On buying physical music

I love Grizzly Bear; they’re one of those bands where I don’t really understand how they do what they do, where their songs will go, how they compose, conduct, and orchestrate their twists and turns, and this fascinates and beguiles me, because what they do is often beautiful and exciting. I also love Nitsuh Abebe; he’s one of those music writers who just seems so damn clever and correct and reasonable and tasteful that I can’t ever disagree with him, and that he makes me jealous because I’m not as good as him.

Nitsuh has written an awesome piece about Grizzly Bear, their new album, their current tour, and, most pointedly, the fact that, despite being feted, acclaimed critical darlings who have sold hundreds of thousands of records and had two Billboard Top 10 albums, they don’t earn a great deal of money. Not all of the band have health insurance (I’ll avoid ranting about the fact that it’s disgusting that healthcare isn’t free to all in a civilised society for another time); they can’t afford to buy houses, let alone the kind of mansions fetishised on shows like MTV’s Cribs. I imagine that individually they earn less than me; I earn a decent but not exceptional wage for the UK, and my wife earns the same. I feel reasonably privileged that we do. It means we can afford a mortgage and a good standard of living. That Grizzly Bear are famous – OK, not Prince Harry famous, but NY Magazine cover famous – and probably have a lower standard of living than I do is something I find… upsetting? Perhaps. Certainly unusual, and concerning.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted at Grizzly Bear that I would always buy a CD I liked, and that I believe artists should be paid a good living wage for making art that we, as listeners, or fans, or customers, appreciate and use. And love. A CD in the UK costs about £10. You might listen to it 5 times, or 500 times, or 5,000 times. You have it forever. It probably took the musicians involved a year, or two years, to create, one way and another. If my employer, my customers, expected me to do my job for free, I’d be upset.

Grizzly Bear retweeted me, and many, many more people retweeted their retweet. I’ve been on Twitter for years now and have over a thousand followers, and that tweet was the farthest-reaching I’ve ever made. It seemed to resonate.

Nitsuh’s piece inspired this fascinating and important debate between two musicians / writers at Stereogum. It also inspired me to start a thread on ILM asking how much physical music people have bought so far this year. I asked the same thing on Twitter, and asked Laura Snapes (who writes for Pitchfork amongst other places, and has loads of followers) if she’d kindly retweet so I could gather more responses. So far, responses seem to be pretty split between two poles – people have either bought no physical music this year, or they’ve bought an awful lot – several dozen, or even over a hundred CDs or LPs or singles or whatever (in one case, a single which came on a floppy disk). There seems to be little middle ground, few of the mythical “12 albums a year” man (or woman).

I love CDs, and I love supporting artists whose work I love. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again but it seems particularly important to say it quite loudly and frequently right now. I’ve little interest in collecting for the sake of collecting; I love listening to music, and my preferred way of listening to music is on my hi-fi, via a CD. This seems to be the way that most fairly pays the artists whose music I’m listening to.

I’ve bought 27 new releases on CD this year, and 25 ‘back catalogue’ CDs. They’re at the top of this post, in that photo (all except the MBV reissues, for some reason). That’s 52 CDs this year. I even bought the Four Tet album on digital download and on physical CD (having to get it imported from Japan), because I love his music and I wanted it. I’ll occasionally buy individual songs – usually singles and b-sides – on digital download, or a whole EP if I simply can’t get it on CD (Owen Pallett, Antlers). I never think to buy vinyl. It’s not what I grew up making pilgrimages to record shops to buy. I know that part of my affection for CDs is some kind of sentimental, romantic notion, but this is music we’re talking about; if you can’t get sentimental and romantic about it, something is wrong.

Ultimately my concern isn’t that Grizzly Bear can’t afford to buy houses or pay for health insurance. It’s that they, and the likes of Four Tet, and Field Music, and Minotaur Shock, and the Divine Fits guys, and Michael Gira, and Liars, and Flying Lotus, and Junior Boys, and Antlers, and Wild Beasts, and Owen Pallett, and everyone else whose music I love, won’t be able to afford to make ends meet so much that they’ll give up, and stop making music, and go and get day jobs. That would be a tragedy.

