In the battle over file sharing, discussing morality is a simplistic, unproductive starting place.

A photo of David Lowery, whose online argument with NPR's Emily White brought file sharing questions back to the fore.
David Lowery's collegiate lecture on file sharing ethics misses a few meaningful issues.

"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."

With that line, NPR intern Emily White kicked up a shitstorm. Her confession that most of the music she has on her computer and iPod were acquired through means other than forking over cash prompted Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker frontman David Lowery to dissect at great length her ethical failures. His bottom line: you're a thief, dear. Industry critic Bob Lefsetz threw gas on the fire first by titling his response "The David Lowery Screed" (which in Lowery's defense it isn't, if "screed" connotes for you a shrill, irrational, intemperate response as it does for me), then by snowplowing through the thorny questions to reduce the issue to one of power:

Lady Gaga famously told Steve Jobs Ping sucked. Was he so powerful that he could make it successful? No, she was right. She spoke truth to power. Are you speaking truth to power?

That intern David Lowery is beating up on has no power. He’s wasting his time. And you’re high-fiving him as if it all makes a difference. You’re involved in a circle jerk anybody with the chance of making a difference is ignoring.

... and we were off. The Trichordist website that hosted Lowery's piece received so many comments that it had to post arcane rules to weed out the feedback to a manageable 550 posts, while White's post garnered 853 comments at NPR's more robust (I assume) site. One interesting aside (in my mind) on all of this is how the comments on Lowery's page tend to support him, while those on White's are generally sympathetic to her. Do you have to be as inflammatory as Lefsetz to get people to disagree with you when you write express an opinion online? Is the web that much of an echo chamber? 

There's an uncomfortable kids-these-days aspect to Lowery's critique, though it's not one confined to his peer group (early 50s) and older. Travis Morrison (early 40s) from The Dismemberment Plan writes:

The aspect that my peers really bonded with, and horrified me, is that Lowery seems to feel that the theft of music is a new phenomenon that is unique to the young people of today. His piece [is] full of things he needs to tell Emily about Emily and her digital klepto peer group. He's pretty qualified to do this because he's taught college for a few years. And man did my peer group eat it up. It was all over my facebook feed. Where did they get this awful new behavior? We never did this!!! Are these the wages of Attachment Parenting??? It really started to mess me up.

Morrison then recounts all the dubious ways he and his friends acquired music over the years including shoplifting. His essay highlights one disingenuous element of Lowery's critique. When Lowery was in his late teens/early 20s, the RIAA pushed the idea that home taping was killing music. There has always been outcry from those who had a financial stake in music toward those who were getting it without paying, but what studies at the time showed was that the people who shared tapes also bought music and one way or another broadened the market for music. They were (and I'd argue still are) the people for whom music is so important that they want to consume more than they can afford, and they want to share those passions. It is through mixtapes from friends that I discovered the Mekons (I've since bought everything I'm aware of on CD), Nick Drake (bought it all) and Yo La Tengo (bought all of it that didn't come to me as promos) for three quick examples. Morrison talks about this dynamic at length, and White worked at a campus radio station, where no doubt playing music helped many bands reach audiences that did pay in one way or another.

Jay Frank at Billboard.biz found studies that suggest that phenomenon remains true today:

Respected blogger Cory Doctorow also noted last month that a summary of over 20 different papers on file trading shows very little impact on sales from file trading. Drew Wilson, the author of the summary, got his results from such "fringe" groups as The Wharton School, The Journal of Law And Economics, and The Journal of Business Ethics.

Frank's point is that it's not the Emily Whites of the world that are taking money out of David Lowery's mouth. 

