June 19, 2012

Emily The Intern...

by Chris Randall

There's quite the kerfuffle on the 'Tubes this week due to a post to NPR's All Songs Considered blog by one Emily "The Intern" White. If you haven't read it, you don't really need to bother. The gist: "I love music a whole lot. I just don't like paying for it."

That post is typical of the mindset of people her age, but I'll tell you one thing three times: there's like a thousand performing, recording, touring musicians (in America, anyhow) at any given time that aren't flat broke. This hasn't changed since the 50s. Nobody makes shit from touring or album sales. Nobody ever has, nor will they ever. Soundscan says my own Sister Machine Gun records have sold around 400,000 copies total; this isn't including the various soundtracks and comps I'm on. Figure a CD costs about a buck to make, and the wholesale is around $6.00 per, someone walked away with about $2,000,000 courtesy of my creative output. But it wasn't me. You want to know how much I've made in artist royalties? $0.00. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Goose-egg.

My absolute best year as a professional touring musician was 1996. That year, we had a semi-hit that tied in with a multi-platinum selling soundtrack album. I got a large (for me at that time) amount of mechanical royalties from the sales of that soundtrack, plus we played about 300 shows that year, mostly in theaters and larger venues as a headliner. I was, by any measure you'd care to use, one of the more successful musicians of that year. You want to know what my before-tax income was? $75,000. That's the best I ever did, as a demonstrably successful artist in the top tier of my chosen genre. That seems like a lot now, but I paid self-employment tax on that money, and whatever was left over went to bills. So I spent 1996 more or less broke, like every other year in the 90s.

And that lifestyle isn't really available to musicians today. I was signed to the largest indie record label in the world, one that had plenty of money and let me indulge myself. That label doesn't exist any more. None of the distributors it sold records to exist any more. The record stores where my records were sold are almost universally out of business as well. The entire supply chain, from the guy who bet I would sell records by fronting the costs of recording them on to the store where the physical product was ultimately purchased, is gone.

But you know what? I got to ride around in a tour bus with someone else footing the bill, and play a show every night. To an audience. A SHOW! How awesome is that? I have songs in some cool movies. I've been to every state in the Union (except Alaska, because who the fuck plays in Alaska? EDIT: Apparently Berlin played Alaska twice) and to a bunch of other countries. I've been on MTV. I've been in Rolling Stone. I don't think I get to complain. I signed the contracts, with legal representation advising me. I knew what I was getting in to back then, and I knew what it would turn in to the day Napster went live.

So I don't blame Emily for the fact that I'm not in my 20s any more. She grew up in a different world than me and that dude from Camper Van Beethoven. In the world we grew up in, we created a commodity, with a supply chain, bankers, retail outlets, and a fairly strict machinery for ensuring all that moved smoothly. While Emily can certainly enjoy lots of material that was created with that machinery, I'll bet you her tastes largely revolve around the current DIY-flavored indie scene. (Yeah, while I was indie to the bone, I recorded my albums at Chicago Trax, Battery and Brittania Row, mastered them at Bernie Grundman and Sterling, and sold them in Tower, like everyone else. Different meaning to the word "indie" today.)

So David Lowery, get off your high horse. Emily doesn't need to donate any money to Old Musicians Who Don't Have Shit Any More. She is no more responsible for the state our industry is in than I am responsible for something stupid my parents did before I was born. She doesn't understand what the fuck you're talking about. She just likes music. It isn't a commodity any more, but value-added content. If people want to make new shit for her to diss on All Songs Considered, that's their own prerogative. It has nothing to do with us and our 80s/90s understanding of the music industry.

If you want to blame someone, blame Sean Parker.


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Jun.19.2012 @ 5:45 PM
Good post. Although you forgot to mention that you were also in Playgirl. :)

You deserved more for your work than just the memories. I know I paid a bunch of money for your albums and concerts so I hope whoever got the money enjoyed it.

As much as I would love to see SMG again I can also understand from this why it doesn't really pay to do it.

Jun.19.2012 @ 5:51 PM
Wade Alin
I wondered what your take on this would be. The loudest complaints about piracy have always come from folks either out of touch (Ulrich) or folks who just can't seem to sell records (most everyone else) and think "Well, fuck, it can't be me - it's Piracy!"

Personally, I make a decent amount of money every time I release something independently. Not enough to live on. Actually, that's inaccurate. If I released 2 AP, 2 Milkfish, and a CA album per year - probably. But I'd be strung out all the time. A lot of people care enough to pay. A lot of people who don't show appreciation in other ways.

I did share the article you're referencing on Facebook - because it was reposted by Aimee Mann. I like her and, unless she did something terribly wrong, she should still be living off the money she made on the Magnolia soundtrack.

Jun.19.2012 @ 6:22 PM
I'm mostly perplexed by how an economics professor can get worked up over consumers reacting to disruptive technologies and making the choice that a good is now too expensive. He must not be a particularly good professor.

