In my social circles, the topic of finances comes up infrequently. It’s like talking about the weather — why bother? What’s it like outside? HOT. How’s your wallet feeling today? BROKE. So what else is new? Like many, I’ve spent much of my life on that all-too-thin line between poverty and stability. As a musician, it’s just always felt like this is what life is and will always be: balancing on one foot on a fence, with living in your car on one side and being able to buy your own home on the other. It’s amazing what humans can get comfortable with.
That’s why the debate about the financial devaluation of art always feels like someone else’s fight. File-sharing? I’ve never made that much from record sales anyway. I was just happy someone heard the music I was involved with. I didn’t care if they bought it or not — that was Metallica’s problem, not mine. A few years ago, Deerhoof played in Russia and we were surprised that everyone was singing along to this one particular song. Someone told us they all knew it from a phone commercial. That was news to us — we hadn’t OK’d the use of our song, and we couldn’t find any information about it. And we just thought it was hilarious. In China, we spotted a girl at our show selling bootleg shirts. She was super embarrassed, but we just laughed and took a picture with her, and then she gave us a free shirt — and went back to selling. This attitude has definitely hurt us financially but, like many, getting into music for purely creative and social reasons has left us stunted when it comes to some aspects of business. We were unnoticed for so many years, so it made us happy that now someone saw value in what we do — even if they didn’t pay for it. Sadly, I don’t think we’re alone in this reaction. In fact, with so much music in the world and everyone desperate for any attention at all, I feel like this is how we’re encouraged and conditioned to react: to just be thankful someone is even listening.
Due to the complete hopelessness of the situation, I have a lack of passion about being “stolen from.” People who love us take the music because of that love. Others might just be curious and now they no longer have to risk the price of an album to see if it’s any good; while they’re at it, they might as well just grab our entire catalogue. Shoot into the stratosphere and you’ll see musicians being robbed by YouTube setting up channels of their music without asking, and labels, Google, everyone you can think of, is trying to find that magic formula of how to take advantage of artists and still look cool while doing it. These are all just more obstacles that we won’t let stop us. Our balancing act continues.
I don’t blame people for not paying for music. There are now entire generations of people who know nothing else. This is what they’ve grown up with: you type what you want in a box on a screen and it shows up to be downloaded. How can you expect someone not to take advantage of that? Every older person who feels that kids are off track because they aren’t hanging out in record stores needs to be visited by someone from the 1800s telling us what we’re missing out on by not building our homes with our own two hands, or how we’re losing out on the joy of making our own soap. I have no doubt it would be rewarding, but why would I change when it’s so easy to just buy soap at the store?
And I doubt any musician dislikes the fact that, thanks to file-sharing, the entire world has opened up to them. Who wouldn’t be excited that now a song you recorded in your bedroom could become the favorite song of someone you’ve never met in a city you’ve never heard of in a country you’ll probably never get the chance to visit? And it could happen just a few hours after you posted it online.
Of course, I do see the downside of all this. Even though our popularity increases and our shows get larger every year, often selling out, our record sales have plummeted to about a tenth of what they once were. As with a lot of bands, most of our income is from playing shows. At our merch table, people are very open about wanting to buy a shirt and not an LP or CD, because they can get the music online for free. Many times, someone who loved the show has tried to give us money for albums they had illegally downloaded. (We never take the money.)
But this is not about me getting my rightful percentage of sales. It’s not about Lars Ulrich getting enough funds to buy another Basquiat painting. It’s not that the survival of the individual artist isn’t important, it’s just that there’s something even bigger at stake: supporting and advancing the kind of world you want to live in.
If you’re like me, you feel powerless sometimes. The world seems out of control. But we have more control than we know. A sad truth is that you wield a lot of power with your bank account, no matter how modest it is. Spending money on what actually means something to you not only helps those who are making it, it lets the whole system know your vote. There have been times when, for brief moments, record companies stopped trying to tell people what they should like and instead began scrambling to give the public what it actually wanted. For instance, no one thought the world would freak out and embrace Nirvana like we did, so for a time, record executives were unsure of what was happening, and they were signing everyone who was “alternative,” hoping to find the next big thing.
Ten years before that, bands such as Black Flag gave birth to our underground independent music system, free from big business tentacles, and that was achieved entirely through the financial and social support of the scene that the music created and unified.
These are revolutions caused by people simply buying albums and going to shows. Those heady periods inevitably level off, the corporate machine gets back on track and we begin to be told what we like once more. But it’ll always get thrown off the rails again and some people are left forever changed, never listening to that machine again.
The astronomical drop in record sales suggests that the public is devaluing music, that it must not be important to us anymore. But every single thing I’ve seen while touring the world has shown me differently, which is why I never worry about whether art will survive. I see people excited and actively seeking out their definition of beauty everywhere. The younger people I’ve met have heard more music than I ever knew existed and are not only using it to expand their minds but as one of their main ways to connect with each other. A recent article in The New York Times (“The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t,” by Steven Johnson) stated that despite Metallica’s claim that illegal downloading would cause an end to living a creative existence, more people than ever are pursuing artistic careers. What I see in much of our youth is not a sea of lost souls staring at screens but a sea of genius that can astonish. There’s an old saying: what goes in, comes out. Whatever you take into your life will be reflected outward again. People are taking in more information, beauty, horror, love and heartbreak than ever. Where do we think it will all lead?
What goes in, comes out. The more you give to what makes your life rewarding, the more you’ll get back. The more we buy music, the more shows we go to, the more museums we visit, the more books we buy, the more we strengthen our system, our creative community. I want my corner record store to survive. I want to go with my friends to hear some music and then hand my money directly to the band so I can bring their music home and help them get some gas in their tour van. I want to spread my money up and down our road and not have it swept into the air and sucked into the private corporate jets flying overhead.
But lots of people are hurting. So if someone is barely able to pay their rent, I would rather they put what little cash they have towards their bills and go right ahead, download our album for free. On the other hand, if someone figures that if they don’t pay for their music, then they’ll have more money for a fancy pair of jeans or a personal drone, then they might want to spend a little time reflecting on that. We need to break the habit of not paying for art, especially since very often we instead hand our money to the corporations that we can’t get anything from for free. Maybe pick up a shirt at a thrift store instead of the mall, so you have a few extra bucks to throw at your favorite local band at a show. Once you’ve found an album you want, walk to your record store and pick it up or buy it directly from the band’s website. Instead of seeing a good book in a book store and searching your phone for a cheaper price online, this time just walk to the register and screw the difference, buy it directly from the person who actually owns the store. Don’t worry, even without your money, the estate of billionaire Zachariah Amazon will do just fine.
All that matters is that we try to feed the world we desire. In their song “Police Story,” Black Flag said, “Understand: we’re fighting a war we can’t win.” Feeling like they had no chance against all the bullshit in the world sure didn’t stop them from trying. And it sure didn’t keep them from winning.