The problem, as noted by Chris Muratore of Nielsen on the previously noted New Music Seminar panel, is that 94% of those releases sold less than 1,000 units. Indicators that I have examined showed those low sales aren't because of people stealing them. They come from too many releases causing most people to not even realize they are out. For example, 80s rocker Lita Ford has a new album that came out yesterday. As of this writing, it's the 91st most popular new release on Rdio. How many of you have the patience or time to sift thru the other 90 releases to get to #91? Let alone decide to even put in the effort to steal it? Whether you were going to listen to it or not, I'd be willing to bet that almost everyone reading this found out that Lita Ford had new music from this paragraph. Stealing it is even further down their priority list.

His example of Lita Ford raises a relevant question: How do you rationally respond to a new Lita Ford release? If not with, "Is she still alive?" then likely with some wariness, even from fans. It has been 33 years since the last good Runaways album (Queens of Noise, and I'm not going to check it out right now to see if I'm being charitable) and 24 years since "Kiss Me Deadly." Odds are, you're going to want to check it out in some way before you drop real money on it. She's not an artist who ever offered a lot to chew on, so a Spotify-like platform is more likely the way people are going to hear her than spend money on iTunes - Lowery's solution.

It's worth remembering that acquiring music wasn't always a gamble. My mother told me about going to record stores that had listening booths in the back so that you could check out a record before you bought it. At that time, stores carried records to help sell the higher-profit record players and stereos that were their real business, and it was a time when the emphasis was on the single in a paper sleeve - something that could be test-driven without any tell-tale signs. When the emphasis shifted to the shrink-wrapped album (which are higher profit items for the companies), a you-break-the-seal-it's-yours mentality kicked in. When you purchased music, you ran the risk of it sucking, and everybody who has ever purchased an album that sucks remembers the mental gymnastics in trying to convince themselves that it doesn't suck. I can't fault White and a generation for finding a way around that conundrum.

At Forbes.com, Leor Galil quotes Lowery's summary of his college students' rationale for not spending money on music: "It’s OK not to pay for music because record companies rip off artists and do not pay artists anything." then Galil writes:

There are countless anecdotes of labels ripping off artists dating back to the days when the blues became the “electric blues,” each one feeding into this concept of “the man” that’s appropriate to rage against when something goes awry. Lowery details the ways in which labels (and, by proxy, the executives) invest in musicians, even without the guarantee that there will be a return on said investment, but when it comes to obtaining music the cultural climate is still stacked against labels—even if it means, as Lowery says, it’s the middle-class “weirdo freak musicians” who end up getting hurt.

Lowery's defense of the industry is one of the thornier elements in this conversation. On one hand, he's right when he points out that artists generally get advances which are paid back through the money that comes via sales, so musicians signed to labels do get paid in a way. And I gather he's right in that if an album tanks and the label drops the artist, the debt's dropped too. Still, I suspect that if we talked to musicians about the pressures and restrictions about how that money should be spent and what costs were charged back to the artists, we'd learn that the advances aren't really the band's money, or at least not money the members could spend as they please. But I'm spitballing on that one and welcome comments from musicians who could clarify this point for me.

But to absolve the labels of their place in the discussion is giving them far too much of a pass. I've argued before that one of the cataclysmic changes in the music business came with the death of the single. At the EMP Pop Conference in Los Angeles in 2011, Chris Molanphy addressed the industry's changing stance regarding the single, a form that always outsold albums. There have always been more people who wanted to own the songs they liked more than they wanted an album of songs by that person, but when singles were discontinued in 1994, if you wanted to own "Stay" by Lisa Loeb, you had to buy the album. Instead of spending $3, you had to spend $15. 

This was hardly the first time that the record industry made decisions that were not in music fans' best interests. The introduction of CDs in 1982 as the primary method of getting new music forced fans to buy CD players, which naturally led to them re-buying on CD music they already on vinyl. The death of the single was a significant change, and it's one that the artists benefited from. Not as much as the labels, I'm sure, but more to the point, it made clear the label's relationship with music buyers. They aren't fans; they're something more generic - a market to be exploited. If you take the fans' relationship with the artists out of the equation, then music buyers are simply consumers who logically look for the best deal. The best deal is free, and it's only surprising that Napster didn't emerge before 1999.

