The White vs. Lowery Debate: One Punk’s Response

Jun 21, 2012

For the past few days, the internets has been all abuzz about a debate concerning file-sharing and musical “piracy.” It began when Emily White, a young intern at NPR wrote this blog [] about how she has only legally purchased a handful of the albums in her musical library. She admits that the overwhelming majority of her music has been downloaded illegally.

That prompted David Lowery (of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker) to post this response []. Lowery’s essay went viral and has led to a string of responses, including this response [] by Travis Morrison (of the Dismemberment Plan), in which he points out that stealing music is not a new phenomenon and is perfectly acceptable. As a musician, small record label owner, and academic interested in corporate capitalism, I find this debate an important one. But before I offer my own two cents, it is probably in your interest to look over the original essays noted above. Lowery’s is by far the longest, but he is also the one raising the most important points. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I think Lowery actually raises some really good and important points, though I disagree with a number of his assumptions. I think the core element of his argument is to draw attention to the ethical issues at stake. I agree with him that file-sharing is an ethical issue. But I disagree with his assumption that file-sharing in itself is unethical. Certain neither White or Morrison offer an principled defense of freely sharing music, but I believe when I download music I am making an ethical decision: I want to help undermine the established corporate music industry.

Of course, most of the music I download is from bands that are posting their music for free (or dirt cheap) anyway. Why? Because they make music for love, not profit. Moreover, I am perfectly willing to pay money for the newest Toys That Kill or Low Culture releases, in part because I know and like the people involved in making and distributing that music. I know they aren’t assholes who will turn around and use that money for questionable purposes. But I do not and will not pay for a corporate-released album. Let’s take Lowery’s two bands—Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker—as examples (transparency alert: Lowery is a friend of my cousin and she reports that he is a kind and decent human being, and I have no reason to believe otherwise). I bought all the Camper Van Beethoven albums and the first Cracker album when they were released, even after they signed to Richard Branson’s Virgin Record label. But I have not bought a single Cracker album since 1992. Why not? Because that was the year Branson sold Virgin to Thorn EMI—a multinational corporation that, oh yeah, makes military weaponry. This is something Lowery doesn’t mention: after 1992, buying his band’s albums contributed to the arm industry (in much the same way that hippies buying Rolling Stones albums in the 1960s and ‘70s helped fund the Vietnam War). Lowery’s focus is on the artist, but he ignores the evils of the corporate music industry. Fuck that industry, I want to see it destroyed.

But where Lowery is spot on is his argument about how corporate capitalism has responded to the increase in file-sharing. They’ve moved in and are making profits from it. Like Lowery, I’ve heard lots of people justify file-sharing because they believe it is “sticking it to the man”—but often it actually reinforces corporate capitalism. Sure, Megaupload, Spotify, and others aren’t building bombs, but they aren’t supporting the artists making the music either. They are leaches, plain and simple, making money off of other people’s labor without any compensation. I think the observation that corporate capitalism has moved in and profits from the “file-sharing” market is one of the most important points that Lowery is raising. The glory days of early Napster are behind us and, as Lowery points out, the capitalists now exploiting the file-sharing industry may be even more nefarious than the old corporate music industry thieves (at least Thorn EMI paid Lowery and other bands something). Of course, there are lots of ways of avoiding these corporate interests. There are plenty of file-sharing services that are run by regular folks, often with anarchist-leaning sensibilities. They aren’t profiting from the exchange of music between fans. And they are easy to find, trust me.

Another of Lowery’s important responses to White’s original essay is to dismiss her claims that paying for music is too “inconvenient.” That is a laughable claim. It takes just as much/little time and energy to go to No Idea or any other online distro and buy an album as it does to download it illegally. The real issue is cost, not convenience. But to make this point, Lowery uses the example of iTunes. Sure, iTunes is convenient. But it also has horrible practices that make it extremely unfriendly to artists and small labels. Lowery’s uncritical presentation of iTunes is disturbing. There are several other legitimate sites—like Bandcamp(*) and CASH Music(**)—that truly empower bands and small labels. Plus, they are not corporate behemoths with questionable business practices, like Apple. I would encourage bands and consumers should eschew iTunes and use equally convenient sites that actually support artists.

The exchange between White, Lowery, and others has unfortunately become framed as an intergenerational dispute: those spoiled “kids” versus cranky old rock stars. This isn’t helpful or accurate, and obscures very important issues. I think Lowery is exactly right in calling for us to frame the conversation as an ethical one. As such, White’s claim about the “convenience” of illegally downloading music should be recognized for what it is: a crass cover for not wanting to spend money. But making this an ethical conversation also requires us to engage in the principles of corporate capitalism and its relationship with the music industry. Lowery worked for an arms merchant and I want no part in that. There are alternatives and the vibrancy of today’s DIY punk community is evidence of that.

* Bandcamp is a digital service that allows musicians to sell their music (or give it away for free) directly to fans at a price determined by the musicians, using the Bandcamp site. The business, which was started in 2008 by music fan/web-nerd Ethan Diamond, provides the service for free (no sign-up costs or subscription fees) and it makes their money by taking 10-15% revenue share on sales—which is less than half of what iTunes extracts and they are far more artist-friendly.

** CASH Music is a non-profit, open-source software project created by musicians (such as Kristin Hersch of 50FootWave/Throwing Muses and Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill) to help empower musicians and small labels by providing open source digital tools.