Music is free, stupid: How to stop stealing music

The Oregon ArtsWatch guide to giving musicians your money

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Caveat lector: It’s 2021. Poe’s Law is universally binding. This is your irony disclaimer.

Consider the familiar argument “you spend four bucks on a latte.” It’s often a facetious argument, especially when it’s silly crap like “stupid GenX-ers could have bought a house if you didn’t spend so much on lattes” and its updated variant “stupid Millennials could have bought a house if you’d stop spending so much on avocado toast.” It’s useless and cruel when applied to debt-based macro-purchases like houses and retirement plans, the kinds of things that OK Boomers take for granted but haven’t really been possible for those born into the post-prosperity era (c. 1980–present).

But, taken as a unit of spending–more than a dollar, less than an hour’s wages–a good old-fashioned latte (or slice of avocado toast) is still a pretty decent metric for everyday purposes.

So. You spend four bucks on a cup of coffee, probably leave a dollar tip. Or you buy a pound of Stumptown beans for thirteen bucks, maybe leave a tip for that too. You go to the bar, order a beer, pay the five bucks for that and leave another buck; repeat until closing time or blackout. Or you pop into the Plaid Pantry, drop ten bucks on a six pack of Ninkasi or Henry’s or Widmer Bros; likely repeat that at least once before the night is through.

You go to the taco bar, or the pizza place, or some Thai-Indian-Burmese fusion joint; you spend forty bucks there, leave a generous ten dollar tip because you know that’s the only way servers and chefs have any hope of making even minimum wage. You order groceries online, or take-out, or weed, and there goes another hundred plus tip. Video streaming services ten bucks each, unless you want to skip the ads.

And music–well, you don’t really have to pay for that, right? Maybe a couple bucks for a Spotify or YouTube or Apple Music subscription, but even then most of you would rather just put up with the ads, wouldn’t you? Aside from concert tickets and maybe merch, most of you probably haven’t spent a whole lot on music since the last time you bought a physical CD. The culture has changed–not just the all-access, everything now spirit that pervades the digital era, but also the post-Napster mentality of music as infinitely shareable and infinitely available, the mentality that says musicians “do it for the love” and so there’s no reason to buy the cow.

Music is free, stupid

Besides, you’re supporting the musicians anyways, in an indirect manner. The bartender sticking your sticky dollar bills in her pocket plays drums in a metal band. The barista grinding your coffee beans composes string quartets on the side, probably has a little stack of staff paper in the breakroom. The budtender is getting her master’s degree in choral conducting. The pizza guy is studying to be an opera singer, the Postmates driver plays keyboards in a psych band, your Uber sings folk songs at open-mic nights twice a week. But you won’t pay them for any of those things–you’ll only pay for the food, the booze, the drugs, the ride home. Music is free, stupid.

Partly it’s the endless problem of living music, something which goes well beyond the monetization issue. Partly it’s that “competing with Lenny” problem we’ve talked about–too much good music already exists, is already plentiful and readily available, ubiquitous, established, canonical. Quod Ubique, Semper, et Ab Omnibus. To create something new is to swim upstream against a neverending torrent of Bernsteins and Mozarts and Beatleses and Metallicas and all the rest. And those artists don’t need your hard-earned money, because they’re already rich or dead or both. Meanwhile the next Mozart is scanning your six-pack down at the Plaid.

And partly it’s because so many of us resist new music, resist new experiences, resist new anything. Most listeners’ ears close up after high school, college at the latest–you’re probably still listening to music you loved when you were in your teens and early twenties. Right? Or if you’re listening to “new” music it’s probably new stuff from the bands you loved when you were young (to be fair, the most recent Metallica album is fuckin’ great–and don’t even get me started on that new Elfman). Or else it’s newish bands making newish music in the style of what you loved when you were young. Above all, unless you’re a musician yourself you’re probably not spending any time discovering new music, not seeking it out, and certainly not paying for it.

