An interview with Dave Allen on musicians and file sharing in the Willamette Week. July 2012.

I was approached by Shane Danaher from Portland’s alternative weekly, Willamette Week. He asked me to answer some questions around the Emily White and David Lowery debate regarding the legality of music file sharing. It’s an issue fraught with high drama, deep passion and outright outrage that makes it difficult to discuss in public. I know this first hand as I’ve been trying to change the course of the debate for more than a decade, to no avail. At the heart of this interview I attempt to make one major point, one brought up in a comment posted by the author Rick Moody; the debate should not be about the “stealing” of music. The correct question to ask, he feels, is – Why shouldn’t artists get paid?

Anyway, here’s another attempt at grappling with the issue.

1. Could you summarize why you thought David Lowery missed the mark in his response to Emily White?

David Lowery has his heart in the right place. He wants nothing more than to ensure that all copyright holders, be they musicians, authors, creators of any copyrighted work that can be digitized in other words, be fairly compensated for their work. His approach though focuses on the money. I don’t believe that’s a strong foundation for his argument as many people have a less than happy relationship with money. He also focuses on “theft” when he ought to be focusing on “why aren’t the artists being paid?” So David moves the argument toward “stealing is wrong.” Fair enough. Now the defense of this argument rests on the moral fact that stealing is wrong. So musicians, David included, move to metaphors to support their argument and often use an analogy such as “you wouldn’t steal an iPhone from the Apple store..” My good friend Justin Spohn addressed this in a post on his blog:

If I walk into an Apple store, pick up an iPhone and walk out with it only to return a minute later and put it back I don’t think we’d call it “theft”. If, on the other hand, I walk into an Apple store and take an iPhone for good, they’ve actually lost something. Theft seems to be a two step process: I have to take it, and then you have to no longer have it.

But if a friend gives me a copy of an MP3, they still have that file; and the artist they got it from still has it; and the label still has their copy as well. There is no property to recover because no property was actually removed from anyone’s possession.

Maurice Boucher, in the comments thread on my post adds this: I would add that music as a culture is suffering under the constraints of the digital medium that for some (even me) seems like a salt-in-the-wound scenario. It goes back to my remark about how human history seems to show that older media tend to become the content of new mediums, consequently pop music has become the ‘plaything’ of the digital medium. It has become a museum display within the stream of digital content as if to show how we used to trade in the artifacts of popular culture. It gets back to Anthony’s concept of ‘disruption’. I’m not complaining about this though because I believe as does Anthony that it is an effective way for artists to find new hybridized forms that keep our culture vital.

–and so eventually create a new and stable marketplace for the people who wish to become proficient at a new art form (even if they never innovate the form)but are happy to become rich or at least make a living.

The short version then: The Internet has irreparably broken the marketplace for music. It also created a new social construct around digital media and how people access those media. Musicians have to now create a new market to sell their music products to their fans.

2. You mentioned that Lowery is “attempting to solve the wrong problem.” What problem do you think musicians should be looking for a solution to?

I believe I covered most of this in question 1, but my point there was that with the new digital media landscape having disrupted businesses, business owners tend to look at the wrong problem. They tend to create a “problem” that didn’t exist then create a problem to “solve.” A case in point would be Rupert Murdoch of News Corp who owns the Wall St Journal. He sees that the drop in income from newspaper sales as the “problem” and yes, it is one problem. It’s not the problem though. He created an iPad app,The Daily, to “solve” his “problem.” That was a very expensive thing to do, especially if you are worried about revenue. But he had doubled down on his problem by not realizing that it is how people access their news these days that is his problem. And it still is regardless of that brand new shiny iPad app. Musicians, when they sell their work have entered the marketplace. They are in business.

3. You’ve often insisted that musicians need to accept the internet as a reality and find ways to work with it, rather than against it, to help them sell and promote music. Can you give me some examples of ways in which musicians can do/are doing that?

