Stop Downloading Songs. Music Shouldn’t Be Free.


I was listening to NPR recently and David Lowery from Camper Van Beethoven was on talking about lyric web sites that have posted his lyrics without his permission and are paying him no money for their pleasure.  I was really struck by the tone set by NPR for the piece.  They seemed to be portraying David as a whiny greedy artist, grasping for pennies.  They seemed to be surprised by the idea that song lyrics are valued intellectual property.

This all speaks of a greater problem we have nowadays, in this new digital age most people don’t believe they should have to pay for the pleasure of a song.  If David Lowery were a Poet, which he is actually as am I and anyone else that pens lyrics to published copyrighted songs, if those lyrics were published as poetry, do you think it would be OK to republish them online without permission or compensation to the poet.  Do you think it would be OK for someone to make Prints of an Escher or a Dali work and profit from that without compensating those artists’ trusts?  It is absurd.

I once had a very close friend who has known me and my music all our lives argue that a 3 minute song is not a like a painting, and how hard could it be, how long does it take to record a 3 minute song, why should that be worth, you know, actual money?

Well let me answer that first with a question:  How long do you think it takes to record a 3 minute song?  I will break it down for you.

  • Writing the song – hours to years
  • Practicing, demoing, readying to perform for recording – many hours
  • Recording the song – 4 hours
  • Mixing and Mastering, readying for distribution – 8 hours

At a minimum.

So does recording a song not take as much effort as say a painting does?  Good songs are every bit as much of a work of art as any painting.  Songs move and inspire people in the same ways, they have real value, most people just don’t really see that for some reason, and it is very frustrating indeed to myself and many other recording artists.

There are many artists like David and Camper Van that thankfully have rich and storied musical legacies of some commercial success to curate dating back many years, a full catalog if you will, and yet it is clear that even with that, it is very very difficult for even these artists to make ends meet in the music biz, with their own music and words no less.  Now take a brand new artist of modest means, with talent even, today, with precious little investment being made by anyone of means in new bands, how hard is it truly now to make any sort of a career in music?   If you love music you should begin to really have to be concerned about the artistic capacity of a future in which there is little opportunity to make money writing and playing songs.  The alternative I guess is just to listen to the same songs you already like over an over and over again.

I posted an article recently about how 77% of all royalties paid, go to the top 1% of musicians.  The Beatles still sell over a million albums a year, and I think that is wonderful, but does that also mean that so many other bands get paid little to nothing.  Nobody would argue that you can use the Beatles music or words for commercial purposes without permission.  So why are so many other artists not afforded the same intellectual property rights.  How many albums do I have to sell before I get the same protection?  Are we really all willing to let commercial success be the only measure of even the most basic of copyright protections.  Bit of a chicken and egg if you ask me, and a system not likely to support much talent in the future.

Sounds like sour grapes will say the trolls yes?  Maybe you and your band just suck Stetson. Yup, maybe, except for the fact that, and no exaggeration, my band has been played on actual radio stations all over the world, we have had tens of thousands of spins on the streaming services mostly Pandora a bit on Spotify.  Along with that we have had tens of thousands of downloads of the few songs that we do post for free on our own website as this has been our only way to get our music out there, and for our long labors, that so many seem to enjoy, we have seen actual profits in the neighborhood of beer money.

There is this meme out there I see often in threads that goes like this: Yeah yeah whatever, so what if recorded music is not worth anything anymore, you and other artists can still get out there and tour and do just fine, if you are any good that is. Well folks, that is just simply rubbish.  So many acts play and “sing” along with computer backing tracks at “Live” shows, commercial success has increasingly little to do with actual talent, but let me break it down for you.

Lets assume you are in a pretty good band with a good touring draw, lets say you can gross $5,000 in ticket sales every time you play.  And you can check the Billboard Boxscore for yourself, but suffice to say, there are very very few bands that can command even that sum.

  • Lets say bands take 90% of gross(not bloody likely): $4,500.
  • Management and booking will take another 15% – $3750
  • 3 opening bands take $1000 – $2750
  • Crew costs, equipment, sound, tech – $500 – $2250
  • Gas food and lodging for band and crew (What? you don’t want to eat at 7-11 and sleep on someones floor) $500  – $1750
  • Split that 4 ways between the musicians – $437
  • Taxes, expenses, insurance and what not nets YOU the whiny greedy songwriter singer guitar player – $300 bucks a show

If you are lucky.

Wow, well, go on the road for 5-6 months in a cramped van eating shitty food, staying at super 8s and play a hundred shows, and you might walk with $30K.  Dunno.

But oh wait you say, look at all those mega multi day festivals charging 300 bucks a pop plus expenses?  They are raking in the cash.  Yup, they sure are, and the promoters, management companies, and the very select few headlining acts get nearly all of it while the deemed lesser acts are paid with gas money and exposure.  Meanwhile the real rich folk are paid with your money to look good and snort coke at the VIP pool parties, that you will never be invited to.


I wonder driving back to town if you ever thought about all that money you just helped consolidate into the hand of that top 1%, that you might otherwise have spent at a local music venue, while sipping a beverage from a local bartender, maybe even seeing a local opener for a touring act nice enough to make the gesture.

The Sasquatch promoters were asked why they had to cancel the second weekend of their festival which would have happened a mere month from the first weekend of the same branded entertainment, 40ozs and tube shots, and cost just as much of a ridiculous amount of money as the first weekend, as if every kid in town can drop 500 bones every month or two for a BIG SHOW!

Well instead of taking some responsibility for a short sighted unsustainable business model, those clever promoters simply blamed it on the talent, not enough of it these days they say and the really good headliners are all asking too much money.  Well, Duh.

A rat will eat itself if gets hungry enough now won’t it?

Which brings me to the booze.  In the interests of full disclosure I should mention this blog post was sponsored by Grey Goose and Red Bull.

There is a great interview with Ian Mackaye in which he talks about how in the late 90s early 2000s when Fugazi quit playing out, that it became impossible for them to tour and play without being involved somehow in alcohol sales, to the point of alcohol surpassing the music itself in business priority and commercial value.  Is that what we want music’s last great redeeming value to be, its ability to sell booze?  You can all see it out there, music that sells booze, all happy happy dance dance party time big boy bad girl.  It is just ridiculous.

I am not saying that you should pay for everything you are listening to.  But I think that if you listen to an artists’ album or songs a lot, and you really like it, you should kick in a little bit, buy a CD, get out to a local show, because I am telling you great new bands will never come to pass without the help from all of us the independent listener.  The top 1% do not need any more of your money.  I don’t care who you are, It is not reasonable to charge someone $250 dollars a ticket to come see you play, sorry Sir Paul.

We all have enough compilation box sets already, lets move on to something new shall we?  Now if you will excuse me I need to get back to my day job. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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