To David Lowery (The Trichordist: Artists for an Ethical Internet)

David Lowery teaches in the Music Business program at the University of Georgia (in Athens GA, home to  R.E.M., the B52’s, and Widespread Panic).  More famously, David Lowery was the singer and creative force behind Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker.

In this essay, Lowery argues that the Millennial Generation, as represented by Emily White (a 21-yr old intern at National Public Radio) is failing to meet their moral obligations to the musicians that produce digital music recordings.  Notice that Lowery doesn’t argue for the record companies, or attempt to defend intellectual property rights as defined by law.  He makes a strictly moral appeal that people should be paying for digital entertainment so that musicians supplying it can eke out a subsistence living.

However, Lowery’s argument hinges on a rejection of the idea that moral principles are formed in the context of technology.  Here’s his view on technology and ethics:

I deeply empathize with your generation. You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality. Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change–if a machine can do something, it ought to be done. Although it is the premise of every “machines gone wild” story since Jules Verne or Fritz Lang, this is exactly backwards. Sadly, I see the effects of this thinking with many of my students.

While Lowery acknowledges that his view is not universally shared, I don’t think he gives sufficient consideration to the idea that moral ideas evolve in concert with technology.  Plagiarism, for example, wasn’t an idea that existed until the early 1700’s – or about 300 years after the invention of the printing press.

In short, Lowery’s argument is simply the nostalgia that every generation feels for their own time.  In this case, Lowery senses that the Baby Boomers that re-invented Rock-n-Roll are in decline when he laments that “There’s nothing that younger bands are doing now that’s really truly dangerous.”  (Evidently, Lowery hasn’t yet discovered rap).  It hasn’t dawned on Lowery that his generation, driven by the technology of the transistor radio and electronic amplification, not only famously rejected the norms of their predecessors, but practically invented illegal music copying as soon as the cassette recorder became affordable.  What’s more, the technology that displaces Lowery’s old models has simultaneously created new ways for musicians to make a living, bypassing the middleman and reaching their audience directly.

Secondarily, Lowery argues that Millennials can’t wait for institutional solutions.  Rather, Lowery says they must  acknowledge an individual obligation that he suggests they could discharge by donating to charities that benefit artists.  This argument (like his music) is compelling, and perhaps morally consistent with the ethos of punk rock, which  celebrates individualism over conformance to institutional norms.

But it is also fantasy.

Lowery ignores the fact that Millennials are the most inter-connected generation ever.  They invented the flash mob.  They move en masse.  Their koan is nothing like Bruce Cockburn’s tree in the forest.  Instead, Millennials might ask, “If it’s not on Facebook, did it really happen?”  The fact is that because they work in networks, Millennials work collectively.  Their moral responsibilities now extend beyond their own behavior, because to some extent they acknowledge a responsibility for the behavior of the people they are connected to.

When the Millennials do act, it won’t be incremental.  It will be all at once, and it will seem (to Lowery) like it came out of nowhere.


June 18, 2012

Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered.

Recently Emily White, an intern at NPR All Songs Considered and GM of what appears to be her college radio station, wrote a post on the NPR blog in which she acknowledged that while she had 11,000 songs in her music library, she’s only paid for 15 CDs in her life. Our intention is not to embarrass or shame her. We believe young people like Emily White who are fully engaged in the music scene are the artist’s biggest allies. We also believe–for reasons we’ll get into–that she has been been badly misinformed by the Free Culture movement. We only ask the opportunity to present a countervailing viewpoint.


My intention here is not to shame you or embarrass you. I believe you are already on the side of musicians and artists and you are just grappling with how to do the right thing. I applaud your courage in admitting you do not pay for music, and that you do not want to but you are grappling with the moral implications. I just think that you have been presented with some false choices by what sounds a lot like what we hear from the “Free Culture” adherents.

I must disagree with the underlying premise of what you have written. Fairly compensating musicians is not a problem that is up to governments and large corporations to solve. It is not up to them to make it “convenient” so you don’t behave unethically.

Read the full text here.

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