As you’ve probably seen by now, Emily White, an intern at NPR, posted this commentary about how she’s bought maybe 15 CDs in her life but had a library of tens of thousands of songs, and how people of “her generation” won’t pay for music but will pay for convenience. Go read it; I’m a bit curious how many downloads aren’t included in those CDs but were paid, but let’s assume the answer is “not many.”

And all of the pr0n

In response, we have David Lowrey writing about how horrible this is and stealing from artists, and how evil “free culture” is. He argues that bands do make money from labels (counting advances as income – and wildly understating the sad facts about how all that money is taken right back), and brings up a lot of what I consider economic false-flag arguments about how Google and Apple and Megaupload et all are raking it in from piracy. But read his column yourself.

And over here, Jonathan Coulton finds himself agreeing really with both sides, and empathising with Mr. Lowrey, but saying we’re leaving the age of scarcity here and that there’s nothing much to be done about it. That’s true, but doesn’t go far enough.

First, I’ll admit this right up front: David Lowrey is right, at least in part. This will destroy the old system. Really, it already has, and 21-year-old Emily White is the spectre with cloak and scythe staring its participants in their faces. Understandably, they do not like that.

And in some ways – particularly the earlier versions of this system – this is a bad thing. It did pay people – vocalists, instrumentalists, studio engineers, producers, artists – all kinds of people who made and are still making artistic contributions. Along the way, some artists – even some of the “talent” – made real money.

Now, people who came up in that system find it collapsing around them. That’s brutal, and there is real suffering for it which should not be ignored. Leaving aside the corporate end, and the gatekeepers, and the eat-all-your-money-and-own-your-everything and lawsuit-happy RIAA and MPAA ass monkeys, there are artistic contributors – musicians – of the old system who used to make a living and now don’t.

That sucks. I sing the praises of trying to find new ways to do all this a lot, and of the opportunities, but the wreckage is real. A lot of it’s deserved – Burn, Warner Pigs, Burn – but as always, a lot of artists are going to take the worst of it. That’s unfair.

But the elephant in the room everyone is busily ignoring in their indignation is that the only way to restore this dying system and achieve Mr. Lowrey’s goal would be to destroy everything. Turn off the computers, shut down the net, blow it all up, get out the polyester and pretend it’s still 1971 just like the rest of the baby boomers have been doing since 1982.

Which won’t happen. So instead you’d install comprehensive DRM on everything along with massively intrusive surveillance of everything you do on your computer and your music, and – even in the best version of this – restrict everything you do now to only and exactly those things you could’ve done in January of 1971, just before chromium dioxide magnetic tape made first-generation cassette recordings off LPs worth hearing. Every time you hit “play,” their software would ask their servers whether they think you should, and a copyright lawyer would get their horns.

Sure. That’ll work.

Of course, that’s exactly what they’ve been trying to do. Ironically, I think there’s an argument to be made that they might’ve pulled it off had they been willing to settle for the old status quo, but they are and always have been too damn greedy. They’ve gone after the super-goals of we own everything and you pay us every time you listen, and the one thing you don’t do is get between Americans and their entertainment. Maybe once there may’ve been a middle ground of people willing to say, “yeah, it’s fair to keep paying here” had the industry been reasonable about it, but they haven’t been.


Which really, is for the best. The mere existence of any such monitoring system is intrinsically abusive, can only be abused further, and, in fact, has been so abused. It’d be a bigger fiasco and bigger destroyer of rights than the drug war. Political censorship, information trolling, Sony’s infamous audioCD-based rootkits – the list goes on and on.

All these abuses and outrages and the fact that this is one of the few areas Americans actually care make that approach a total non-starter. And all of that, taken together, means exactly one thing:

It doesn’t matter what you think of Emily White.

Where there’s a way, there is a will, and all the protestations and harrumphs and those-kids-today you can cough up do. not. matter. This is reality, and reality does not care whether you like it. They have successfully rejected the old system and superseded it with their own simply by reacting to the new facts on the ground. As we’ve already shown, nobody’s putting the old one back.

It is long past time to stop complaining and start dealing with it.

So, given that: what can you do? How can musical artists make any money doing this, moving forward?

We’ll talk about that next time.

This is Part 1 of Music in the Post-Scarcity Environment, a series of articles on, well, what it says on the tin.