If there is one good thing about this year in music, its this I have found myself thinking quite a bit more about how artists gets paid for their work.
A few weeks ago, two news items brought the issue home, for the umpteenth time in this era of download controversies. First came the news that the RIAA had won a six-figure sum from a single mother who was sharing files of 20 or so popular, officially-released songs. Then, as a welcome corrective but with its own set of complexities, came the news that Radiohead was offering its new album, In Rainbows, as a download for whatever price one chose. Their wording (its really up to you) suggested that taking it for free was an acceptable option.
Both events produced sharp differences of opinion. Or, at least, I can verify that the Radiohead decision did, since the RIAAs lawsuit produced few reactions in the blogosphere and other non-executive areas of anything other than the RIAA is headed for extinction variety.
However, on Sunday morning I read two reactions to Radiohead in quick succession. I am on the e-mail list of a local professional jazz musician (who I interviewed in this column four years ago), and his message that day said that anyone who downloaded the Radiohead album without paying was a thief. Shortly after reading that, I saw a New York Times editorial saying that only people vulnerable to touchy-feely thoughts would pay for the download.
Now, in my opinion, it is wrong to suggest that people should feel bad about taking an option that Radiohead not only offers but implicitly condones. On the other hand, I wouldnt mind if their actions prompted an outbreak of touchy-feely feelings about musicians, which seems to have been a result so far.
As for the RIAA, I hope and except that the decision will rank with Jethro Tulls 1988 best heavy metal album Grammy in the list of meaningful music victories. On the other hand, I think that some responses to this event have overlooked the notion that musicians, songwriters, even, in most cases, producers deserve financial reward for their work. A common response is let them make their money playing live, but, for me, many of the moving musical experiences of recent decades (including, for instance, most Radiohead albums) simply couldnt have happened if the studio wasnt a viable option.
Until now, Ive never bought a Radiohead album. Ive found that some of the musical experiences theyve offered, especially Kid A, have been powerful enough to make me consider forking over my Benjamins, or whatever the hip-hoppers call them, to experience them repeatedly at will. However, the urge hasnt struck me hard enough when I was in the right place, physically and financially, to act on it.
This changed last Sunday. I paid Radiohead three pounds (plus a fifty pence credit card fee) to buy their compressed files of In Rainbows. My initial impulse was to pay two and a half pounds, but my wife objected.
In listening to it so far, I like it, but Im not sure whether its an experience on par with Kid A. As with their other recent albums, it seems to shuffle through the terrain opened up by that album and OK Computer, sometimes very attractively. In any case, it is the first Radiohead album I will have the chance to examine multiple times. And I suspect that this, plus my three and a half pounds, is enough for them to feel like theyve won over this touchy-feely music consumer.