Lowery argues against White and fellow file sharers on morality grounds, which is thin ice. I understand it in the abstract, but we all have enough minor infractions on weekly basis that he's asking her and young people to walk a walk that few manage as well as they'd like. Musicians who rail against people sharing instead of buying their music have to ask themselves if everything they released represents the best music they could make. Not the best under the circumstances; the best. Or, were there times when they'd been on tour and didn't have time to write new material but went back in the studio anyway and cut the best album they could make, knowing it was flawed? Were there occasions when tensions between band members turned sessions toxic, and the results show a band that didn't talk to each other? Any experiments that didn't work? Sessions where they were just too fucking high? Any shows where they were too wasted? Where tensions on the bus spilled over on to the stage? Where self-indulgence just couldn't be contained? If bands expected audiences to spend money on music that represented something less than their best, I'm not sure they have much room to complain about morality in this conversation.

Lowery and his supporters make a radical leap that so far has been missed in most of what I've read on this. White writes:

But I didn't illegally download (most) of my songs. 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.

Promo copies are a gray area, but if Lowery is mad at her for her prom date's generosity, then he is asserting that even when you buy music, it's not really yours. You can't do with it what you will. That's a strong statement, and even less of an incentive to buy. If there are onerous rules as to how I can enjoy music I purchase, then I might as well go outlaw.

The future in this argument lies in reestablishing the artist/fan relationship. Fans feel a connection to their favorite artists. Fans think if they met their favorite artists, they'd hit it off because they get each other. Fans want their favorite artists to succeed and want to support them, and there is plenty of evidence so far that this works. As Leor Galil writes at Forbes.com:

Crowd-source funding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo give musicians (as well as other artists) the opportunity to pitch various projects and show potential donors how the money they hope to raise will be used, and artists are encouraged to offer rewards—such as digital or physical copies of an album, t-shirts, concert tickets—for different levels donations. It’s an idea that brings audiences into the creation process in ways that establish strong connections between listeners and musicians, and Kickstarter in particular has become an important tool for many independent and established musicians. Boston singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer recently made headlines when a Kickstarter campaign she put together to help mix, manufacture, and distribute her forthcoming solo album received more than a million dollars in donations.

At the arena level, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have reached out directly to their fans successfully, and at the grass roots level, the process has worked as well. Threadhead Records, for example, has helped fund recordings for a number of New Orleans artists who would have struggled to squirrel away enough money to record albums. Those supporters have proven to be a pretty durable live audience as well for the artists they finance.

Singer Dayna Kurtz actually enjoys the relationship that comes from having the audience contribute to her recording life:

“One of my favorite outcomes of how heinous the music business has become is fan fundraising,” she says. She’s used Kickstarter but found its all-or-nothing model too nerve-wracking. Instead, she has dedicated part of her website to fundraising. “At a time when people are less connected than ever to more shit, people feel connected to the people who make the music in a way that they hadn’t before.” She gets fans writing and telling her what her music has meant to them and the occasions when it’s been played–at weddings, birthdays, even births.

“It’s a thing that you think would make your head get big, but it’s actually really humbling. You feel like when you’re a musician, it’s a very selfish thing to do. You get applauded every day at work. Then you have people tell you that you’re part of these important moments in their lives and I feel like I’m of use, like I serve a purpose in the community. It made me feel more responsible.”

It's easy for this conversation to spin in generational circles with a lot of self-serving moralizing on one side and equally self-serving "they just don't get it" on the other. Neither is productive, but one place where Kurtz and Lowery come together is in the vision of a future in the rubble. Lowery observes that labels these days are often the artists themselves or smaller, artist-friendly organizations, and that they're not the monoliths of old. Everybody - artists and fans - are living through the conditions created by those monoliths, but as smaller organizations find ways to activate and connect to the people who love the music they put out, a financially viable, non-abusive future is possible.