I was just reading some stuff over at The Guardian about Robin Thicke’s new album. It turns out The Guardian is mistakenly reporting that Thicke’s new album Paula sold ‘less than 54 copies’ in Australia during its first week. It seems that their assumption is based on the fact that it didn’t appear in the chart of the top 500 albums in Australia, #500 of which was a Blondie compilation which sold 54 copies. But the truth is that Thicke’s album hadn’t even been released in Australia during the week that that chart covered. We’ll get the real results on Saturday at 7pm. But that’s not what this post is about. Nope, this is about a little exchange in the comments that really pissed me off:
Commenter 1: Who buys albums anymore? Doesn’t everyone know that music is free on the Internet?
Commenter 2: Music lover’s who want band’s to be able to exist to carry on making music . What you are is a thief. Music is rarely “free”, just because YOU don’t pay.
Commenter 3: Except it’s music lovers who bother to download and as such are the ones who are more likely to purchase merchandise and concert tickets. Not only that, but many unknown bands gain national and worldwide attention from being illegally downloaded, launching their career with essentially free marketing. Not only that, but when you listen to Spotify be sure to remember that Spotify pays bands next to nothing for us to listen to their songs for free.
Now, you can probably guess where I’m going with this, if you haven’t already slammed your laptop lid or phone down in disgust. Cos I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you’re a musician who values music for its own sake, and as a creative endeavour, a creative necessity, an integral part of your being. But I find that third commenter really frustrating. Dear Commenter 3, sweet Commenter 3, nobody is going to invest in music if there’s no return. And when you don’t invest in music, you don’t get music. You certainly don’t get well-executed, well-recorded music. You don’t get music by bands who were given the time to find their sound over the course of a career. We’re seeing so many bands falling apart or band members quitting because they can no longer make ends meet. Not every band has the huge following or commercial appeal to be a big enough live draw to shift thousands of tickets and t-shirts, but that doesn’t make their music any less valid to those who do love it. And by this commenter’s logic, those bands who used to focus all their creative energies into the recording studio rather than the stage, well, I guess they think those artists shouldn’t bother.
Let’s use an extreme example. Remember The Beatles? Bunch of dudes from Liverpool, snappy dressers, had some hits. Those guys stopped playing live in August 1966. After that time they confined their creativity to the studio and gave us Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album (and Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be, for that matter). Is that commenter saying these albums should just have been given away? For what? As free publicity for a tour that would never eventuate? Should they have just stopped, if they weren’t going to tour?
“Oh but you can make an album on a laptop or an iPad, so you can do it for like no money.” Yeah, you can, but you shouldn’t. We’ve already devalued music to the point where most people don’t pay for it, and we’ve devalued the sound of that music by listening to it in a low-resolution format (MP3, streamed audio, shitty YouTube videos). Think of this: unless you’re using a service like the brilliant HD Tracks, the average punter is listening to music in the worst sound quality since the days of mono vinyl. Cassettes sound better. Vinyl records sound better. CDs sound better. Everyone jokes that, hey, it’s 2014, where are our jetpacks? Well y’know what? Fuck the jetpacks. It’s 2014, where is our unprecedented level of audio quality? Why isn’t everyone listening to everything in the highest quality ever experienced by human ears, instead of on laptop speakers or those Apple earbuds that have no high end so you can’t hear the horrible compression artefacts living up there beyond 5kHz?
So yeah, you can make an album on a laptop by yourself, and it’ll probably sound just fine alongside all the other laptop albums out there, especially through a squished, compressed, neutered format like streamed audio. But go sit in the dark, close your eyes and listen to a well-recorded album crafted in a professional studio by musicians and engineers. Go remember what it’s like to be immersed in an album for its own sake, not as a hypothetical free advertisement to a concert you might or might not end up going to because, eh, you just downloaded Season 4 of Game Of Thrones and you’re going to have a binge this weekend.
I understand that people are used to not paying for music. The whole Napster thing was a very long time ago and for most people, music is a free thing that you just go to your computer or phone and listen to. And while I have some anti-Spotify friends who will kill me immediately after reading this sentence, I use Spotify too. I pay for a Spotify Premium account every month because I know that even though Spotify pays very little to artists, at least it pays something and in a very real way I’m contributing to that something. I see no problem with wanting to have the entirety of recorded music right there at your fingertips, but I do have a problem with devaluing it to the point where you don’t feel you need to contribute to the ongoing creation of quality music with quality sounds and presentation. And y’know what else? I buy more music now – on CD, mp3, vinyl and DVD – than I ever did before. Not because Spotify encourages me to go and buy more music (although I have bought a few albums after first hearing them on Spotify) but because I fucking love music. I always have, I always will, and I consider it my duty as a musician and as a music lover to support music as an art form and musicians as a community.