Will Sheff On File Sharing

UPDATE: As xtro noted, turns out Will originally posted this a year ago! We had no idea; reader Eric clued us in to a MSN blog that posted it yesterday, which explains our tardiness. But hey, a year on and Sheff’s screed’s still relevant. We’ll work on getting our heads into ’07 while you mull over Will’s issue framing.

Shouldn’t surprise anyone that Okkervil River’s Will Sheff is an articulate young man. His lyrics speak more than do most others’, and before he dedicated himself full-time to the River, he was a music writer for Audiogalaxy.com where his articles were a “not-very-convincing camouflage for what was at the time one of the world’s largest file-sharing networks.” The RIAA shut down Audiogalaxy, prompting Will, thankfully, to concentrate on Okkervil. But now as a recording artist, Sheff’s had a number of vantage points on the file sharing phenomenon, and his article on Welcome To The Working Week offers up his major issue with the proliferation of file swaps: Rather than take issue with the economics of the phenomenon, Sheff feels most strongly about its aesthetic impact.

On File-Sharing by Will Sheff
Over the nine-odd years that we in Okkervil River have been trying to make a living playing music, I’ve developed a kind of love/hate relationship with the world of file-sharing. The first good job I ever had was at the website Audiogalaxy.com, where I drew a respectable salary for writing music reviews and editorials as a kind of not-very-convincing camouflage for what was at the time one of the world’s largest file-sharing networks. At the time, my attitude about file-sharing was that it didn’t particularly hurt artists ? most of whom were being ripped off by their labels anyway (it’s a little known fact that very few musicians actually make any money off of record sales) ? rather, it helped spread the word about their music to people who, if they liked it enough, would buy the CD. I felt that the party who genuinely had cause to be frightened of file-sharing weren’t the tiny little indie bands but the colossal major labels; if you put out a Britney Spears CD with only one good song on it, I figured, people would just steal the one song and no one would buy the CD.

When feeling grand ? usually after one or two of the free 20 oz. Mountain Dews available in our office kitchen fridge and a few rounds at the Nerf hoop ? I’d imagine a new and digitally reinvigorated world in which sales of major-label behemoths like Britney and Creed would plummet, in which major labels would topple, in which culture would be reinvented as a kind of meritocracy where anyone with artistic ambitions could draw a decent living by setting up a PayPal tip-jar on their little corner of the internet. Don’t laugh ? you thought that, too.

About a year later, the RIAA finally came gunning for Audiogalaxy and shut us down. The dot-com crash hit, and everyone started wondering where the money was. I was taken into the special room at my offices ? the one with the big, soft leatherette couches, the one reserved for hiring and firing ? and fired. I loaded a box with my belongings and a pair of stolen Sony headphones and drove home from the gutted Audiogalaxy offices. A couple of weeks later I cast my lot with Okkervil River, and I headed out on my first major tour. I’ve spent more than half of the intervening five years on the road. After tour upon tour of paying more for gas than we were making at the shows, of skipping meals, of asking people in the sparse crowds we drew if any of them had available floor space where we could spend the night, I’ve finally managed to make it pay enough so that I draw roughly the same salary as a clerk at a 7-11. I use that comparison solely descriptively, as I couldn’t be possibly be happier to be making a living doing what I love. At the same time, with no health insurance and no house and no idea how long my “music career” will last, it’s kind of become everything I have. I try to use that fact as reason to throw all of my energy and my care into every single thing that I do; as a result, my attitude about file-sharing has become more complicated now that it has a direct impact on my life.

I’m not sure if file-sharing impacts our sales enough for it to hurt us. Sometimes I suspect that it does ? other times I’m glad people get a chance to be exposed to our music. I do know that there’s a subscription-based service called Sound Scan that all industry professionals ? labels, booking agents, promoters, publicists ? look at regularly. Sound Scan estimates how many records you’ve sold in stores and over the internet, and it is used to determine how “big” you are. If you’re angling to have the opening slot on a lucrative tour or trying to get signed to a new label and someone takes a look at your Sound Scan numbers and doesn’t like them, it’s over. That’s an aspect of file-sharing that I’m not sure people take into account. In any case, I honestly don’t care quite as much about the commercial implications of file-sharing because they’re basically out of my control and I guess that inside I still do take the view that file-sharing can be radically empowering to fans and that I can trust those same fans to buy the records.

