A Personal Aspiration Towards Ethical Listening

The most recent example of me parting with money in exchange for music

This weekend, NPR Music intern Emily White wrote a well-meaning (and well-written) reflection on her relationship to music — namely, the fact that she never purchased any, given the free and easy access with which she has grown up.

I, too, have purchased little music since my regular trips to the Used Jazz CD shelves at Everyday Music in high school, unless you count pre-ordering a few things through Kickstarter campaigns (the latest of which, Darcy James Argue’s new record, has four hours left and has reached its goal!) In fact, I think the last piece of music that I directly purchased was Argue’s previous album, back in 2009.

But that’s largely because I have had the good fortune of falling into the jazz journalism world, where I am given promotional copies of music for review. Given the excellent stuff that comes across my desk, I am rarely compelled to reach out and buy more.

But this strongly-worded and well-argued rebuttal to Emily’s confessional has me thinking a little bit more closely about the ethics of my music listening habits. And with your help, I’d like to publicly lay out a set of guiding principles for my future listening, and check back later to see whether or not I was able to live up to my aspirations: 

1) I uninstalled Spotify, and will never use it to stream music. It seems pretty clear to me that this organization is not interested in being a part of a sustainable solution for artist revenues. Those ads were annoying, anyway.

2) I will only use a file-sharing program to download music that is not released digitally in any form. This is rare, but applicable occasionally to some early jazz and other obscure things that I have needed to track down for research.

3) I will spend at least 1% of my annual income on directly purchasing music or supporting artists in some way financially (such as Kickstarter). This is approximately the same amount of money that I give to the local meditation community of which I am a member. I wish it could be more, but the reality is that my grad student budget affords me almost zero disposable income — and $20/month is the best I can do right now. I will also, whenever possible, make an effort to purchase music through whatever channel benefits the artist most directly.

4) Starting in July, I will review at least 3 CDs per month — either at this blog or elsewhere — supporting the artists who are making great music and are generous enough to send me promotional copies for review by touting their awesomeness for all the world to hear.

Is there anything else that I should include as I consider what principles will guide my listening in this digital age? Am I being too easy on myself here? Too strict? Please share your thoughts in the comments — I’d love for this to be the start of a conversation about what reasonable and ethical baselines can be established for music listeners today, and will add any provisions that are good additions to what I have laid out. Thanks for being a part of the conversation!

UPDATE: Lots of well-reasoned responses to the debate are cropping up — I’d recommend Erin McKeown’s post that stakes out a solid middle ground, and also another Emily White’s defense of the NPR intern’s initial post. Also, David McCarthy’s call for everyone to appreciate the complexities of the situation, and not boil things down to “personal responsibility” arguments, and Wesley Verhoeve’s spirited takedown of Lowery. I agree with all of these, and still hope that the conversation can move beyond name-calling and melodramatic blog trolling towards some small steps that can be taken towards artists making a sustainable living making great music, and actually connecting meaningfully with people who enjoy that music.

About arodjazz

Writer, trombonist, and PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology exploring the complexity of today's jazz world
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9 Responses to A Personal Aspiration Towards Ethical Listening

  1. Actually I think this is a great way to start seeing/doing things! Hopefully more will follow. Great Job!

  2. Rob Smith says:

    Alex, I too have created certain parameters for the acquisition of music. Here is my list:

    1. If the recordings are out of print and/or have never been digitally released (i.e. the same as your #2 rule.)

    2. I will download music if it is only to learn for a gig and it is something I would never imagine buying or listening to in my life. As a “society band” drummer I have had the unfortunate privilege to learn and play tunes by The Backstreet Boys and Billy Ray Cyrus. Trust me, as soon as those tunes were learned, they were deleted!

    3. I will download bootleg material. In my mind, the free torrenting (re: trading) of bootleg material nullifies the low life who used to sell said bootlegs. No longer can unscrupulous bootleggers peddle their 10th generation audience tapes of the Stones 1973 tour. Bootleg only sites have surprisingly high standards for what can be traded and many of these sites ban any music that has been officially released.

