This week, the party I’ve missed is the furor over a June 16 post by Emily White at All Songs Considered. My friend, the singer-songwriter Marc Farre , called it to my attention along with retorts from two of my favorite musicians, David Lowery and, in response to him, Dave Allen. It seems that the original post and the disagreeing between other bloggers and commenters made for a regular rhubarb.
As so much virtual ink has already been spilled, let me avoid the main fray. I want to stipulate a few points up front made by each of the three bloggers noted above. First, no one has ever purchased all their music. If you’re a fan you tape, you borrow, you listen at the library but you don’t buy everything. Emily may have a proportion problem but none of us is without sin. (For the record, I have paid for all the Gang of Four, Shriekback, Camper van Beethoven and Cracker in my collection.)
Second, technology does not embody morality–any technology and any morality, anytime, anywhere. So let’s not go vesting agency in inanimate objects. (Yes, that beeping, squeaking, singing screen in your lap is inanimate.) So Dave Allen is right when he says “The Internet doesn’t give a damn about musicians or your mediocre band.”
He’s also right in pointing out that the music business is a business. He provides a real-world example of how little a musician gets paid in what he calls a “charade whose winners are the labels and venture capitalists.” Bless his Gang of Four roots, last I looked buying low and selling higher was the essence of capitalism. The technologists would argue that the Internet removes the need for such middle-men. But that ignores the role such middle men actually do play.
Which brings me to the final stipulation (and David Lowery). The labels do provide an editorial, funding and legitimizing function that can allow musicians to be paid for their work. It’ s not a given. There’ s plenty of abuse. And the deck is stacked in favor of the business. But there’s a reason bands both want (and fear) the big labels and it’s the same reason Led Zeppelin wanted to be on Atlantic and not the ATCO subsidiary–it means something.
So everybody is a little bit correct and I’ve wasted everyone’s time, right? Well, personal rhetorical styles aside I don’t think Georgia David and Oregon Dave are really that far apart. When Dave Allen writes “Musicians …don’t automatically deserve to make a living” he’s ‘s not saying anything terribly different from Lowery: “Fairly compensating musicians is not a problem that is up to governments and large corporations to solve”
The fact is ( and both these talented guys know this) that making a lifetime living as a working musician is and always has been hard. Robert Johnson sang “rocks have been my pillow” and that hasn’t changed. A few mega-stars get on MTV Cribs and the world thinks anyone with a guitar, mike or turntable is guaranteed a lifestyle of the rich and famous. But that ain’t so and it’s why we find Dave Allen working in technology and why David Lowery has on occasion used his math degree to make a living. Maybe the root of the Davids disagreement is Mssr. Allen’s proto-Marxist roots versus Lowery’s more free market approach.
And what about Emily? I worry about her and that education she’s attaining. The website of her university claims “AU’s academically rigorous curriculum challenges students to combine serious theoretical study with meaningful real-world learning experiences. ” I can’t find any mention of a core curriculum and I don’t see a philosophy requirement so I’m not sure how rigorous it is. But I’m with David Lowery, she’s missing an ethical foundation and to me that’s a failure of her education.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about money. Here’s a meaty chunk:
Now proportionate return is secured by cross-conjunction. Let A be a builder, B a shoemaker, C a house, D a shoe. The builder, then, must get from the shoemaker the latter’s work, and must himself give him in return his own. If, then, first there is proportionate equality of goods, and then reciprocal action takes place, the result we mention will be effected. If not, the bargain is not equal, and does not hold; for there is nothing to prevent the work of the one being better than that of the other; they must therefore be equated. (And this is true of the other arts also; for they would have been destroyed if what the patient suffered had not been just what the agent did, and of the same amount and kind.) For it is not two doctors that associate for exchange, but a doctor and a farmer, or in general people who are different and unequal; but these must be equated. This is why all things that are exchanged must be somehow comparable. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Chapter 5
On balance, I think David Lowery hews closest to the Aristotelian ideal. We live in a civil, commercial society. Ethics and norms are part of how we structure our relations. (Yes, Dave Allen, I know that in my mother’s womb social structure seemed a simple thing.) When Emily writes, “As monumental a role as musicians and albums have played in my life, I’ve never invested money in them..” she’s making an ethical statement.
Reading her crie de couer one can only conclude that she lacks the capacity to see the inequity of how she’s structured her relationship with recording artists. And while she states what she wants she shows no intention of changing her behavior. Emily may tell herself music is monumentally important to her; her actions suggest her own state of being means much more.
There’s a word for an obvious contradiction such as that and one need not have attended university to understand it : hypocrisy.
Let’s just rewind the clock and mix politics with dance music: