Music Ethics in the Digital Age

February 20, 2010

Recently, I began thinking about what the ethics of a music fan might be in the digital age.  I love indie record shops, and my current city of Louisville is home to one of the most famous indie record shops in the country, Ear X tacy. They made big news lately in light of their current money woes; the lease they have on an enormous building in a prime location in the city is up at the end of March and it wasn’t (or isn’t fully still) clear if they will be able to renew it or be forced to move locations or consolidate space. It’s clear that some changes have to be made to stay viable in a weak economy, especially if you sell physical media in an increasingly digital age. When news broke of this and the owner called a press conference to rally support in efforts to keep the doors open, hundreds of locals splurged and bought tons of physical media. A facebook-based “Save Ear Xtacy” group emerged, quickly gaining thousands of fans–many made the “duh” observation that if all of these folks that want to save the business just bought one item per month from the store, the future of the business would never be in question again.

Yet many might be asking, why rush to save a store that deals primarily in physical media in the first place if their product is certain to become a relic any day now? A recent survey of internet users found that barely half of them thought music was worth paying for at all anymore. Wow. Those of us that are truly music fans though, realize music is of great value and that it adds to the quality of our life immensely. Digital piracy can quickly hurt a fledgling band’s career, because it takes money to pay road crews, producers, labels and to travel the country promoting music. A place like Ear X tacy is much more than just a place to buy CDs, it’s a place to catch live music, find art by local and regional artists,get concert tickets, see posters of upcoming events, pick up music on vinyl or on CD with a better sound, and to converse with other fans in person.

Yet I’ve noticed that in the talks since this came out, many people just argue about why digital is better than physical or vice versa. That’s a truly circular and pointless argument. I think it’s evident the benefits each has over the other– downloads are cheap, free if you’re pirating. Downloads are instant, easy and you don’t have to leave your house. If a record is coming out on a certain day, get up early that morning and go to a decent music download provider and for a few bucks you can get a decent quality download of it and be listening to it within minutes. With downloads you’re not forced to buy an entire album to get one song that you’re after, you can simply pick and click and get the highlights; if it turns out the entire album is worth it, you can go back and pick the rest up later. Now with physical media, there are still obvious benefits and a definite market. Vinyl has grown in popularity over the years, even as CD sells have plummeted. Vinyl offers a superior, warmer, better sound and it comes in large, nice, collectible packaging with liner notes, and often a free download version of the album is included. For those craving something tangible, vinyl fills a spot. To get up and flip the record involves just a little bit more in the process of paying  attention to the music; there’s very little lift and move of the needle for vinyl fans, so listening to the album as a whole cohesive work of art makes it more of an event and less of a background noise. Even moving away from vinyl, there is likely to be a niche market for CDs even if digital becomes the established norm. The sound quality of a CD can be approximated closely in MP3s if proper adjustments are made to the files when ripping or downloading occurs, but for a lot of work the CD sound is better than the digital version; and some people who came of age in the CD era will always enjoy the small discs, liner notes and artwork.

Jim James, lead singer of My Morning Jacket and Louisville native, flew in to catch the press conference at Ear X tacy and made the comment that “people can’t even afford health insurance” at one point during an interview. It’s obvious that people can’t afford massive amounts of luxuries, it’s obvious that even for music fans needs and bills and rising costs of everything else take precedence, and if we can get something cheaper (or free) and enjoy it, we’re apt to make some concessions. But let’s assume the economy will eventually get better and people will have money again some day. Let’s also acknowledge that we live in a consumerist society, as much as we may want some things to be free.  For every multi-million dollar pop star raking in the dough there are a hundred smaller acts with great talent, growing fan-bases and average-to-little income. What might the ethics of music fandom in this day and age be, if we wish to keep music a viable and entertaining field?

1) Support the artists that brighten your day–

Sharing music has always been a part of music fandom. We’ve always made copies of albums for our friends whether it was taping a record onto an audio cassette or ripping mp3s to a USB drive. Sharing music that we’ve discovered is a natural part of loving music–we try to turn on others to the artists we’ve been turned on to. So in 2010 and beyond, every time you get a free download from a blog or website that’s promoting a roster of artists or when a friend gives you a copy of a band’s new album and you discover something great from that, find a way to support that artist’s work in some way. That means catch them in a show, grab a T-shirt with their logo, or buy another one of  their albums. If you download the latest Artist X’s album from a server for  3 bucks and love it, keep an eye out for it on vinyl (if you’re an audiophile or a wax-geek) and pick it up some day when you can spare the change.

2) Support Your Local Store, Label, Band, Scene

You don’t feel too bad getting Artist Y’s entire catalog for free because you just saw them on You Tube showing off their new Lamborghini and mansion. Understandable. But what about Artist Z, who just released a smoldering new EP that’s drawing rave  reviews but zero mainstream attention? You hear a track and love it but you see she’s still touring dive bars and coffee shops. Why not go to a local record shop (if you’re lucky enough to still have a locally owned music store) and buy that EP. Then you can listen to the entire thing in far superior sound quality than you would have if you’d ripped a copy in 192kbps and listened to it through your i pod? While you’re at the record store, keep an eye out for stickered recommendations of the staff and locally recorded and released vinyls.

3) Make purchases that focus the companies to strengthen their weaknesses and trim their fat

Sometimes albums aren’t “cohesive works of art.” Sometimes they really are just crap with 1 good song sandwiched in the middle. Download that one song and move on, then. But if you go online to buy one track and while you’re listening to sound clips from the rest of the album and it’s equally good, why not get the entire thing? That way labels can take a hint in the long run and realize that right albums aren’t dead in the any format, just bad albums are just dead. Also, when you’re doing your downloading, support smaller companies like ShockHound or Amie Street if the price is comparable and they have what you’re looking for. The big behemoth i-tunes has decided as of late that they can charge 1.29 a single and limit particular tracks from your individual purchase, so they don’t offer the best deal anyway. The general CD market will not stay around for 10 more years. It’s not going to happen; the industry has tried premium sound quality discs like SACD and DVD-audio in the past; the CD market needs to be pushed in that direction more fully. For people who continue to want physical CDs, offer them superior sound quality with a good mix, expanded and full artwork and lyrics, nice packaging, and a reasonable price. Don’t allow perennial classics to go out of print and don’t keep useless and unwanted albums always in print. Focus on digital as an affordable purchase method and offer it in high kpbs.

Anyone else have suggestions or thoughts?

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