Catchy, Good, or Both? David Lowery, “Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered”

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by Max Horwich

This is my first piece for HMSM, so I thought I’d try my hand at one of their recurring columns, “Catchy, Good, or Both?” Previously, Kevin has used this column to address “Call Me Maybe” and “Somebody That I Used To Know”, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to examine the internet’s latest viral sensation, “Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered,” by David Lowery. It’s not a song, per se, more of a tirade against an unassuming 20-year-old intern; but it was written by a great musician (Lowery used to play in Cracker* and Camper Van Beethoven), and it’s gone viral in a manner not unlike Carly Rae or Gotye – drawing half a million page views in the first two days alone, and inspiring countless responses by everyone from Steve Albini to Travis Morrison to Bob Lefsetz (all of which are great, BTW).

So let’s break it down: is it catchy, good or both?

Catchy? Without a doubt.

-Lowery now works as a Music Business professor at the University of Georgia, so he clearly knows the ins and outs of the industry. He backs up his argument with hard statistics about declining record sale revenues and dwindling numbers of professional musicians.

-He breaks down who is actually making money off music (spoiler alert: not the artists) with snappy analogies, in which he refers to a hypothetical un-policed neighborhood where shoplifters run amok as the ‘Net, because apparently it’s still 1996.

-His personal anecdotes about the deaths of Vic Chestnutt and Mark Linkous are genuinely heartbreaking and put a personal touch on the whole debate.

-He finishes strong, calculating exactly how much Emily “owes” the music industry for all the free music she’s acquired – which happens to be about the combined price of a laptop, a smart phone and an iPod – and links to some charities where that money could go.

-We’re still talking about this article two weeks later, which is like 15 years in Internet Time. It’s provoked a healthy debate among smart people on the internet about how to ethically consume music, which is a long overdue conversation (the link provided is just one of many).

Good? Sort of.

-Lowery isn’t wrong about any of this. It sucks that musicians don’t make more money. But you know what else sucked? Paying $16.99 for a CD sucked, especially a CD with one and a half good songs and nine tracks of filler that you only listen to once. The first track (I refuse to call it a song) I ever downloaded from Napster, at the tender age of 15, was Dynamite Hack’s ham-fistedly ironic cover of “Boyz in the Hood,” and I think that’s telling. I really can’t express how grateful I am that I didn’t have to spend nearly twenty dollars of hard-earned allowance money on something that was kinda funny for three minutes and then awful forever.

-His stories about Vic Chestnut and Mark Linkous, while undeniably tragic, are also a little obtuse to the point he’s making. It’s inexcusable that these men died because they didn’t have adequate health care, but this should be part of a much larger conversation than music piracy. Also, “I’m not trying to point fingers or place blame, but your generation killed these musicians by stealing their music” reminds me a little too much of those comments that begin “I’m not racist and/or sexist, but…”

-He definitely low-balls his estimate of what Emily owes for the free music she’s acquired – ten cents per song seems pretty reasonable. Still, any dollar sign you put on a piece of digital media is going to be very slippery, and it’s a number that’s going to be constantly evolving as our relationship with music evolves.

It’s hard to blame Lowery for his concern. Artists around his age seem to feel most threatened by the proliferation of music piracy. While a select few of the larger artists from around that time (Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails leap to mind) have adapted quite gracefully to recorded music now being essentially free, many others who were just getting a foothold in the ‘90s had the rug pulled out from them rather violently by Napster and the thousands of imitations that have popped up to replace it over time.

However, artists closer to Emily’s age, who have grown up with this “music is free” mentality, are approaching things differently. Many young artists have parlayed free or pay-what-you-want releases into greater success – Das Racist, Odd Future, and The Weeknd come to mind and they’re hardly the only examples. It is now free to obtain recorded music (discounting the cost of a laptop and an internet connection), but it’s also free to make and distribute recorded music (again, discounting the cost of a laptop and an internet connection). From where I’m sitting (at a laptop, on the internet), music is in a much better place now than it was twelve years ago.

The fact that Lowery ends his tirade by linking to several reputable charities shows that his heart is clearly in the right place. When he shakes his fist and tells us kids to get off his lawn, he’s just trying to make sure the grass stays green. He also doesn’t seem to realize that the lawn isn’t really his anymore.

This is Max Horwich’s first article for Happy Music, Sad Music. When he’s not writing (which is pretty much always, as this is the first article he’s written in five years), he makes music. You can get it for free on the internet

*I can’t find a place to work this into my actual article, so I’m gonna use this footnote to point out the irony that Lowery once wrote a song about literally stealing the master tapes to Sticky Fingers from Virgin Records because they screwed over his band. It’s a really brilliant song, as were most of the songs Lowery wrote when he was still writing songs. You can watch a live performance of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kd-2Mj7mh3Q

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