The Guy From Camper Van Beethoven v. The Intern Girl v. The Internet v. Me.
By now, you've probably seen some form of this point-counterpoint on your Facebooks or your Twitters — or, who knows, maybe someone took a screenshot of it and ran it through some “scratched Polaroid effect” filters and put it on your Instagram feed.
To save you all those precious minutes you would have to spend reading the original piece, the rebuttal by the guy from Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, and then the counter-counterpoint by some guy from The Dismemberment Plan, I'm writing this.
(For the record: I have no dog in this hunt, but I would like to point out that David Lowery from Cracker teaches at my parents' alma mater, University of Georgia. Go Bulldogs!)
Anyway, here's how it went down.
NPR Intern Girl: “I'm 20 and have never known a world of buying a physical product containing music or one in which people pay for the digital dots in the sky also known as MP3s. From Napster to Spotify to YouTube to torrenting to Rdio, I have never needed to actually purchase music I wanted to hear. So there's that.”
Cracker: “You and your generation are wallet-raping artists and you don't understand how much blood, sweat and tears go into making an album (not to mention that you would have to double that amount if the album in question is a Blood, Sweat and Tears album). You just steal it because you feel you're entitled to do so.”
The Dismemberment Plan: “I like making mix tapes.”
OK, that's perhaps not the most accurate representation of all sides, and you really should try to be less of a lazy fuck and go read the three pieces.
Point is, I get all sides of this thing. I personally suffered from the collapse of the music industry. And by suffered, I mean that I no longer rode the gravy train of free dinners and trips and shows and never having to pay for music or tickets or having to sit with the unwashed masses.
I kid (kinda), but the industry was out of fucking control by the late '90s/early 'aughts, when I started toeing into the water.
I would have loved to see a cost efficiency consultant walk through any of the regional major label offices. Let me go ahead and state this as an almost-guaranteed fact: The thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of food, drinks, perks and swag that labels funneled towards me as a music writer almost certainly never increased the sale of any given record by even .01 percent.
Don't get me wrong, it was fun. But they probably would have been better having the “street teamers” stacking bills in a pyramid and KLFing the money into a towering inferno of wastefulness.
The labels sold a good story to artists. Think of how many iconic black and white images you've seen of bands signing their big record label deal. Obviously, signing a deal meant that you were only a few radio adds from Led Zep mud shark sexytimes. Only, y'know, that never actually happened to any bands other than, like, three.
You'd have to sell millions upon millions to recoup and be in the black, according to major label math. That studio time wasn't free. That bus wasn't a gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The major labels were the biggest bunch of payday loan sharks out there, with their soul patches growing darker and more defined with each band they signed. I bet it's a real swell feeling to sign on the dotted line as an affirmation that the music you make has been deemed not only good but marketable.
But bend over, Abigail Mae. It won't end well.
So, unless you are just a nostalgia buff who longs for the simpler times of segregation, your doctor smoking Lucky Strikes during an examination and record labels never paying artists anything, stop acting like those were the Halcyon days.
They weren't. They just seemed cooler because you were a kid and those people got to be on TV and fly on private planes with their names on them.
Anyone who was actually on a major label in the heyday of rock and roll would probably tell you a much different story. Go down to Austin and ask Ian McLagan about that.
As Guy From The Dismemberment Plan notes, way before the mean ol' internet caught on, there were mixtapes, dub clubs and (my personal favorite) taping off the radio. There was even a darling, adorable (said in an extremely condescending tone) movement called “Home Taping is Killing Music” led by the industry.
So GFTDP (Guy From The Dismemberment Plan) has a point that this “they're stealing our musics!” hysteria is far from new. Sure, the internet might allow kids in remote villages better access to the modern version of home taping. But how many independent mom and pop record stores are being forced to close because some kid in Belarus really wanted to download all the Bloodhound Gang's back catalog?
Which brings me to my main issue with GFC&CVB (Guy from Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven) and his argument: A musician friend of mine, when posting this article on Facebook, mentioned that he instructed folks working the merch table to give anyone who was on the fence about buying his music a copy for free. I like his style. At the end of the night, as you're drunkenly trying to Tetris cases into a van, are you going to be thinking about how awesome it was to a) sell 10 vinyl copies of your stuff or b) how awesome it was to give 40 people who expressed some interest in your music a shitty burned CDR copy of it?
I can't imagine anyone answering A, to be honest. While they might recoil at the perceived insult, there's an egotist in the core of every musician.
I don't mean that in a bad way. You have to be self-assured that the music you're making is so one-of-a-kind and awesome to even have the balls to play it live or commit it to tape (and/or hard drive). So it's a no brainer that they would choose the option where more people hear them, thereby increasing the chances of getting that soul-stroking email about how awesome their music is.
So why do I get tired head when I hear musicians hem and haw over how iTunes/Bandcamp/Uncle Shady's Sweatpants and Digital Download Distribution LLC have ripped them off? Because they're still stuck on the part where you make money from your music as a product, full stop.
Guess what, though? The guys in Goldmine didn't make money hand over fist from RCA, and you're not going to either now in the digital age.
Hold on, though. Don't go David Carradine-ing yourself in a Thai hotel. You've actually got it better than they did, delicate little musician flowers.
Dust off your pantaloons and come with me on this mathematical journey: Everyone before you had to, as we've already discussed, recoup expenses. Therefore, if you can pay out of pocket (pick up extra shifts at the local massage parlor or whatever) for studio time, producing and mixing, you are already ahead of the game. You literally have a better financial outlook than Masters of Reality-era Black Sabbath did, not to mention that there's a pretty good chance you still have all your fingers, unlike Tony Iommi.
So now you tour. Again, that tour bus that you think is the iconic symbol of having “made it” (not realizing that in reality, it is a rolling sweatbox full of dirty laundry, tense phone calls, the same five DVDs and humans who are holding in bowel movements on pain of death) is being loaned to you at a steep cost.
So you tour in a van. You pare down the number of breathing, eating, shitting, phone call-making humans you need to make the music you want to make to the lowest, but still passable, quality you can make it. And by that I mean, unless you're the Happy Mondays and he's Bez, you leave your roommate who plays two finger keyboard parts back home. Now you're touring and you're paying for gas and lodging and food, but any money you make is going straight back into your pocket. Not to mention the incalculable value of spreading your music around to people who might come back to see you and bring their friends.
Then there's the big one: There's licensing songs. OK, we're all over the “ewwwww, that's dirrrrrrty” thing about licensing songs, right? We know that it's how you eat these days. And there's nothing wrong with hearing your song pop up as they remove the maggot ridden corpse on CSI or hearing your music used in the background as the girls from Girls walk around Greenpoint talking about how great it is to be a spoiled, self-centered boil in human form, right?
Think about it this way: All your heroes back in the day had much less control over those things. Sure, in theory, they had a label to shop their music around for those opportunities. But they also got little say in whether or not their song would be used to sell fungal cream or whatever.
So what's my point? If I had to brass tacks it, it's this: No more essays about how “stealing music is wrong!” Please. Music is an umbrella under which reside many cottage industries, all of which are supported by as many people as possible knowing said music exists. All the fall of the music industry did is make it hard to be lazy and successful. It was way easier to get signed, do blow and let publicists worry about the legwork. Now the hustle's all on you.
If you don't have the hustle in you, then learn programming languages, make bank and form a band that plays on the weekends at places called Captain Racks. Just please, please, please stop writing essays about how people are stealing your music. It's murdering my soul.
Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven image by Danny Clinch.