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.