David Lowery Blasts NPR Intern On File-Sharing

By Michael Nelson / June 19, 2012

On Monday, June 16, NPR All Songs Considered intern Emily White published an essay in which she admitted that, while she boasted an iTunes library comprising some 11,000 songs, she had only purchased 15 CDs in her lifetime. In her 517-word story, White claimed that only a small fraction of her library came via piracy (“from a stint in the 5th grade with the file-sharing program Kazaa”). The 21-year-old called herself “an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ [whose] world is music-centric.” Most of her library, she says, came from the type of personal sharing that might be considered the 2005 equivalent of home-taping:

“I’ve swapped hundreds of mix CDs with friends. My senior prom date took my iPod home once and returned it to me with 15 gigs of Big Star,The Velvet Underground and Yo La Tengo … I spent hours sitting on the floor of my college radio station, ripping music onto my laptop.”

In all, a pretty innocuous tale — 11,000 songs is a kinda puny collection; the 160 GB iPod Classic can store 40,000 songs, according to Apple (although YMMV if you care about things like “sound quality”). In conclusion, White suggested that she wasn’t happy with the current distribution models, and she hoped to see something better emerge: “What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices. With this new universal database, everyone would have convenient access to everything that has ever been recorded, and performance royalties would be distributed based on play counts.”

The piece struck a nerve with former Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery, who responded to White yesterday with a 3,300-word missive that grapples with White’s confessions as well as many issues never explicitly raised by White. Lowery’s targets are varied. He addresses the (supposedly prevalent?) notion that file-sharers justify their practices by claiming they’re not hurting artists but faceless record labels. He writes off Spotify as being an untenable alternative to purchasing music (“It is not a fair system”) and he crunches some numbers, concluding that White owes $2,139.50 to the artists whose music she has obtained sans payment.

Lowery makes a couple points that wilt under analysis (the idea that listeners of White’s generation are “willing” to pay for Internet access but unwilling to pay for music — as if there were a free alternative to paying for Internet access) and he never really addresses the extremely essential question of divining the point at which listeners should shell out their hard-earned cash (before listening to any music? After listening to a given album five times? Two times?). But for all its weaknesses, his essay is essential reading: passionate, eloquent and urgent. Read it here.

Do you agree with Lowery’s argument? Or do you think it falls short of addressing the problem? Do you pay for music, or are you, like White, sitting on a library of songs you obtained via sharing?