I wish it were still the 90's as much as the next musician, but it's not -- consumer tastes and technology have changed, and the industry needs to adapt or get socked in the eye by the invisible hand.

Mewling that consumers ought to do the "ethical" thing and pay for CDs is as equally absurd as whining about the weather. You might not like that it's raining but it's not going to change, so get with it and buy an umbrella already.

Jun.19.2012 @ 6:23 PM
(Basically, what I'm trying to say is: great post.)

Jun.19.2012 @ 6:28 PM
Chris Randall
Yup. What cracks me up is how "entitled" gets bandied about in this particular situation. You want to see a sense of entitlement? Find a has-been musician from the 90s. Hell, guilty as charged.


Jun.19.2012 @ 7:41 PM
It bugs me every time I hear the "piracy been breakin' my music industry!!1" argument. I hear it as "my customers aren't paying me enough" when the question that artists should be asking is "my personal business model is broken, how do I fix it?".

A huge problem that I see is the continued prevalence of the $10 album. The major labels have spent 15 years showing us that the $10 album model is broken. Why copy that busted business model as an indie? In the same time frame, we have seen the rise of $10 Bluray discs that cost two years and $150million to produce, and $1 games that entertain me for the same one hour as an album does. Indie artists really think that $10 is a competive price among the other digital offerings that the consumer is looking at?

No, I'm not promoting piracy. I do get tired of repeatedly hearing the same tired argument that puts the blame on the consumer though.

Jun.19.2012 @ 7:52 PM
Chris Randall
Exactly. The consumer's only crime is that he likes what you did. He'll take the path of least resistance to fuel that _every_ time. (And before you all chime in with your "I'm an altruistic motherfucker" anecdotes, save it. This is me you're talking to. I know better, and I have the numbers to prove it, in the form of the red balance on my Capital One Visa card I used to make Unsuspected Sounds.)

$10 does seem fair to me for an album. $10 seemed fair in 1985, when I bought a lot of imports, and that's what imports cost when you ordered them in a record store from the Schwann's catalog. It still seems fair to me. But I'm fucking old. I turned 44 today. I'm twice as old as Emily. The only thing she knows about the 80s (when, I'll mention, she wasn't even alive) is what is re-imagined in 2012 by hipsters. $10 doesn't seem fair to Emily. They are, after all, only variously-aligned ones and zeroes in her flash memory, and not something she can hold in her hands that obviously has physical worth.

As to what the fix is? Fuck if I know. If I was just getting started today, I have no doubt I could hustle a living in the same way I did in 1989. When I signed a recording contract, it didn't come with a Rolls and a house in West Hollywood. Don't know why all the sudden I seem to think it should have.


Jun.19.2012 @ 8:09 PM
I didn't have so much a problem with what she said and did, a lot of what she said she had was promos anyway. I got irritated at some people who picked it up and ran with it. There was a small army of spoiled frat boy Libertarians coming to her aid.


Jun.19.2012 @ 8:11 PM
And I listened to All Songs Considered exactly one time. It was the most irritating, clueless thing I may have ever heard. I say this as a big NPR fan. It may have just been that particular episode, but I'll never know.


Jun.19.2012 @ 8:12 PM
In all fairness, while I'm not disagreeing with you, the $10 Blu-Ray vs $10 CD isn't really a fair comparison. The $10 Blu-Rays are the discount blu-rays and the discount CDs you can buy at $5. At least that's what I see when I walk through the CD/DVD section at Wal-Mart/Target/Best Buy/whatever.

And to throw another variable in the equation, I'm old school and own a bunch of CDs. But the majority of them I bought used. I certainly have my share of new CDs, but, even if you were getting a good deal on royalties, you still wouldn't have gotten one cent from the used copy of Sins of the Flesh that I bought back in 1990-something. From your perspective, my purchase of a used CD is no different than if I downloaded the song off of BitTorrent today. With that said, my purchase of a used CD was helping keep the stores that sold them in business (and today, they're going to the guy on eBay or Amazon who is selling it), so the money is going somewhere to benefit someone that is not getting done by me downloading it. But the people in question have nothing to do with the making of the actual music. I suppose you could argue that by keeping the record stores in business, you help promote more music that could get sold there that doesn't get played on the radio, but that ship has long sailed. Why should it make a difference to an artist if I buy a used copy of his CD from a re-seller on Amazon or if I BitTorrent it?

Keep in mind, I'm not promoting piracy (even though I'm not going to play innocent and pretend I've never pirated anything), but I'll also be honest and say that the reason I'm not promoting it is because I like CDs. When I want to listen to it on a portable device, I extract the mp3s from the CD. I've never actually paid for an mp3 (OK, I can't say that... there was Unsuspected Sounds and some other digital releases here and there, but they're in the minority), and if I was a primarily digital person, I probably would be doing a lot more pirating.

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