2012 In Review: Opening The Books On Spotify, Grizzly Bear, And The Economic Plight Of The Working Musician
To a cynic, 2012 might have looked a lot like the Year Of The Bellyache. With musicians from Jana Hunter to John Mellencamp candidly addressing their personal economic realities in blog posts and articles, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Billy Joel rallying to contest Pandora’s attempt to lower their artist royalty rate, and record stores, print magazines, and indie labels closing their doors in record numbers, the music business seemed to have everything on its mind in 2012 except music. As Michael noted in our list of 2012’s Biggest Band Beefs, the music biz’s three most heated feuds this year “centered not on petty personal melodramas, but industry-based outrage. These were vocal and heated disagreements whose roots lay in a fundamental philosophical divide over new technology … What are the responsibilities of the artist, the industry, the audience?” Regardless of where you stand on the many divisive issues currently facing the industry, chances are you stand someplace, marking 2012 as the dawn of a most significant epoch — the end of oblivion.
It all seemed to begin in March, when Emily White, a 20-year old NPR intern and General Manager of American University’s student-run radio station WVAU, wrote a controversial piece titled “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With.” In the piece, White described how she’d purchased only 15 CDs in her lifetime but owned a digital music library of over 11,000 songs, many acquired illegally. David Lowery, best known for founding indie-rock pioneers Camper Van Beethoven and alternative rockers Cracker, also a lecturer at the University of Georgia’s Terry College Of Business, offered a well-reasoned rebuke, sparking hundreds of response articles.
From Nitsuh Abebe’s popular New York cover story on Grizzly Bear in which the band lamented not having health insurance, to Cat Power’s Chan Marshall announcing that she was filing for bankruptcy, to indie vet Damon Krukowski’s use of some highly dubious math to vilify Pandora and Spotify, the once-private plights of artists’ economic woes were suddenly thrust into full public view. Even I got in on the act, engaging in a polite and lively debate with Pyrrhon’s Doug Moore on this very forum.
The Lowery-White debate and its fallout unquestionably provided Ground Zero for what would become the hot button issue of 2012, but why now? Musicians have been exploited since the first white man stepped onto the Stovall plantation with a recording device, and downloading –- illegal and otherwise –- is certainly no recent phenomenon. What caused the dam to finally burst?
We might blame the increasingly viral nature of the web, in which one well-timed tweet by a celebrity does more for an artist than any public relations firm ever could. It is telling that many of the debates chronicled above began as mere tweet-baiting and comment section jabs run amok. With the rise of interactive social media, all spectators have become participants.
2012 was also the Year Of Spotify. Since its American debut in mid 2011, the music streaming service has become central to any conversation about the industry’s paradigm shift. The company, whose estimated worth is somewhere in the ballpark of $3 billion, recently partnered with Facebook and Coca-Cola, and, as of last month, boasted no fewer than 5 million paid subscribers worldwide.
Meanwhile, independent artists such as Hunter and Krukowski opted this year to ‘open the books,’ so to speak, presumably to set the records straight. Ludicrous as it may seem, many music fans who’ve never had brushes with actual working musicians seem to labor under the delusion that all full-time artists are wealthy. I recall the reactions of two aghast British Wooden Wand fans when I told them I supplemented my touring income by painting houses and hanging drywall. 2012 was the year that many artists decided to disabuse speculating outsiders of the notion that anyone who’s ever released a single on a hip label is enjoying a life of spoiled opulence.
When Lars Ulrich challenged Napster in 2000, he was widely lampooned as a greedy rock star hopelessly out of touch with his fans, a changing industry, and the future. In 2012, it’s safe to say that the trickle-down effect of internet piracy has forced many of us to eat our barbs and jeers.
I’ll confess something: There was a time when even I identified as ‘pro-piracy.’ I may have even claimed as much in some ancient Wooden Wand interviews. I was among those that guffawed at Ulrich’s ivory tower antiquity. Looking back, his protestations suddenly seem more prescient than ridiculous.
I am not alone in changing my tune. In a 2009 Magnet piece, David Lowery insisted that illegal downloading was no threat to the industry, proffering the touring life as a viable way for indie artists to stay afloat. Like me, I’d wager Lowery believed that internet piracy as we knew it in 2009 would only ever affect those at the very top, if it really even affected them at all, and the number of people stealing independently released albums was insignificant enough as to be negligible. It was an honest mistake. Many bands would soon find themselves playing increasingly bigger rooms to increasingly bigger crowds while concurrently selling fewer records and witnessing royalty checks shrink. Full-time artists who’d formerly eked out modest livings suddenly found they were no longer able to sustain themselves on their music alone, despite increased popularity.
The most notable tipping point, however, is not philosophical, aesthetic, or even economical, but something far more mundane: a generation gap. The maturation of a youth culture that came of age never having paid for a single record, tape, or CD was reflected in the market. A teenager who has only ever experienced music as a series of ones and zeros will not suddenly start buying physical product, no matter how persuasive the arguments or stringent the laws. For Generation X, the query “What was your first CD?” has taken on the same conversation-kindling ubiquity as its Boomer equivalent, “What’s your sign?” In 2012, we witnessed a generation enter the market who will have no answer to this question.
2013 will look a lot like 2012 –- lines will be drawn, sides will be taken, gaps will widen and feelings will be hurt. Artists will continue to lose out unless new revenue streams are discovered and utilized. Like it or not, the future looks a lot like Emily White.