Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Today, some reading...

Everybody and their Uncle Hank has something to say about file sharing and its link to the demise or resurgence of music today. Personally, I usually ignore all articles because I'm just sick of hearing about it. But today I read a piece on file sharing by Okkervil River's Will Sheff. I've interviewed Sheff and like him. It goes without saying that I think Okkervil is one of the finest bands playing today. So this one I read. It's well thought out and touches many of the points, concerning both the state of music and the necessary evil of file sharing, that I find myself pondering to some degree. I've included the link and the text.

The Link

The Text:

Over the nine-odd years that we in Okkervil River have been trying to
make a living playing music, I've developed a kind of love/hate
relationship with the world of file-sharing. The first good job I ever
had was at the website, where I drew a respectable
salary for writing music reviews and editorials as a kind of
not-very-convincing camouflage for what was at the time one of the
world's largest file-sharing networks. At the time, my attitude about
file-sharing was that it didn't particularly hurt artists – most of
whom were being ripped off by their labels anyway (it's a little known
fact that very few musicians actually make any money off of record
sales) – rather, it helped spread the word about their music to people
who, if they liked it enough, would buy the CD. I felt that the party
who genuinely had cause to be frightened of file-sharing weren't the
tiny little indie bands but the colossal major labels; if you put out
a Britney Spears CD with only one good song on it, I figured, people
would just steal the one song and no one would buy the CD. When
feeling grand – usually after one or two of the free 20 oz. Mountain
Dews available in our office kitchen fridge and a few rounds at the
Nerf hoop – I'd imagine a new and digitally reinvigorated world in
which sales of major-label behemoths like Britney and Creed would
plummet, in which major labels would topple, in which culture would be
reinvented as a kind of meritocracy where anyone with artistic
ambitions could draw a decent living by setting up a PayPal tip-jar on
their little corner of the internet. Don't laugh – you thought that, too.

About a year later, the RIAA finally came gunning for Audiogalaxy and
shut us down. The dot-com crash hit, and everyone started wondering
where the money was. I was taken into the special room at my offices –
the one with the big, soft leatherette couches, the one reserved for
hiring and firing – and fired. I loaded a box with my belongings and a
pair of stolen Sony headphones and drove home from the gutted
Audiogalaxy offices. A couple of weeks later I cast my lot with
Okkervil River, and I headed out on my first major tour. I've spent
more than half of the intervening five years on the road. After tour
upon tour of paying more for gas than we were making at the shows, of
skipping meals, of asking people in the sparse crowds we drew if any
of them had available floor space where we could spend the night, I've
finally managed to make it pay enough so that I draw roughly the same
salary as a clerk at a 7-11. I use that comparison solely
descriptively, as I couldn't be possibly be happier to be making a
living doing what I love. At the same time, with no health insurance
and no house and no idea how long my "music career" will last, it's
kind of become everything I have. I try to use that fact as reason to
throw all of my energy and my care into every single thing that I do;
as a result, my attitude about file-sharing has become more
complicated now that it has a direct impact on my life.

I'm not sure if file-sharing impacts our sales enough for it to hurt
us. Sometimes I suspect that it does – other times I'm glad people get
a chance to be exposed to our music. I do know that there's a
subscription-based service called Sound Scan that all industry
professionals – labels, booking agents, promoters, publicists – look
at regularly. Sound Scan estimates how many records you've sold in
stores and over the internet, and it is used to determine how "big"
you are. If you're angling to have the opening slot on a lucrative
tour or trying to get signed to a new label and someone takes a look
at your Sound Scan numbers and doesn't like them, it's over. That's an
aspect of file-sharing that I'm not sure people take into account. In
any case, I honestly don't care quite as much about the commercial
implications of file-sharing because they're basically out of my
control and I guess that inside I still do take the view that
file-sharing can be radically empowering to fans and that I can trust
those same fans to buy the records.

My real concerns with file-sharing are primarily aesthetic.

There's a story by Jorge Luís Borges called "The Library of Babel." It
describes a fantastical library composed of an apparently infinite
number of identical rooms. Each room contains 1,050 books. Printed on
the pages are words whose lettering and order are apparently random.
Because the library is complete, among the gibberish it also contains
every book that is possible, every book that could ever be written. It
also contains every imaginable variation of every book possible,
whether that variation is off by thousands of letters or by a single
comma. Borges adds that it must contain, somewhere, a book that
explains the meaning and origin of the library itself – just as it
contains thousands of variations of that book, true and false. He
writes, "When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books,
the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt
themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure…As was
natural, this inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression."

