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Re: Alec Hanley Bemis’ “Loving and Leaving the Phonograph” [September 15–21]. For my entire adult life, I have made my living as a songwriter and record producer. Unlike Lars Ulrich, I do not have a pool that’s 88 degrees 24 hours a day, and I’m far from “fucking set.” However, I have managed to work and get songs covered steadily for the last 10 or so years, and, while far from getting rich, I have been able to make a fairly good living solely from my music.
The debate on Napster and other such technologies seems to have been cast as the people vs. the huge record labels and their artists, and has not taken into account those such as myself who may not be multiplatinum artists, but still make their living from the craft of music. All of the attention seems focused on the free trading of the actual sound recordings and its impact on the artists. However, each time a sound recording is exchanged for free, the record’s producer and songwriter — often a different set of people from the artist — are also shorted their respective fees. For a songwriter-producer such as myself, this money cannot be replaced or supplemented by performing live in front of an audience, as Mr. Bemis suggests. (I doubt that I could get many people to pay to sit and watch me write a song or turn knobs in a studio.)
I also think that it is incredibly naive to think, as Mr. Bemis seems to, that everyone who creates music does so solely for his or her love of music, without regard for money. How much longer do you think Robert Johnson would have continued to travel around playing in shitholes once he realized how easily he could sell recorded versions of his music? Do you really think that Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis would have sought out Sam Phillips, or that the pioneers of rap music would have gone very far out of their way to be heard, if not for the prospect of making some money at their craft? Or for that matter, do you think that anyone would have produced or written songs for those artists without the possibility of a financial payoff? I don’t.
Mr. Bemis and every other fan of recorded music needs to realize that music, like any other craft, is learned and refined often at great personal expense — whether in time or money — by those who make it. Although most people who make music for a living truly love their art, many of us did not get into this to live someone else’s romantic notion of what it is to be a starving artist. If we expect to continue hearing quality music, then we must realize that those who create the music must be compensated for their work. In other words, don’t forget that you get what you pay for.
You can bang on an acoustic guitar Robert Johnson–style down at the Santa Monica Promenade and expect to live Robert Johnson–style in a shack somewhere. I don’t buy into the myth of the noble, suffering artist doing it for love. If people want free music, they should buy and learn to play an instrument, then buy and learn how to use some recording equipment. Then they can entertain themselves and anyone else willing to listen.
But I bet after thousands of dollars spent on equipment and precious time spent on developing their talent, they’ll change their tune about the free loaders (and downloaders) hanging around — that includes record companies, Napster users, Shawn Fanning and Alec Bemis.
Now that Mr. Bemis has reached the halcyon phase of personal growth where he can see physical objects like phonographs as “garbage, glut,” perhaps he can show us how the glut of musical instruments which has accumulated over all these centuries may finally be disposed of. After all, they’ve all been sampled, and how great it will be when all those samples are in one storage sluice at which we can suckle in common, as on a One World Digital Hookah. Never mind the sweating natives or the heavy, full-wave tone of their crude organic breathing.
Largely absent from Mr. Bemis’ article was the issue of quality of reproduction. Analog sound (e.g., vinyl) offers higher-quality reproduction than digital (e.g., CDs). Disagree? Ask any club DJ. Still disagree? Well, can you remember ever once wincing from shrill sound in a movie theater during the ’70s or early ’80s? MP3 files (the medium of Napster and others online) sound even worse than CDs. Digital sound is merely easier to work with and store.