Nashville guitar legend Vince Gill recently spoke out on the impact of music downloads on recording artists. His comments have been flying around the Interwebs, fanning dissension. Here is some of what he had to say:
“The devaluation of music and what it’s now deemed to be worth is laughable to me. My single costs 99 cents. That’s what a single cost in 1960. On my phone, I can get an app for 99 cents that makes fart noises — the same as the thing I create and speak to the world with. Some would say the fart app is more important. It’s an awkward time. Creative brains are being sorely mistreated.”
We quickly dialed up Wampus artist Johnny J Blair for a chat:
Wampus: Vince Gill seems to be under the impression that the price of a single in 1960 was based on a valuation of the music it contained. It was not. The prices of physical records — CDs, LPs, cassettes, 8-tracks — have always been driven by the costs to manufacture, ship, and stock them. The costs to do that for a digital single are relatively low. If Vince’s new single was being distributed on, say, vinyl, it would cost his fans at least $5, and probably more — just to cover the costs. Would he be happy then? Creative people are not being “mistreated” when manufacturers are eliminated from the supply chain and fans can more easily afford to buy a copy of their favorite song. Yes, recorded music has been “devalued” as a commodity, due to the leaps in the technology required to produce it, but the market can only devalue reproductions of the music — not the music itself.
Blair: Sure, we can’t make money like we used to on the old business model, so we music acts have to find ways to “pay the light bill” through other means having to do with recordings (bundling merchandise, landing a film soundtrack or TV show license, etc. — bearing in mind that the whole idea of getting royalties from record sales has only existed since around 1948). I agree that Vince’s “math” is not based on an even scale of comparison. It’s way cheaper to make a good record now than it was in 1960, just as most cars run more efficiently than they did in 1960. I think Vince is bemoaning the blessings and the curses of the Internet age. On one hand, the old gatekeepers are almost gone and the system has been opened up to multiple traffic lanes. On the other, with the multiple traffic lanes come rabble and dilution, where there’s a prevailing expectation, or sense of entitlement out there that “everything musical should be free.” I still see people who’d never be caught dead shoplifting in a store thinking nothing of burning CD copies of music they could probably afford to pay for. But that is barking at ants. I think Vince is also frustrated with the industry that launched him. To him, the music biz should’ve seen this coming… that a fart app would be marketed with the same interest as a new song by an extremely skilled guitarist who sings like a dream.
Another irony of this is that people are still going out to see live music, and they’re paying for it. The overhead for putting on concerts has gone way up, whereas the overhead for making records has gone way down. The post-1948 royalty-from-records paradigm was a long, productive joyride that is now speed-bumping over changes. Before this paradigm you had to deliver on a stage or through sheet music and live broadcasts on radio. In some ways it’s looped back to that era, to which Duke Ellington said, “We used to look at records as a way to promote our shows.”
Wampus: It wasn’t until a century ago that music was even experienced in any way other than live. Record-making is a (very) new art, subject to the whims of technology and of the public. Not to come down on Vince, but the viability of his expectations is his responsibility. Sure, he might want things to stay as he likes them, but none of us really has that luxury. There are ways in which people experience and share music in 2012, and that is all that matters now. The good news is they still do experience and share music.
Blair: (Vince seems to be) treading a fine line of indicting consumers, when I think he was indicting the industry… I’m certain most of my friends are ardent supporters of music (including my own, for which I’m unerringly grateful). They throw themselves into it, whether with their time, their thoughts, or their hard-earned resources. I aim to create the best recordings and the best concerts I possibly can… It’s a way of paying it forward.