Originally this was going to be a post about whether or not we are too hard on our musicians, whether we demand too much of them creatively while delivering not nearly enough support for their troubles, and in some respects I stayed true to that aim. But for the most part, I’ve let the first part of that argument lie in wait (thought it may surface at some point in the future), my reasoning being that there are several drastically different musical spheres that are not compatible with one another (especially in terms of the stresses placed on artists) and it was too difficult to rectify those differences to form a clear and cogent argument or even statement of opinion. I can’t justify a comparison that assumes that U2 and Taylor Swift and the world of ClearChannel-radio is operating under the same conditions that have been forced upon the Lydias and Forgive Durdens of the independent music world. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on the latter part of my initial premise: the lack of support that we’re offering artists.
Before we really get started, I’ll note that this is a topic that gets me fired up. It’s the kind of thing that, once I get going, can fuel an hour-long rant on the horrible inequities of music’s business side. Rather than go down that long-winded road, I’m going to be as brief as possible (which is, of course, not very brief at all).
In trying to find something1 within the world of music that seemed to encapsulate my concern that we – consumers – are leaving musicians broken, battered, and used, the line that most frequently came to mind was from a Dear Hunter song: “I will only take from you; I’ll use you up. I’ll use you up.” A fitting description of the relationship between artists and labels/publicists/the-media/fans.2
In fact, it seems that – taking that lyric metaphor one step further – independent musicians have become the proverbial “hooker with a heart of gold”. Hear me out as I attempt to break this (somewhat ridiculous) comparison down. In their heart of hearts, they (bands) really want to be dancers (artists), but it’s too hard to make a profit doing what they love (creating inspired works) so they have to sell themselves short and become ladies of the night (conform to marketable stereotypes) in order to put food on the table (in order to put food on the table). In both cases we end up with a protagonist who sells themselves and their ideals short while receiving only empty dollars and regret for what they’ve sacrificed.
It may be that the vast majority of blame for these circumstances falls at the feet of record labels and tour-organizers/venues who ruthlessly hoard profits, exiling and blacklisting bands that don’t meet their steep demands. But we consumers are at fault as well. We demand more and more from our musicians. More quantity at a higher quality. And we give less and less for it.
[Excuse me while I climb up on my soapbox for a minute] I count myself among the minority when I say that I don’t download music for free (please be offended by this, therefore proving me wrong). I buy my albums the old fashioned way: with money. Artists ply their trade for a living and theft is theft, whether it be from an artist or a farmer or a haberdasher. I understand the allure of being able to get something you want without having to pay for it (with the added perk of not having to walk into a store where you might actually be identified). The internet – and its anonymity – has made this incredibly easy. Again, I understand why people do this – I am aware that “money is tight” and that people are “sure that the band would rather I listen for free than not listen at all” (perhaps the most-cited rationale for this trend, oftentimes followed by the derisive “I thought it was about music and not money, anyway”). But there are consequences for these actions – we just tend not to look past our own fingers, so we don’t see them. [Stepping off of soapbox]
Bands literally breakup because of the economic climate in the music scene. For example, check out this horribly depressing quote from the now-defunct Juliana Theory:
“Financially, we would have to take regular jobs now to keep this thing going. We swore to ourselves years ago that we would not let that happen. We’ve always given 100 percent to this thing and it would be an insult to our fans and to ourselves to do it less than 100 percent because we would be spending most of our time making a living elsewhere. It’s easy when you are 19, living in your parents’ house, but when you’ve got bills to pay and people counting on you, real life hits you in the face. We are left with no other choice than to end the band. Like many of the bands that we looked up to when we started all of this, we die early and nearly forgotten.”
Jesus. That’s horrible. The last line alone is incredibly depressing – partly because I’ve seen it happen to several bands that I love and also because (in some very small way), I’ve experienced it on my own. But TJT is not alone. Bands such as RX Bandits have made statements proclaiming the need for fans to tangibly support the bands that they love, lest those bands cease to exist.
If there is any silver-lining to this state of being, it would be two Gatsbys American Dream albums: In the Land of Lost Monsters and Gatsbys American Dream; both deliver brilliant music that was inspired by the band’s terrible dealings with labels and promoters as they struggled up-hill to survive in such a disastrous economic environment.3 On the other hand, the members of Gatsbys were so tired out from their Sisyphean battle that they didn’t even tour in support of that self-titled album (dropping off an already scheduled tour, no less), which ended up being their final work – too tired to continue in the face of such unyielding adversity, they broke up after its release.
The point is, we take and take and take, but we don’t give back. We don’t buy records. We don’t go to shows. We don’t buy t-shirts or contribute in any way other than commenting on message boards about how we love bands and all the while we watch as they die of aesthetic starvation. Hell, I’m guilty too – I haven’t been to nearly enough shows lately.
We can’t keep demanding albums and music as the artist’s responsibility, while nonchalantly shrugging off our own responsibility to give them funding enough to keep making music. Does a few people buying CDs counteract the deprivation of funds for which labels and organizers are responsible? Probably not. But, maybe more than anything else, I find that this is a matter of principle. It’s unlikely that you can get any band a new record contract or a new touring agreement that will be more beneficial to them, so we have to do what we can – if you love a band and if you want them to keep making music, buy their albums. If we all pay a few dollars for albums, thus allowing musicians to keep making more albums, isn’t this better than getting only one album for free? I feel like the answer is self-evident. But I’ve been known to be wrong.
1. Outside of Gatsbys American Dream and their oft-linked manifesto.
2. This heartfelt post by John Gourley of Portugal. The Man also applies – and may inspire a later The River, The Tiger, The Fire post – particularly his opinion that downloading music is justified as a taste-test, provided that you buy the albums that you like – a position that I fully support.
3. In the Land of Lost Monsters is one of my all-time favorite albums and includes a ‘thank you’ note on the album’s spine for not having downloaded the album; ironically enough, in the wake of the GAD’s death, the EP is now available from the band for free download.
Note: I’m fairly certain that this post didn’t apply to 99% of the people who read it and that the other 1% think I’m an asshole; to both parties I say: thank you for listening to my rant (now go pre-order this).