Hundreds, if not thousands, of bands now give away free songs. Radiohead technically released In Rainbows via YouTube one New Year’s Eve. Trent Reznor raised about $1.3 million soon after leaving his label by selling a giant coffee table-style “book” packed with years of his music, especially unreleased material. Amanda Palmer just raised $1 million on Kickstarter. There are so many examples of musicians just getting on with using the Internet to further their careers. They get drowned out though in the white noise of those complaining about “stealing” music. Corporations benefit from the “stealing” argument too but I won’t get into that here. (I do later.)

Now I fully expect to hear the tired argument that Radiohead etc had already “made it” so therefore they could easily use the Internet. It doesn’t hold water. “Making it” and using the Internet are two different things. For e.g. Radiohead never allowed their music to be sold on iTunes. Since then they have embraced what society is doing, ie by understanding how their fans want to access Radiohead’s music. They adapted to the new “marketplace” where often you’ll find a free good.

4. Do you think people should feel guilty about downloading music from torrent sites? Is such behavior just the inevitable upshot of having a tool like the internet at your disposal?

I’m not sure that’s a good question to ask as any response to it implies an ethical or moral stance. How about this: Did bands feel guilty in the past about charging $18.99 for a CD that had one good song on it and 9 tracks of filler? I’m not sure we want to go there. I only mention the $18.99 CD as an example of how it is not just the Internet that is a “problem” for musicians. There’s also a “value” problem. Add in that young people are seeing their dollars stretched mighty thin by the cost of mobile phones, games, the price of gas etc, then you can begin to see why music sales are down for many different reasons. Let’s switch gears for a minute. I mentioned value above and I believe it’s a very important part of the equation.

Take Louis CK. He didn’t see the value in a TV/Cable company producing and owning his “brand” or “show.” So he produced it himself and then added major value for his fans by letting them stream it for free if they wanted, or compensate him through a pay-what-you-want model. He made millions of dollars. He is now doing the same thing by circumventing TicketMaster and going straight to his fans to sell tickets.

I mention value because I have written at length about it in other arenas. Take an iPhone or iPad app. Even free isn’t a value if the app provides neither utility or entertainment on a grand scale. And by grand scale I mean Angry Birds level awesomeness! If you want to nudge Angry Birds off the top your app/game better bring the awesome sauce.

Now that brings me to a thorny subject that is never mentioned in the musicians vs the Internet discussions. What if no one is buying, or even downloading, your music because they think it’s really bad? I believe that a lot of musicians have blinders on when it comes to that issue. They don’t want to see it, or believe it. It was just as difficult to make a living in a rock band prior to the Interent as it is today. And value is and was the key to success. Also add luck. My band, Gang of Four, was very lucky to make it back in 1979 as the field was absolutely packed with talent globally. Punk rock inspired so many young people to drop everything and form a band. And then a few years later, no doubt, those budding punk rock superstars woke up one morning and went out to find a job. Reality has a way of setting in. I have had a job for the last decade and a half. My income from music disappeared. I created a new market for myself. I became a digital strategist.

5. As someone who has been heavily involved with music both pre- and post-internet, I was curious if you thought the internet had made it easier or harder to be a working musician.

Neutral. See above. It was always hard. No musician is guaranteed an income from making music. It’s a business decision that they make, a career choice if you will.

6. You expressed the opinion in other blog posts that streaming services such as Spotify and Rhapsody are far guiltier of ripping off musicians than people who download albums on torrent sites. Could you summarize why you think that is?

Streaming services are the perfect vehicle for distributing music to fans in an ease-of-use way. The problem is that the deals between the services and the record labels are not transparent. Consequently we can’t follow the money, and I’ll use my own experience here – I recently made about $17 for thousands of streams of one of my songs. The argument then goes, “well Dave people are discovering your music and buying your albums.” Which is really weird if you think about it. a) hardly anyone buys full albums these days, even Apple the world’s largest music retailer admits to that. b) musicians are complaining that no one buys music anymore because “everyone” is stealing it. To whom do I turn for solace!

7. You balked at David Lowery’s notion that companies such as Google and Apple were profiting off of the theft (or purchase or streaming) of music, but aren’t those companies making a good deal of money by selling access to content that people are creating more-or-less free of charge? Not that Apple should be cutting my garage band in on the action, but isn’t that behavior at least a little bit predatory?

