Is Support the Artist the Right Message?

It is common practice for those of us who discuss the rights of creative workers to talk about asking the generation of digital natives to support or respect the artists, not only by not pirating their works but even going so far as to purchase their works if they truly consider themselves fans.  But during a recent conversation that included this theme, I made an observation that ought to be obvious; and it seems to me that us GenXers might owe you millennials an apology.  Because it’s easy to say, “Please support the artists,” but while saying it, we ought to admit that we never had to think about our role as consumers in these terms.  When I’d walk into Tower Records to get a new album, I wasn’t thinking “I’m supporting the band and the songwriters.”  I just wanted the music, and buying it was the only way to get it.  Today, it’s the opposite, and not just for millennials.  The option to listen to music, even legally, without buying any songs is so obvious that almost the only reason to purchase any music, by digital download or on CD, is a conscious choice to support the artists — to pay for altruistic reasons when it isn’t technically necessary.  That is a significant shift in consumer mindset — and of course rationalizing piracy is another matter — but I do sometimes wonder if it’s true that digital natives don’t get it, at least in principle.

There’s no question that concurrent with changes in technology and experience, digital natives have grown up with the mantras of narcissism beat into their heads at very impressionable ages.  And this “give me what I want” attitude certainly applies beyond expectations of free entertainment.  For instance, I recently came across a story contrasting a negative restaurant “review” posted on Yelp and the restaurant owner’s witty response.  The complaint stemmed from the fact that the customer wanted food to go, which this particular restaurant does not offer.  Naive to how selfish she sounds, the author of the complaint felt that her and her husband’s expectations of what they wanted ought to have prevailed over whatever choice the chef/owner of the restaurant had made with regard to his business. You should read the chef’s response because it’s funny, but I draw your attention to this quote from the woman’s complaint:

“This restaurant thinks they’re too good for customers.  They will soon learn that if you ignore customers, they’re going to start ignoring you.”  

Sound familiar?  Remind anyone of the rhetoric coming from Silicon Valley interests insisting that  producers of entertainment media have to wake up and learn to deliver what consumers want the way they want it, or else…?

In fact, I think the chef and his restaurant make a pretty good, non-copyright-enterprise metaphor for the author of a creative work.  This chef has chosen the manner in which he wants to prepare and serve food and has decided that does not include an assault on his labors that occurs when a meal is placed in takeout containers and made to travel.  This isn’t just snobbery; it’s sound business if the chef is invested in cultivating a reputation for a certain quality of cooking with high-value ingredients, completed by appropriate presentation. That reputation isn’t going to be cultivated if thousands of customers in Kansas City think his food is overcooked and tastes a bit like styrofoam.  If he wishes to serve a clientele that is willing to sit down and have a meal the way it’s meant to be prepared, that’s his prerogative as a creator just as it is the market’s prerogative not to go if they don’t like what he has to offer.  But I bet he has plenty of customers.

The point is that despite numerous manifestations like this one in which blind narcissism is fueled by the apparent empowerment of social media’s soap box, I suspect that even most digital natives would side with the chef/owner in this case, perhaps not recognizing that the woman’s selfish rationale echoes the logic used to justify piracy and general access to free media.  The trick, of course, is that rationalizations carry considerable weight when they are repeated en masse after a behavior becomes normalized.  That doesn’t make the rationalization any more sound; it just makes it popular.  Nevertheless, I’m not entirely convinced that “respect” for artists is the key because I suspect the emotional relationship between consumers and creators hasn’t really changed.

Consider the songwriters, who are presently getting screwed by legal streaming services because their fees are subject to outdated statutory rates for plays on these services that are obliterating the need to buy songs or albums.  The songwriters themselves don’t hate streaming; they love Spotify in principle as much as the rest of us do.  How could you not?  But the revenue streams are shrinking, and so are the number of professional songwriters; and neither the economic nor the cultural cost implied should be ignored. Still, I suspect very little has actually changed in the hearts of millennial consumers with regard to their relationship to the songs.

I was just in Nashville, where I went with colleagues to two honky tonks.  In the first, a cover band was playing a lot of rockabilly, and there didn’t seem to be a customer in the place, most of them in their 20s who did not know the words to “Summertime Blues,” co-written by artist Eddie Cochran and Jerry Capehart.  That song is nearly 60 years old.  The second honky tonk featured what might have been the hardest-working cover band I ever saw, playing without a break for hours, rolling one song into the next in a medley drawing upon at least 40 years worth of music history.  This included Steve Miller’s co-written 1973 hit, “The Joker,” which again every millennial in the place seemed to know by heart.

I don’t think the connection between fans and songwriters is any different than it was before the digital age.  To the contrary, given all the hype about “connections” made through technology, it is remarkable to watch a roomful of complete strangers, supposedly the wired generation, all belting out a 41-year-old song together.  That may not seem extraordinary, but I can guarantee that in 1984, my contemporaries were not in clubs or bars singing “Paper Doll” or “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” both hits in 1943. Is there a link between stronger artists’ rights, industry growth, and longevity of a song in cultural consciousness?  It would be an interesting set of stats to study.

Odds are, most of the young people in those crowds don’t know who Steve Miller is or who Eddie Cochran was, but they probably don’t know who Sean Parker is either — the man who invented disrespect for music with Napster while these kids were still babies.  Of course, if that’s the rough timeline, who really gave Napster a boost, millennials or us Gen Xers?  After all, we’re the real first adopters of all this tech, so if our kids’ generation takes free stuff for granted, we have to accept some of the blame for that and perhaps stop assuming they don’t care about the artists any more or less than we ever did.

In this regard, I am glad to see the conversation shift toward one in which the extraordinary ideological and economic transformation being led by Silicon Valley billionaires extends way beyond its impact on the creative industries.  As a steady stream of editorials emerge from respected writers that accurately describe the Internet industry as oligarchical, and the digital-native generation continue to confront the reality of shrinking middle-class opportunities (in contrast to the fairy-tale promises of digital gurus), it will be interesting to see how this generation responds to the realization that they’ve been had.  It could get ugly if progressive ideology continues to stray from its historic foundation in human labor, but it doesn’t have to go that way because the alternative is basic, free-market economics.  So, rather than say to the next generation, “Buy an album or a book or a movie to support the artists,” it might make even more sense to say, “Buy these works to support yourselves.”

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)