Re: Your Music

March 17th, 2009  |  Published in Defiance Ohio

Someone e-mailed Defiance, Ohio with some questions for a school project that produced this brain dump on the Britney Spears, the band, digital distribution, and media-based economies.
They wrote:

I know that big artists (for example Britney Spears??) are angry because of course they want the money, but I was wondering, do you think it’s more grey for less famous artists? Although maybe a smaller artist might miss each dollar more, do you think they mind less? Do you think the love for the music overcomes the ‘need’ in today’s world for the money? I know that sharing music without paying for it is a really great way to be heard, so what’s your opinion on that?

It’s hard to answer these questions directly, for Defiance, Ohio, and maybe for most artists, because I’m not sure if we have ever seen our options as starkly as “participate in the mainstream music scene or be an independent artist” or “have a larger fan base or make more money?” Certainly, some of the decisions we have made have had elements of those questions involved and some of the things we have done that didn’t feel like decisions have ended up having results that reflect on those stark questions.  However, to provide what feels like a complete and honest answer, I feel like I need to reframe the questions.

The first part of your question that I want to address is the idea of big artists, and Britney Spears in particular, being against file sharing and technologies like torrents.  I’m not sure if if Ms. Spears has ever spoken out specifically against file sharing, or if she even understands the technology, its implications, and the implications of enforcing copyright.  If she has made statements about it, it’s likely that she is articulating the standard response of many in the mainstream music industry that file sharing is harmful to artists and the industry, which, to a degree, is true since the music industry has been really slow to adapt to the reality of how people listen to, use, and produce music.

I think it’s important that we don’t get stuck in villifying big-name artists, even though they certainly have made choices, and make choices in terms of their music’s content and business choices that I wouldn’t make.  Simplifying the position of artists in the mainstream music industries as only being concerned about money has the a number of negative impacts.  First, I think that many artists, despite making very commercial content, are genuinely talented performers who love performing and making music and would likely be performing in some capacity (religious services, county fairs, amusement park shows, cruise ships, etc.) even if they weren’t as successful in the record industry.  Second, I think that it overlooks the fact that many artists come from backgrounds of limited economic mobility (certainly this was the case for Ms. Spears) and that their choice to participate in the mainstream music industry is a pragmatic decision given limited options.  Ms. Spears’ career, even from the time she was a young child, has been mediated by the mainstream, big-media industry and model of making music.  So, the choices that she makes in terms of things like file sharing, are largely dictated on her dependence on this industry.  Had she been a performer who didn’t fit as easily into the archetype of successful child performers and eventually female superstars, she may have instead chosen to work outside of the mainstream music industry to continue to perform and may have made different choices that would effect everything from the content of her music to her use or (dis)approval of file sharing.  Finally, defining the ethics and intentions of artists based solely on their orientation around mainstream corporate media is dangerous because it artificially inflates the ethics and intentions of artists who choose to participate in an subcultural, less corporate, or do-it-yourself music economy rather than examining their musical content and practices for what they are.

None of this has really answered your question, but I feel like it was important to talk about in order to develop a framework for answering your questions.  We need to move beyond the dichotomy of the greedy but soulless superstar vs. the starving but artistically vibrant independent artist that I’ve also been guilty of relying on.  In the case of Defiance, Ohio, I think that each of us will always make, play, or perform music in some way, for the rest of our lives, because we do love it.  However, I think that we would all love to be able to have the making of music be something that supports us financially rather than something that makes our lives more difficult or more stressful in terms of money.  I think we also want to do this in a way that supports our beliefs, ideas, friends and communities.  One of the biggest drawbacks to participating in the mainstream music industry is that money made from one’s music might go to support the release of records with homophobic lyrics, or artists who pressure working-class youth into joining the military.

Similarly, making our music widely available and available to people regardless of whether they have a good local independent record store that stocks less-well-known records or whether people have lots of money to buy records has and will continue to be important to us.  I also think it’s important for our music to be available for posterity.  Making music available as free downloads has helped serve all these needs.  However, it would be great if people recognize that making the songs that we release for free takes time, energy, money for instruments, time off work to record and practice, and lots of other resources.  As a culture, I think we’re struggling to assign costs to lots of things that reflect their complete value and hazards (electricity produced from coal, for instance).  Music is no different, so I think that Defiance, Ohio continues to struggle to assign a monetary value to our music, shows, and other “products” that strikes a balance between reflecting the resources that go into making them, not being greedy, and being realistic about what people are willing to pay.

Ultimately, I think it’s hard to say how free, digital distribution of our music has affected Defiance, Ohio since it’s something that we’ve always done.  We don’t have any data about whether most people heard about us through downloads or touring, word of mouth and mix tapes or through our releases on independent labels.  Also, we did it without too much forethought about the potential implications of using this method of distribution.  I’ve always liked emerging technologies, so when we started recording, I wanted to experiment with making our songs available through new media.  I think that when we started playing, we were also interested in sharing what we made with friends or like-minded people across the nation, and freely downloadable files helped make this possible.  Finally, I don’t think we imagined that there would ever be the possibility of assigning any kind of monetary value to our songs outside of the few dollars we charged for our demo CDR and first CD on our initial tours.  That said, I can’t deny that making our music widely available has helped us to have people become interested in our music enough to tour around the U.S. and the world and to have people willing to help put out our records or go to benefit shows or otherwise support projects we believe in.

Getting your music heard is pretty important to many artists for personal gratification, ideology, and financial success and file sharing or other methods of digital distribution are one tool that can be used to achieve this.  I don’t think it’s any more or less legitimate than other old and emerging methods.  I think the parallel music economy of hip hop mix tapes is really interesting as is the migration of these “tapes” to CD and now digital downloads.  I think that there’s still something awesome about the intimacy of music getting distributed between friends on mix tapes or CDRs (and probably now through social networking sites and peer-to-peer file sharing systems).  I think that community, college, and pirate radio are still important means of sharing music and that podcasts are a new medium for similar content.

In the end, the question of whether digital downloads and file sharing are good or bad for artists or music industries is becoming (has already become?) a moot point.  Alternative distribution methods are already being used by artists with varying degrees of success.  They are also destabilizing a mainstream music industry that has traditionally treated artists unfairly, ignored or fetishized cultural diversity, and been otherwise slow to change.  The important question is what do we want our media environment to look like?  How do continue to create vibrant culture while compensating makers for their work?  How do we make space for minority voices in media?  How do we connect across our different experiences and situations through media?  As traditional manufacturing jobs are disappearing from the economy and many youth have fewer and fewer opportunities to do work that offers them an interesting, dignified life , can we create new, media-based economies the give new economic mobility to communities facing economic depression?