But monetary considerations aside, Reznor maintains that there are altruistic elements at work here: "Personally, I would like people to support artists. After all, we as artists dedicate our lives to producing the best music we can. It's [the changes in the music industry] been a painful process for me personally. But should I be angry at the audience that wants to hear music so much, an audience that is so passionate about hearing it they go online to get it two weeks before the music debuts? No, I want them to be that way." . And yet, there is a sinister flipside to his reasoning as there is when Radiohead tell us that we can pay what we want for their new album if we pay at all. Music becomes as available and assessable as fast food and therefore becomes throwaway and meaningless. The fact is that in our capitalist society, how much you pay for an item does directly reflect the instrinic value you put on it. When you purchease anything gourmet, for example, you enter into a mutual agreement with the manufacturer that that piece of cheese or meat or whatever is worth the extra money you decided to spend. So, what does it say about the value being put on music if we’d rather download for free than pay a tenner for a tangible cd? Reznor confuses passion with impatience. Anyone who is truly passionate about an artist would be willing to wait two weeks to buy the cd and support the artist. The relationship between musician and listener becomes unstable when the musician has to hand out his records free at a show and states that he would ‘like’ to be supported rather than expecting to be supported.
Do musicians have the right to demand compensation for the albums they put out? Should the listener, or more cynically, the ‘consumer’, be given the entire agency here? These are the important questions that came to mind when I first got into contact with Steve Roberts, member of 70's blues-rock group Snakegrinder and founder of Newark, Delaware's 'alternative community'. Here's what happened to his band and their music in their own words:
"In the Spring of 1975, when the dissolution of the band, Snakegrinder and the Shredded Fieldmice, appeared inevitable, we decided not to go gently into that good night of Rock and Roll oblivion without preserving some of the fruits of our 5 years of labor. Being that do-it-yourself digital recording was not even invented yet, we managed to scrape a few hundred dollars together to record 3 tunes in a small, local studio. In August of that year, the band ceased to function as a working organism.
Most of the rest of the recordings were given away to fans, friends, and family. Once the band had broken up, it was never our intention to get rich from it. We simply wanted to share the music. Imagine our surprise, when nearly 30 years later, we found our album for sale, in CD form, on several sites on the Internet! After a few e-mail inquiries to a few of these sites, we discovered that a company called Radioactive Records was selling the album. Of course, we contacted them – we were very curious as to how this came about. All-in-all our initial collective reaction was one of delight. We had become “known” and digitized!
Then it began to get darker.
No monthly checks ever appeared. No e-mails were answered. I was contacted by several other artists and their agents who had recordings being sold by Plummer and Carr, in an effort to mount a lawsuit against them for piracy. Not so good."Definitely not so good. Snakegrinder were the only ones to get as far as getting a contract drawn up with Radioactive records. A reasonable estimate would suggest that nearly all of their two-hundred plus catalogue were bootlegs with no permission by (or compensation for) the artist. Tellingly enough, when Steve asked them about having sales of their CD edited by a third party, Steven Carr told them that he’s have to ‘take our word for it.’ Whilst the lawsuit Snakegrinder were involved in fell through, victory did come in the form of a lawsuit filed by the Jimi Hendrix Estate over Radioactive releasing fourteen unauthorised titles. Carr and Plummer were forced to discontinue the releases- their biggest sellers- and were subsequently put out of business. Clearly, nobody fucks with Jimi.
What is remarkable is that, despite never seeing a penny from Radioactive, Steve does not come across as at all bitter or vengeful. A read through his painfully halting email communication with Carr displays his excitement at the prospect of having the CD released. When the agreement began to go sour, he continued to write them emails, handling the situation with grace and good humour: ‘Just checking to make sure you’re still ignoring us’. Whilst other artists (understandably) want to cut Radioactive’s collective balls off, Steve remains pragmatic:
What I find more disturbing, is the large number of distributors who sell recordings without caring if the artists are being compensated. Rather like clothing, toys, or other retailers selling sweat-shop goods. There is very little conscience involved when it comes to making money – this isn’t just the domain of pirates and scoundrels – it permeates our consumer-driven, capitalist economy.”
His last point is worth stopping and thinking about. Businesses as disparate as Starbucks, Marks and Spencer’s and Topshop are now extolling the virtues of fair-trade products. ‘Vogue’, perhaps the ultimate materialist bible, recently featured an article which urged its readers to give up their taste for quick fashion and try to only buy staple pieces from ethically sound designers. And yet, it’s fine to take a musician’s work illegally, to pay hardly anything or nothing at all. I am not trying to downplay or trivialise the seriousness of sweat shop labour here. Fair-trade must become a non-negotiable fixture on our consumer landscape. However, there is no reason why we cannot extend such a principle to those artists who share their music with us. It is possible to live without that five pound skirt from Primark. But who wants to live without music? It becomes necessary then to re-negotiate the value currently being placed on music and be willing to pay for what we own. Art isn’t fast food and it isn’t a free-for-all.
© 2008 Emma Mould