C L A R K  S O R L E Y

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David Lowery is a moderately successful American rock singer and an academic. He has been using his erudition to express disapproval at what’s happening to the recording industry in the wake of technological change.

Recently he got some attention after attacking the attitude of a radio intern who blogged about how she hadn’t paid much for all the music in her possession. Despite the ordinariness of her statement it was a red flag to Lowery’s bull who set about explaining to the student, politely if condescendingly, why she and her ilk were responsible for the state of the biz and that they should be more morally upstanding toward the plight of artists. He also mentioned the deaths of two musician friends suggesting that their end was hastened by financial trouble due to industry conditions. He didn’t quite blame the intern for their demise but the inference was there to be taken just the same.

It was a shameless piece of propaganda much in opposition to the enlightened view currently that recording artists should learn how to move with the changes. Lowery’s stance is essentially a conservative one: that downloading is stealing, that it abuses copyright; that copyright is like any other property; that it’s an incentive to create and that without it creators won’t produce; that the system worked well enough for hundreds of years and if music lovers would just do the right thing then everything could get back on track... and so on. It’s a case so behind the curve you wonder why articulate people bother making it.

And yet, behind the curve or not, these conservative types do ask some reasonable questions to which full answers remain scant. They want to know who will finance creative work in future (films, books, music, journalism and the rest) if the old media industries are diminished. It’s a crystal ball question to which there is no good reply as yet. Emergent forms of patronage like fan-funding look promising but whether they can replace backing from the recording, publishing and media companies of yore is far from certain. The future might see no institutional finance for artists at all with those starting out having to go it alone whichever way they can.

Of course going it alone was always the way for most of us, and still is. But at least original work now makes its pitch within a wholly changed environment replete with advancements including access to production tools and presentation channels previously the domain of the chosen few. If the old industries supporting the arts do become extinct then maybe new ones will gradually take their place in sync with these innovations. As institutions for the modern age with alternative business models they might come to be employing creatives rather than signing them, paying them for their work rather than tying them to impossibly loss-making contracts. Perhaps technology companies themselves might invest in artists with an eye to fresh initiatives for how to do business. This would certainly have historical precedent. The record industry majors were as much tech as they were music (Sony: the Walkman; Philips: the CD; EMI’s full title: Electric and Musical Industries). Like Pixar in recent times might other tech organisations come to see the fullness of their culture aligned to that of artists by being fully invested in their work?

The reactionaries would say no. They complain about tech giants having built their fortunes on the back of creative work they didn’t pay for. Although that is true to an extent I think it is essentially a rhetorical point. Yes, Google rakes in ad revenue from pointing its search at so called pirated works and Apple built its fortune on the iPod, a device that by Jobs’ admittance contained music mostly ripped freely from CDs. But these are bi-products of a wider shift, a shift that makes it increasingly difficult to charge for music by the unit. Copies exist everywhere in the ether now and no longer constitute a reasonable practice upon which to base the financing of artists - if indeed they ever did. Big Tech’s debt to our cultural inheritance is substantial certainly but that’s in the natural order of things. The future always stands on the shoulders of the past without moral opprobrium necessarily or legal action being taken against it for its privileges.

A transformed environment for the funding and flourishing of the arts is a speculative notion. But speculation and innovation are bedfellows and their progress is not always helped by analysis, especially from conservatives cleaving to convention. All true innovation operates in virgin territory. That was the case with publishing, with the record business, with broadcasting, with computers and the Internet. It will be so for the future of music too. No one knows how that will evolve over coming decades. Those who shape the future rarely picture it. They work from drives more basic than the intellect can manage. Technologist Paul Graham says that the best ideas always look like bad ideas to start with; George Martin did not have high regard for the early music of The Beatles but liked them as people and felt sorry for Epstein; Chris Blackwell didn’t think much of U2 at first; Jac Holzman after several concert performances still didn’t get The Doors and signed them to Elektra on advice. These guys went forward despite their uncertainty. They took a shot based on some other intuition and we all reaped the rewards. That’s usually how progress is made, as much out of not knowing than anything else.

And I think that’s my point here. One might expect people like David Lowery to be radical for change with institutional conservatives opposing. But that’s not how it is. In a conflict between new developments and vested interests he has shown himself to be with the establishment. Perhaps instead of picking on young trainees he might get on the wild side for a bit and use his talent and experience to push for innovation. Conformists like him may raise pertinent issues but offer little in the way of useful solutions. That task seems to fall on the outliers, on the progressives, on those at the cutting edge without whose efforts civilisation would never have got going in the first place. Lowery clearly isn’t one of them.

written 2011 when a prominent musician criticised a student for

admitting she'd never paid for most of the music she listened to