My real concerns with file-sharing are primarily aesthetic.

The internet ? with its glut not only of information but of misinformation, and of information that is only slightly correct, or only slightly incorrect ? fills me with this same weird mixture of happiness and depression. I sometimes feel drowned in information, deadened by it. How many hundreds of bored hours have you spent
mechanically poring through web pages not knowing what you’re looking for, or knowing what you’re looking for but not feeling satisfied when you find it? You hunger but you’re not filled. Everything is freely available on the internet, and is accordingly made inestimably valuable and utterly value-less.

When I was a kid, I’d listen to the same records over and over and over again, as if I was under a spell. The record would end and I’d flip it over again, doing absolutely nothing, letting the music wash over me. My favorite record albums become like a totem for me, their big fat beautiful gatefolds worked as a shield against the loud, crashing, crushing world. I would have laid down my life and died in defense of a record like Tonight’s the Night or Astral Weeks. I felt that those records had, in some ways, saved my life. These days, with all the choice in the world, it’s hard for me find the attention span for a single album. I put my iPod on shuffle and skip impatiently to the next song before each one’s over. I don’t even know what I’m looking for.

Because my work is the most important thing in the world to me, I sometimes feel uncomfortable about it existing freely in the digital Library of Babel, these songs that I worked so hard writing and revising and rehearsing and recording and mixing (and re-mixing) and mastering (and re-mastering) shucked off the album and thrown up on
the internet in hissy and brittle low-resolution versions with no kind of sequence or order, mixed in with odd leaked tracks and some sub-par live versions. In a world overstuffed with stimuli and choking on information, I feel like a musical album should have a kind of purity and a kind of wholeness, that every aspect of an album ? from the
sequencing to the artwork even down to the typesetting ? should feels labored over and loved, and that the finished product should feel like a gift.

At the same time, I am a very ardent supporter of the way in which the internet empowers fans. I truly believe that the internet allows fans to connect with and participate in art in a way that’s far more meaningful than it’s been for decades, in a way that’s more akin to the way folk music worked in the 1920’s and for hundreds of years
beforehand. Anyone who has ever been to a perfect rock show by their favorite band in a small venue can testify to the circuit of energy that is created at those shows between the audience and the band, to the way that energy washes up onstage from the crowd and is radiated back out again from the performers, to the way that it becomes less
about an artist and an audience and it becomes entirely about a singular unrepeatable shared moment between a group of people. That’s why I go to shows, and that’s why I play music myself.

By the same token, those same great shows don’t always sound the same when you run a line out from the soundboard into a minidisk player and put it up online. For one thing, soundboard tapes are notoriously bad; everything that’s supposed to resonate through the air ? like drums and amps ? gets lost, while everything that’s miked or going direct sounds dry and ten times louder. Similarly, all those other ineffable things that resonate through the air ? those things that are the reason we go to rock shows in the first place ? simply can’t be captured through a line-out on a soundboard. I’ve heard a lot of the Okkervil bootlegs out there; some of them sound great and some of them make me wince. I don’t mind that they’re out there and I encourage
bootlegging, but sometimes it’s painful for me to contemplate how there are hours and hours of terrible-sounding Okkervil River music readily available on the internet.

We’re going on tour again in the fall and we’ll probably be playing some new songs. I love sharing new songs and refining them live in front of people. However, I’m going to save some of the new songs for our next recording session ? in spite of the fact that we could use the rehearsal ? for the simple reason that I don’t want them to be
heard first in versions that are inferior because we’re still working through them and they’re poorly from soundboards. I’m not at all asking that you don’t record and share shows; rather, I myself am going to try to choose some songs that I’m okay having shared in early versions. Just as long as when the album comes out you don’t do that thing on the message board where you go, “hrumph, I much prefer the earlier version better, by the way. I find so much more pure the version from Madison where Will’s guitar is out of tune and he’s so wasted that he forgets half the words and then apologizes and starts the song over. And then he forgets them again.” — Will Sheff


[Pic from Okkervil River’s show at Castle Clinton 7/13/06.]

Okkervil River – “For Real” (MP3)

Check out more Okkervil on MySpace.