Sponsor

And although the problem isn’t only economic, of course the fucking problem is economic. We could talk about the long slow death of the middle class, a cultural and financial contraction which has been plunging us into the ocean of civilizational decay for decades, taking musicians and other artists down with it like the infamous string ensemble on the Titanic (they were “doing it for the love” too). We could talk about class divisions, the old “sing for your supper” routine. We could talk about labels and unions and recoupables and royalties and publication rights and marketing mentalities and all that jazz ad infinitum.

Because artists have never been especially valued in any society, unless you count the ones who cannily disguised themselves as priests and shamans. Because you’re supposed to have a “real” job. Just making music is a privilege, and doing it for a living is a special privilege granted only to the hundred-odd classical players in the local orchestra and the millionaires at the Grammys and maybe the music minister at your local church. Everybody else does it for the love.

The solo violinist busking on the street corner outside the Schnitz, the saxophonist outside Voodoo Donuts, the drummer banging on buckets in Pioneer Square, the punk band playing dingy bars for drink tickets, the self-produced rapper on Bandcamp–there’s your average musicians, pouring out their hearts and souls for pocket change, dying of “exposure.”

Pay for your supper

“But what can I do?” you ask, perhaps shrugging disingenuously. You know what to do. You know by now, or should, that streaming services pay artists slim fractions of a penny for their plays. Bandcamp lets artists set their prices, and takes only a meager cut–and once a month they waive their fees, a drum we’ll never stop beating–but even then, how much can an artist really charge for their music? Seven bucks? Maybe ten? One local rapper charges $4.44 for his albums (read Robert Ham’s Old Grape God profile right here). And maybe you balk at paying even that, especially for “unlimited digital access” which you don’t actually need, since you can stream it all for free on iTunes anyways. Music is free, stupid.

And here, again, we run into that neverending stream. Even if you never listen to Mozart, hate Metallica, listen to nothing but living and/or local musicians–there’s still too goddamn much of it. If you bought a record–a legit, vinyl, physical-as-fuck record–from every Portland band that released one in the last five years or so, it would cost you over a hundred bucks. These are reasonably priced records, too: Nasalrod’s Building Machines in fancy colored “oil slick” vinyl going for twelve bucks is a good example.

But why should you buy new vinyl at all, when you can take a stroll through Music Millennium’s two-buck section and pick up a bunch of ratty old Sabbath and Zeppelin and Steely Dan albums for practically nothing? You always meant to get into some classic old school prog rock, right? Hell, you can get the whole ELP discography–on vinyl–for twenty bucks on Ebay.

I dunno, maybe you should just pick a few living musicians and adopt them. Go ahead and steal the latest Metallica album (those guys are fine, trust me) and set aside some funds for musicians you want to support and who could really use it. Treat it like a patronage, the Patreon routine, what OPB calls a “sustaining membership”–five or ten bucks a month that you definitely won’t miss (especially compared to your booze bill), but which will definitely start adding up for the artist. Especially if you also commit to helping with that “exposure” thing: because the deal with exposure is that it doesn’t pay the rent but it does help expand the fanbase, and that can eventually pay the rent.

So be that guy who won’t shut up about his favorite new band. Share the hell out of that Old Grape God album you can’t stop listening to. Send the new Møtrik LP to some friends for Christmas. Learn to never get tired of saying “oh man you gotta listen to this sick Hulder tape.” Don’t just “share” it on [redacted]–take the damn scare quotes off and share it! Talk about it! Play it at parties, in the car, on the street! Ask people “hey did you listen to that album I told you about?” until they cancel you!

And as you deluge your social circles with your favorite musicians, encourage your friends (and your “friends”) to get on the sustaining membership model too. Treat it like tipping–you feel ashamed when you don’t leave a tip at a restaurant, right? And unless you’re Mr. Pink from Reservoir Dogs (gods does anyone remember that movie?) you probably expect everyone to be on the same page with you.

That’s a cultural thing, dear reader–part of the social contract which says we behave certain ways, commit to certain socially constructive behaviors whether they’re mandated or not. When social contracts break down–as they have in our society, which is (sorry) completely dysfunctional at this point–the only solution is to find effective ways to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

Just remember to spare some change for the musicians.

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About the author
Editor / Correspondent | Website

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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