if basically follows the model of the Grateful Dead. They were an improvisational band that did not perform well in the studio, so they spent less time making albums and more time touring the country, often doing ninety or more shows a year. They were unique in that they made no effort to keep people from taping and trading recordings of their concerts, and saw it as a way to increase their exposure and popularity. They didn’t charge more for their concerts, instead making up for their lost record sales revenue by having a higher volume of shows.
This past week, I looked into seeing a Dead & Company show in Philadelphia. This is an ensemble that includes three members from the original band, including their rhythm guitar player, Bob Weir. When I priced out the tickets, I found that two seats with an unobstructed view of the stage would cost me $453 after fees. This was a long way from the approximately ten bucks I paid to see my first Dead show in 1984. I decided I couldn’t afford that price, which is a shame because the set list from the show looks pretty good.
Obviously, the new version of the band has succumbed to the same economic pressures that have forced today’s musicians to pursue the Grateful Dead’s old financial strategy. They’re lucky they’re still good enough to sell out basketball arenas at those astronomical ticket prices. Most musicians aren’t so lucky.
Writers and news organizations can’t exactly replicate this solution, either, no matter how good or essential they are. It’s impossible to avoid giving away your product for free. But before I get to that, I want you take a look at a part of an interview Bob Weir gave back when the Metallica v. Napster case was still a live issue:
Despite your obvious belief in the potential of online music distribution, you have been an outspoken foe of Napster.
Of course. It’s like Marxism except they forget the “from each” part. It’s not a complete system because it consists of people taking and not giving, and it is therefore doomed to failure. It can really bust stuff up. It can really fuck up American popular musical culture. I argue this point with advocates all the time. I say, “How are musicians going to make a living and let their craft be their livelihood?” They always get squinty eyed and go, “But don’t you see, don’t you see?” They have nothing else to say—and I don’t see, though I wish I did. People pick on Metallica by talking about how rich they are, but it’s not about them or me. I’m a guy who can afford to give it away, but I’m talking about the guys in my band, who need to make a living. I’m talking about me when I was 18 years old living on the street. We couldn’t afford to go on the road. The Grateful Dead had to make a record and get an advance in order to get out there and make our way.
On a more personal level, I have to say that we just made a damn good record and Napster is killing us because we’re square in the middle of that demographic. If we can’t at least make back the money we put into that, we’re going to have to think twice about making a record again. And if I’m in that position, believe me, others are, too.
But the entire history of the Dead, as well as bands from Phish to the Allman Brothers who copied your “allow taping” model of business indicates that the more that is available for free, the more people will be into the band and support you. You’ll sell more tickets. More people will buy the actual releases…
But there’s a huge difference between a third- or fourth-generation cassette tape and a digitally reproduced downloadable version of what is essentially the master recording. Then you don’t have to buy the record unless you want the cover and you can probably get that online, too. It can be really injurious to American musical culture. And it’s not like these guys are Robin Hood. Give me a fucking break. They’re making money hand over fist. Napster is worth millions. Of course, I can’t defend the music industry either. You hear stories of mid-level executives having catered lunches or chefs coming in and preparing them gourmet meals, and someone’s paying for this behavior, too. And the whole business of not being able to get something on the radio if it’s not four minutes long is not good. It’s bad. Real bad. And that’s our music industry as it stands. It’s got to come to somewhere in the middle. I think the net is going to have a huge and hopefully positive effect on music, but the absurd left and the absurd right have to disappear for a meeting in the middle if music is going to survive. Maybe it will even open some people’s minds so they throw off the labels the industry has tried to apply to them—“you’re a metalhead, you like jam bands and you only listen to jazz.” The net could take us back to the late Sixties when you could hear the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Igor Stravinsky back to back on the same radio station. In any case, we need the utopian idealists and there always will be people who are only in it for the money. That’s the lexicon of humanity and that’s music. It will sort itself out, but as my friend Bobby Cochran said, “People are going to have to honor what they love.” If you love music enough, support it.
Today, I craft my own “radio stations” on Pandora pretty much the way that Bob Weir envisioned almost twenty years ago. As a consumer, I have all the access to free music I could ever want, even though I, as an adult with a job, can’t afford to see the same artists perform live in concert that I toured with as a teenager.
The real problem is for me a creator or producer. And it’s a problem for my employer and my industry. How do we get paid or compensated for producing news and analysis?
The answer comes back to the consumer. “People are going to have to honor what they love.” If you love news and analysis enough, you will have to support it. That’s why I am asking you to make a donation to the Washington Monthly and to take advantage of the fact that for a limited time every dollar of your donation will be matched by our generous sponsors: the Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the MacArthur Foundation.
Everyone of us at the Washington Monthly will thank you for your support!
And with that, I’ll reward you with an example of why we old Deadheads worked summer jobs to pay for those ten dollar concert tickets instead of wasting the money at the local record store.