8 responses to “On buying physical music

  1. Good article. If Grizzly Bear “don’t earn a great deal of money” and “can’t afford to buy houses” despite selling “hundreds of thousands of records” then they should have a word with their accountant and ask him/her where’s all the cash going. I mean, they write their own material. A composer gets, what, 10% from every CD sold. Do the math.

  2. Here’s the math: 10% x 100,000 x $12 = $120,000 split 4 ways is $30,000 each. Do they sell that much every year? (I hope so). Do their tours make money? (I hope so because they put on a great show in Seattle last week). Do they sell merch to earn more? (I hope the shirt I bought at that Seattle show does).

  3. I more or less stopped buying CDs when I took out a Spotify subscription. If Spotify don’t pay artists enough then it’s not really my problem. I would happily pay higher subscription rates. I listen to Spotify for about an hour a day, on average, so that works out about 30p an hour. Too cheap. But I don’t feel obliged to buy a CD of something I have already downloaded from Spotify just to make up any shortfall for the artist.

    Linking buying CDs to supporting artists seems an invalid connection. I’m still paying Grizzly Bear – it’s just that the streaming market doesn’t pay artists as much (as far as I know). How will that problem be resolved? Not by buying CDs, ultimately. The question is how can we make Spotify (or Google or Samsung or whoever) pay better to ensure music continues to be made?

    I also have doubts about Grizzly Bear struggling. The article says “licensing a song might provide each member with “a nice little ‘Yay, I don’t have to pay rent for two months.’” They soundtracked Volkswagen’s Superbowl advert and are on the Twilight soundtrack. I find it hard to believe that these two don’t pay very, very well. I’m pretty sure they earn more than you or me, Nick.

  4. Saying “If Spotify don’t pay artists enough then it’s not really my problem.” is like saying “If the Gap doesn’t pay its labourers enough, that is not my problem.” Ultimately the CHOICE to support Spotify versus buying a CD (versus buying the CD at the show, or used, or on-line, or at HMV, or from the local independent shop) is a political act – a VOTE for one way of compensating an artist over another. Spotify will only change if people support other means first – then they will ask: “How can we turn those CD buyers into Spotify users?” and in some cases the answer will be “By paying the artists more.”

  5. Spotify aren’t forcing Bangladeshi children to make left-field AOR records in sweatshops (not yet, at least), so I don’t think a comparison to Gap is entirely fair. I’m not abdicating any responsibility as a consumer, but there is a difference between exploitation and being underpaid.
    Supporting artists is important, and Spotify is a threat to the future of great artists, without a doubt. I’m not sure simply buying CDs is the answer, is all. I do buy all of Mark Kozelek’s CDs directly from Caldo Verde, although from an ethical point of view I don’t know if shipping bits of plastic via airmail from the US versus listening online is entirely justified.

  6. Good points but if ” Spotify is a threat to the future of great artists, without a doubt” then why are you paying them to do so? When we were all buying CDs we weren’t having this debate. Instead we were focusing on the environmental cost of little plastic discs and debating the concept of selling out, which is now a quaint concept because when no-one is buying, how can you sell out? Think about it – there was too much money for artists at that time and they had to actively resist being paid too much. How quickly things change.

  7. This is an interesting debate. I am a user of Spotify – and I know it doesn’t pay artists enough – but it’s a great deal for music fans like me.
    I also buy vinyl copies of the albums I really like – because I’m old and I’m like that. Probably a dozen albums a year (that makes me one of your elusive dozen a year people) and much more second hand older stuff. Spotify allows me to listen to a greater variety of music – much of which I just want to see what it sounds like and it isn’t played on the radio. I listen to far more than I would ever buy – or be able to afford to buy – but what I play most often I end up buying because I want the vinyl copy.
    There’s a great article written from the POV of an artist on Pitchfork here: http://t.co/u2MQFgWq

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