This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: An Open Letter To NPR Intern Emily White
Dear Emily White,
A few days ago, you wrote a “musing” for NPR alleging that the proverbial “kids these days” will never pay for music. Your proof for this claim is that they “never owned any music to begin with.” You also write that in your 20 years, you've only ever bought 15 albums—this may be a sign that you shouldn't be writing about music, but let's continue.
Unsurprisingly, some people felt compelled to respond: industry insiders, music journalism vets, and even some of the artists you admit to siphoning music from. I'm writing this to you, not to beat a dead horse, not in an attempt to embarrass you, but because—well—we’re not so different, you and I. As a fellow young writer dead-set on playing a major role in shaping the future of the music industry, I think that we can do a lot better.
If you asked me point blank, I wouldn’t be able to tell you the last time I “bought” an album in the iTunes sense of the word. That being said, I also can’t remember the last time I downloaded something illegally. For the past two and a half years of working in and around the music industry, I’ve been incredibly lucky—many coveted releases have found their way into my inbox before most music libraries. I imagine you have similar access to an extensive catalog. This is an atypical privilege that your article seems to skirt. But the important difference between you and I is that I write about why bands are good, and you write about how you steal from them.
Dear Emily White, someone around here can show you where to buy our records now. ps we just stole your bike.— Yo La Tengo (@TheRealYLT) June 18, 2012
As the way we consume music grows, it's important to recognize that the ways we "give back" to artists are growing as well. Sometimes it means dropping five dollars in the box where you’d normally write “$0.00” for Pay-What-You-Want Bandcamp downloads, sometimes it means paying the $10 cover for a show even though your friend’s friend’s ex-boyfriend’s roommate is bartending and could get your name on the list. Sometimes it just means shutting your fucking mouth and realizing that sitting through 12 seconds of advertising for otherwise totally free and original content is not the end of the world. It's the only way people can afford to make that content in the first place. Claiming that you’re entitled to get whatever you want because you’ve always gotten whatever you want is a childish argument, and it doesn't cut it.
Instead of pulling our hair out over how we can try to monetize the music itself (which is, quite honestly, something of a lost cause at this point), maybe we should focus on tangible rewards, like Kickstarter-pledge-bracket perks for album purchases; if we’re acting under the assumption that the average millennial music consumer functions at a toddler level when it comes to the “I want it now” mentality, this would be their equivalent to getting a cookie for making it to the potty in time. Another possible option is developing inimitable, unique music listening experiences like Bjork’s Biophillia, Nicolas Jaar’s Prism, and Gwilym Gold’s Bronze Format. Or maybe we can stop shaming bands into oblivion for accepting a fat check from a major network in exchange for a song placement on some primetime teen drama. But hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Emily, there’s nothing remotely Robin Hood-ian about illegally downloading music. The relationship between the industry and the consumer is infinitely more nuanced than taking from the rich (the big bad Music Man) and giving to the poor (you, as it suits you). You and me and other young, ambitious people like us have the freedom to envision a new standard, and the power to build this industry back up in its image. We can’t be defeatist, and we deserve better than to submit to the lowest common denominator. The future of music is about looking forward, not looking down at our feet.
One of our generation's most toxic characteristics is our nonchalance when it comes to ignoring our privileges and then running them into the ground. It's time to grow up, accept our responsibility as a part of a mutually beneficial symbiosis, and keep this ship afloat. That way, 10 years from now, we'll still have an industry to royally fuck up.
And bands, do me a favor and get one of those iPhone credit card swipers at shows. I'll buy more shirts that way.