3. David Lowery Vs. NPR Intern Emily White
In June, 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 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 with a 3,300-word missive that grappled with White’s confessions as well as many related issues never explicitly raised by White. He addressed the (supposedly prevalent?) notion that file-sharers justify their practices by claiming they’re not hurting artists but faceless record labels. He wrote off Spotify as being an untenable alternative to purchasing music (“It is not a fair system”), and he crunched some numbers, concluding that White owes $2,139.50 to the artists whose music she had obtained sans payment.
Lowery’s story went viral instantly; the response not only ripped through the Internet, it came to define many of the defining conversation point of 2012, from the New York Magazine cover story titled “Is Rock Stardom Any Way To Make A Living?” to Damon Krukowski’s Pitchfork essay “Making Cents” in which he revealed the paltry sums paid to artists by music-streaming services like Spotify: “For the 5,960 times ‘Tugboat’ was played there, Galaxie 500’s songwriters went collectively into triple digits: $1.05 (35 cents each).”
Dismemberment Plan singer Travis Morrison wrote a sprawling essay on Huffington Post titled “Hey Dude From Cracker, I’m Sorry, I Stole Music Like These Damned Kids When I Was A Kid,” which (surprise!) advances White’s argument, but there really were no easy answers, no heroes or villains. White was being sincere and pragmatic; Lowery was being sincere and idealistic; neither model seems sustainable.