Emily White is her name, and she's spending the summer as an intern for NPR, working for their All Songs Considered program. In mid-June she wrote a piece for ASC's blog with the unfortunate title "I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With." Which is actually true, according to the gods of intellectual property, who will argue, to your face or to a judge, that you can't possibly own anything of theirs: it's all licensed, they hold all the legal cards, and for any use they don't like, they reserve the right to come down on you like paparazzi on Britney Spears.

So from the Industry's point of view, Emily has committed grievous offenses, several steps in heinousness beyond, say, having watched a Nats-Mets doubleheader on DVR without the express written consent of Major League Baseball. And it didn't help that she cheerfully admitted to it:

I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric. I've only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs.

I've had days when I bought more than 15 CDs, but that's neither here nor there. Let's see what she actually did:

A few are, admittedly, from a stint in the 5th grade with the file-sharing program Kazaa. Some are from my family. I've swapped hundreds of mix CDs with friends. My senior prom date took my iPod home once and returned it to me with 15 gigs of Big Star, The Velvet Underground and Yo La Tengo (I owe him one).

During my first semester at college, my music library more than tripled. I spent hours sitting on the floor of my college radio station, ripping music onto my laptop. The walls were lined with hundreds of albums sent by promo companies and labels to our station over the years.

Now when I was that age, it wasn't so simple: I had to wait for a radio station to declare its record library surplus, and then I had to move the product, box by unwieldy box. This expedient, over the years, brought me a couple hundred LPs and about the same number of 45s. I was able to rationalize this in two steps: (1) they're going to throw them away otherwise, and (2) a lot of them were promo copies on which the words "Not For Sale" appear in large print, and therefore I can't very well offer to pay for them, can I?

So I'm not exactly holding myself up as a role model here. I've done the mix tape/CD swap as well, though not to that extent. And I can still come up with an excuse for Not Buying in the following limited circumstances:

  • It's never coming out of the vault. There are several items on my want list that simply are not available for purchase: they're old and forgotten, or they were licensed to a label for a term now expired, or both. The Industry's claim that they're losing sales makes no sense with regard to items they don't actually sell.

  • I've already paid for it once. Sometimes more than once. This applies mostly to the crapola late-Seventies through middle-Eighties singles that were pressed on crappy vinyl or, worse, styrene: as far as I'm concerned, they sold me a substandard product to begin with, and I shouldn't have to go to the trouble of ripping that bad vinyl and then spending several hours cleaning it up with my small suite of audio tools.

  • Artifacts of the remix culture. Some artists will actually encourage this sort of thing, but they're few and far between.

Still, all these factors combined make for less than a third of my recent acquisitions: most of what arrives on my shelf, or on my hard drive, is gotten the old-fashioned way, through an exchange of currency. I have previously reported on the Bandcamp service, a non-predatory method for independent artists to get their works distributed, typically on a name-your-price basis. For acts too big for Bandcamp, there's always Amazon or the iTunes Store or CDBaby. And you may be absolutely certain that your friendly neighborhood artist would like to make some money.

This past weekend, I was discussing composer/musician/technologist BT on Twitter with a member of a band whose singles I'd recently purchased. On her recommendation, I handed over $8.99 to Apple for BT's just-released If The Stars Are Eternal So Are You And I. (I reviewed it here.) To let her know that her recommendation had been followed, I sent up a tweet to the effect that I'd bought the album "so @BT can get paid." She was happy about that, but perhaps not as happy as BT himself, who actually Favorited that tweet of mine the next morning. Even your name-brand performers have to pay the rent.

The Vent

  9 July 2012

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 Copyright © 2012 by Charles G. Hill