The internet – with its glut not only of information but of
misinformation, and of information that is only slightly correct, or
only slightly incorrect – fills me with this same weird mixture of
happiness and depression. I sometimes feel drowned in information,
deadened by it. How many hundreds of bored hours have you spent
mechanically poring through web pages not knowing what you're looking
for, or knowing what you're looking for but not feeling satisfied when
you find it? You hunger but you're not filled. Everything is freely
available on the internet, and is accordingly made inestimably
valuable and utterly value-less.

When I was a kid, I'd listen to the same records over and over and
over again, as if I was under a spell. The record would end and I'd
flip it over again, doing absolutely nothing, letting the music wash
over me. My favorite record albums become like a totem for me, their
big fat beautiful gatefolds worked as a shield against the loud,
crashing, crushing world. I would have laid down my life and died in
defense of a record like Tonight's the Night or Astral Weeks. I felt
that those records had, in some ways, saved my life. These days, with
all the choice in the world, it's hard for me find the attention span
for a single album. I put my iPod on shuffle and skip impatiently to
the next song before each one's over. I don't even know what I'm
looking for.

Because my work is the most important thing in the world to me, I
sometimes feel uncomfortable about it existing freely in the digital
Library of Babel, these songs that I worked so hard writing and
revising and rehearsing and recording and mixing (and re-mixing) and
mastering (and re-mastering) shucked off the album and thrown up on
the internet in hissy and brittle low-resolution versions with no kind
of sequence or order, mixed in with odd leaked tracks and some sub-par
live versions. In a world overstuffed with stimuli and choking on
information, I feel like a musical album should have a kind of purity
and a kind of wholeness, that every aspect of an album – from the
sequencing to the artwork even down to the typesetting – should feels
labored over and loved, and that the finished product should feel like
a gift.

At the same time, I am a very ardent supporter of the way in which the
internet empowers fans. I truly believe that the internet allows fans
to connect with and participate in art in a way that's far more
meaningful than it's been for decades, in a way that's more akin to
the way folk music worked in the 1920's and for hundreds of years
beforehand. Anyone who has ever been to a perfect rock show by their
favorite band in a small venue can testify to the circuit of energy
that is created at those shows between the audience and the band, to
the way that energy washes up onstage from the crowd and is radiated
back out again from the performers, to the way that it becomes less
about an artist and an audience and it becomes entirely about a
singular unrepeatable shared moment between a group of people. That's
why I go to shows, and that's why I play music myself.

By the same token, those same great shows don't always sound the same
when you run a line out from the soundboard into a minidisk player and
put it up online. For one thing, soundboard tapes are notoriously bad;
everything that's supposed to resonate through the air – like drums
and amps – gets lost, while everything that's miked or going direct
sounds dry and ten times louder. Similarly, all those other ineffable
things that resonate through the air – those things that are the
reason we go to rock shows in the first place – simply can't be
captured through a line-out on a soundboard. I've heard a lot of the
Okkervil bootlegs out there; some of them sound great and some of them
make me wince. I don't mind that they're out there and I encourage
bootlegging, but sometimes it's painful for me to contemplate how
there are hours and hours of terrible-sounding Okkervil River music
readily available on the internet.

We're going on tour again in the fall and we'll probably be playing
some new songs. I love sharing new songs and refining them live in
front of people. However, I'm going to save some of the new songs for
our next recording session – in spite of the fact that we could use
the rehearsal – for the simple reason that I don't want them to be
heard first in versions that are inferior because we're still working
through them and they're poorly from soundboards. I'm not at all
asking that you don't record and share shows; rather, I myself am
going to try to choose some songs that I'm okay having shared in early

Just as long as when the album comes out you don't do that thing on
the message board where you go, "hrumph, I much prefer the earlier
version better, by the way. I find so much more pure the version from
Madison where Will's guitar is out of tune and he's so wasted that he
forgets half the words and then apologizes and starts the song over.
And then he forgets them again." --


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting essay!
Nice read. Thank you for your insights.

7:07 AM  

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