Music Without Barriers: Emily White & David Lowery Edition


To understand this post, there’s a bit of backstory. I highly recommend reading these two articles:

I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With by Emily White

Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered.

But if you don’t have the time, the oversimplified summary is this:

NPR All Songs Considered Intern Emily White struggles with how to support artists. “As monumental a role as musicians and albums have played in my life, I’ve never invested money in them aside from concert tickets and T-shirts,” Emily admits. “But the truth is, I’ve never supported physical music as a consumer.”

Here comes the whammy statement:

 “But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.”

Now, there are plenty of questions the article doesn’t answer about Emily’s viewpoints. Is she talking strictly physical albums? How much of that collection was legally downloaded? Is ripping records from your college radio station the same as illegally downloading them?

Regardless, this doesn’t sit well with musician and University of Georgia lecturer David Lowery.

David says he watched artist revenue collapse over the past 10 years. And with it, some tragic personal consequences have impacted his life. He points out people are more willing to give money to Big Business and Big Tech instead of hard-working musicians. As in, purchase a laptop or a mobile device rather than music.

He also derides Emily for thinking the current system isn’t convenient.

Ultimately there are three “inconvenient” things that MUST happen for any legal service:

1.create an account and provide a payment method (once)

2.enter your password.

3. Pay for music.

Around here, I think David misses the point. All these things seem super convenient to him. I’m sure if I had grown up buying vinyl, cassettes, CD’s, and all the equipment to play them, it would seem pretty swanky to me as well. But it doesn’t.

Here’s where my view comes it (and that’s what you were waiting for all along, right? Right??)

Music Without Barriers

David neglects Step 4: Listen to music. In reality, “Listen to music” is around step 7 or 8.

I don’t want to log into iTunes, download music, hook up a device, then transfer it to my iPod or iPhone. I don’t want to buy CD’s to put in my car’s player which I’ve never used. I don’t want dozens of accounts to purchase music. 

All I want to do is listen to music and support the artists I like with the fewest barriers possible.

Ideally, it means clicking play on whatever device I chose.

I want to pay for concert tickets, fund recording sessions, buy merchandise, or support musicians directly in other ways.

And shouldn’t I be able to easily share the music so others can do the same?

The Blame Game

“Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?” David wonders.

One reason: because they do a TON of other things than a CD does. Yes, these devices allow us to consume, but they also allow us to connect and create. It’s not even apples to oranges. It’s apples to a fruit platter.

The technology companies David mentions radically decreased the cost of production and distribution. A critically acclaimed artist can take home more money with fewer record sales. Inexperienced bands have the tools to create and share music without a record contract or huge loan.


This development isn’t even the fault of record companies.

Some musicians complain about over unfair contracts, but other artists owe a tremendous amount of success to labels. We can deride how some labels were slow to adapt to new technology, but we can’t deny the usefulness of their vast resource and relationship networks.

It’s 2012, and we can’t blame the record companies for all of our problems. The digital age has certainly given them their own share of issues to deal with. I’d rather focus on how to help independent artists who want to thrive in the new environment.

Note: Many stories about Emily’s article miss an important distinction. Owning music and paying for music are two very different things. When you pay for a download or CD, you don’t own the music. You don’t suddenly own the melody or lyrics. It’s not like buying a car. You pay for the ability to listen to it. 

How are artists supposed to make a living?

Musicians must establish revenue streams.

No one revenue stream can sustain most artists. Multiple revenue streams keep musicians in business.

Additionally, various sources of income distributes risk. If merch sales are down, a band isn’t blown out of the water. It has room to adjust accordingly.

Here are just a few revenue streams:

  • Touring income
  • Merchandise sales
  • Fan funding platforms
  • Business sponsorships
  • Private performances
  • Music lessons
  • Grants
  • Sync licensing
  • Session work
  • Digital partner programs
  • Streaming revenues
  • And yes, even download and CD sales

Millennial Shortcomings and Strengths

Let’s be real: I’m a 24 year old digital native who loves music and wants to make a career out of it. I’m really not that different from Emily White.

Our experience is limited compared to many industry professionals. What we do have is a grasp of our generation’s desires, a willingness to talk about the industry’s problems, and an uncompromising love for music.

I welcome you to show me where I may have it wrong or if you feel the same way in the comments.

Here are a couple of good companion pieces. If I haven’t slain your attention span, give ‘em a read.
In Defense Of Emily White (The NPR Intern)” by Whitesmith Entertainment’s Emily White
I Don’t Want To Own Music, I Want To Listen To Music.” by Thorny Bleeder’s Brian Thompson
A Perpetual Debate: Owning Music In The Digital Age” by NPR’s Robin Hilton