This argument is about switching a rocky premise regarding “stealing” music onto some favorite whipping posts – “Apple and Google are big corporations and they profit from our endeavors and don’t pay us.” It’s a distraction. Apple is the world’s biggest music retailer, of legal music too! And they are not a web company they make products that clearly people love. Why bash on them? I don’t get it, although someone will surely respond here and tell me how I don’t get it. And please don’t blame the iPod!

Google is a web company that came up with a set of amazing algorithms that help people and companies target advertising. But here’s the problem – if those ads happen to land on an illegal music file service site, it’s not Google’s job to put a stop to that. They are not the web police. It’s a weak argument that has nothing to do with this: How do artists get paid for their work? That’s the correct question that is being, or should be asked. It needs to be a consistent argument. It needs to be consistent because of what my friend, the author, Rick Moody, wrote on one of my posts:

“It’s the corporations who best sell the argument this-generation-will-never-pay. They are happy every time we use it.”

And Rick isn’t talking about Apple or Google there. He goes on: “And the this-generation-will-never-pay line, frankly, reminds me a classic of Dick Cheney, who said, roughly speaking, “No argument about energy that is based on the necessity of conservation will ever gain traction with the American people.” Now, everyone knows this is not accurate. There would be no Sierra Club, no Greenpeace, no EPA if this were accurate. Every day, a vast horde of Americans is altering its own behavior in order to conserve. And you know who the best conservationists are? Young people. This is, however, a line that energy executives are happy to repeat. When the “American people” take the bait here, and there are lots of them that do, they unwittingly sell advanced capitalism. They shill for the Multinational Entertainment Provider. They help those record ExxonMobil profits.”

8. You cited a post by Jay Frank in your response to David Lowery in which Frank posited that major labels had actually been strengthened by the rise of internet, seeing as they are the only ones who can afford to market albums at a high enough volume to create crossover success. Do you think the “dinosaurs” of the major labels have been strengthened in the past five years? Do you think their business model has a future?

I’ll pass on this one as I don’t have enough information about how well labels are doing or not. As for “dinosaurs” I presume you mean the big bands such as U2? If so it’s worth noting that their manager Paul McGuiness blames the ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) for music theft online. Maybe their billions of dollars that they stash offshore of Ireland, to avoid taxes, are shrinking too? Who knows?

9. The language in this debate (from all sides, to be fair) has been vituperative to the point bullying, and David Lowery’s appeal has gained a good deal of its ground on what is essentially an emotional appeal. These two traits (incivility, weakness for pandering) seem built into many of the discussions that take place on the internet and I was curious if you thought the medium itself made it more difficult to have fruitful discussions about topics such as this one.

I am guilty. (And by the way, I notice that you haven’t mentioned Emily White in any of these questions.) I am guilty of jumping to the defense of Emily because of what I thought was a specious argument. I was angry because the argument is so convoluted as you can see from my attempts at clarification above, and there is no single answer to the problem. Emily, at 20 years old was just stating a fact that fits her current worldview. As Rick Moody pointed out – when she is older and perhaps has a decent income she will pay for digital media. And the reason might well be because she understands where the money is going far better than she does today. She’ll know that by buying media from a ‘Multinational Entertainment Provider’ of the future that artists are being compensated (one hopes.) David Lowery’s supporters, who all appear to be male, smelled blood and they got it. I could have been far more elegant in my defense of Emily but alas, I wasn’t. The only good thing for me is that it opened the door to a massive realization –as long as the argument is about “stealing” music no one wins, neither musicians or fans. As Rick Moody rightly puts it, the argument should be based on – How do artists get paid in a digital world, then there will be winners.

As for if the right forum for this debate is online I initially thought not and wrote a post to that effect: We Never Read: A Postscript to the Emily White Fracas. It turns out that I was wrong. The most well-thought comments about this issue appear there. And I made some new friends too. Go Internet!

Dave Allen is the founding member and bass player for Gang of Four. He is the Director, Interactive Strategy at North, a Portland-based branding company.