Saturday, March 6, 2010

One On Me: Free Culture May Bankrupt Culture

Last night I had coffee with a friend and we casually tried to answer a question that millions of twenty-somethings are trying to answer: how do I get paid to do the things that I love, you know, the things that I'm really good at? As the conversation bounced around, my friend added an off-hand bit of news: Joanna Newsom's new album, "Have One On Me," sold only 7,000 copies in its debut week. Hearing this, I couldn't help feeling that we had accidentally arrived at an answer to our big question.

Drag City, Newsom's label, had spent months carefully building awareness for the release of "Have One On Me." They did everything right--from the enigmatic announcement in the form of a cartoon (Pitchfork ran the breathless headline "Joanna Newsom Album Confirmed!"), to a special album artwork debut, to premiering three new songs in the weeks before the release, to eventually streaming the album in its entirety. It was an adept digital striptease in which Drag City slowly built up intrigue through influential music blogs and their commenters' whirling speculation. Still, the album tanked in its first week of release.

There is a simple reason that "Have One On Me" didn't sell: it's not for lack of publicity, or lack of quality, or lack of instant availability, it's because people refused to buy it. It seems that the music lovers of my generation have become content with expressing their support for an artist by doing everything except buying the artist's album. Music blogs and streaming music sites have become go-to tabs on every twenty-something's browser and this massive amount of digital traffic has seemingly come to replace record store traffic. Somehow, my generation has gone from setting the record for first-week album sales with *NSYNC's "No Strings Attached" to actively loosing the album of any inherent value.

Here's some perspective: Pitchfork states that it receives an average of 2 million unique visitors per month. "Have One On Me" reportedly sold 7,000 copies last week. Since its hard to say what that figure actually reflects, let's pad it a little, just to be safe. In 2009, digital downloads accounted for roughly 40% of music purchases according to Nielsen SoundScan so let's say that Newsom's album sold 7,000 physical copies and then an additional 4,700 or so (~40%) digital copies. That generous combined figure is still less than 1% of the visitors that go to Pitchfork.com every month; it accounts for just over 2% of people that visited Pitchfork during the week "Have One On Me" debuted.

In the early days of mp3 music, file-sharing was a justifiable expression of music-lovers' frustration with established modes of record-selling. People wanted access to a grand collection of music and the ability to have it right when they wanted it. In the years since Napster, though, the music and tech industries have introduced myriad ways to access and purchase music instantly and cheaply. Yet it seems that, like a kid who has grown accustomed to his mom doing his laundry, we have all grown accustomed--too accustomed--to being able to have music right when we want it, for free.

My generation has the broadest, most convenient access to culture and entertainment that has ever existed. This total, unfettered access to EVERYTHING has empowered us to become prolific artists, savvy curators, and cool conversationalists but along the way we may be bankrupting our creative industries. In a basic sense, an economy is production and consumption. In order for an economy to work, there needs to be meaningful participation on both ends. Over the last decade, we have expanded what that meaningful participation means. We have endless ways to cheaply express ourselves and freely enjoy and promote the work of others. While this progressive system of culture and entertainment has afforded us the ability to enjoy a vast cosmos of creative works and clever communication, it has also caused us to lose sight of what, let's face it, fundamentally matters: $$$. Since Napster, we've been saying "fuck you" to The Music Industry but now we've gotten to the point where we're saying "fuck you" to the musicians. Sure concert attendance matters, and a glowing blog post is nice, but an album sale is still a vital way for fans to enable an artist to fully explore his/her talent. If we don't monetarily support the prodigiously talented, 28-year-old Joanna Newsom and others like her, then I fear that we're destined for a future in which art is the perpetual realm of underfunded hobbyists.

So here's a confession: I didn't buy "Have One On Me" last week (I know, I know...). I listened to the full stream on NPR and said, yeah, I'll buy it when I get around to it. After hearing the 7,000 stat, though, I purchased it on iTunes and I began to re-calibrate my content-wants-to-be-free, the-world's-evolving-blah-blah, thinking. The album's expensive ($17.99 on iTunes), which probably detracted some from purchasing it last week, and it was a punch to my wheezing bank account. In the end, though, it means one less round at the bar and more future chances for people to say, "Have one on me."

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