    I NEVER download any music that is created by any artist, living or dead, that I know is reliant upon that income. I peruse sites such as Pandora and Aurgasm to find new music that I CAN BUY! I feel good when a new discovery is made, I post there videos or links all over my social media sites, and I help fund their creative endeavors. People don’t realize that the purchase of music is an incredibly cheap way to feel philanthropic! And if you think artists like Ray LaMontagne or MGMT are well enough off, think again.

    I feel all listeners really need to come up with their own set of standards. The myth of the record company Goliath has ended – artists no longer even seek such a deal and listeners need to realize that most musical operations are on the Mom & Pop store level. There has been an event created called Small Business Saturday where consumers are prodded to patronize small shops in their immediate area. The same should occur for self-employed musicians (which makes up about 98.9% of the musical population.) Would customers walk into a small business, grab items off the shelf and leave? That is what is happening musically. A Small Music Business Saturday may not solve the problem of illegal downloads but could help build an ethical base on which consumers can educate themselves. And maybe even sell some music!

    An excellent blog as usual, Alex. Conversations such as the one presented above can only help begin the process of formulating guidelines for which people can ethically and morally support and listen to music. Each listener needs to define their own parameters but many are uneducated about the music business and how their actions directly affect the cottage industry that music has become. Shall we create a 10 commandments of ethical music acquisition? Let’s keep the conversation going!

  3. Josh Bennett says:

    Nice post. As a former employee of a record store I would like to add a comment on the type of product you buy and who it affects the most.

    Most independent record stores (including the fantastic local Phoenix chain ZIA Records) make the bulk of their profit margin through the sale of used media. While a great way to obtain music at a discounted price it does not support the artist.

    Purchasing a brand new product such as a CD or Vinyl record will support the artist (as well as a long laundry list of record executives, producers, mixers, studio assistants, etc.) most independent record stores will barely make enough from that new sale to justify the cost of shipping and distributing those albums to the stores they are displayed in.

    I firmly believe the independent record store is still a great way to purchase and find new music. (Talk to those record store associates! They know what they’re talking about!) But every time you purchase an album, movie, or book you have to make a choice between supporting the artist and supporting the store.

    With that in mind I try to balance my decision after asking myself a few questions: 1.) Is the artist still alive and making money off their record sales? 2.) Is the artist already wildly successful (ie Angelblood vs. Metallica) and 3.) Is the store strapped for cash and needs support from the community to continue to exist?

    Admittedly there is a lot of grey area in this decision making process but as we become more and more connected and aware of how simple actions (such as purchasing or not purchasing a product) can have an effect on people and artists I think we should live in the grey and be conscious of our decisions.

  4. Pingback: Free music « Keithpp's Blog

  5. keithpp says:

    Emily White, an intern at NPR, recently wrote she has 11,000 tracks but only had ever bought fifteen CDs.


    This brought a patronising attack by David Lowery in an open letter to Emily White.


    My own take on what Emily White wrote is that she is naïve and simplistic.

    Tedious and time-wasting as it was, I spent half of today reading through what David Lowery had written. It was not difficult to demolish.


    • arodjazz says:

      As usual, both sides of a polemic are wrong, but each also possesses a little bit of the truth. In any case, I still think it’s important for each person to consider both sides and come up with a personal course of action that makes sense to them. And I don’t think that any reasonable person would stand behind the business model of Megaupload or Pirate Bay, even if they didn’t actually kill David Lowery’s friends.

  6. keithpp says:

    Somebody That I Used To Know – Mike Dawes


    released Tuesday

    early hours Wednesday morning 301 hits

    early afternoon Wednesday 5,615 hits

    early hours Thursday morning 22,596 hits

    early afternoon Thursday 114,579 hits

    early hours Friday morning 164,174 hits

    I had expected Thursday afternoon to see a levelling off, instead seeing exponential growth.


    What a shame not on bandcamp as would have ridden on the momentum. Would have seen same exponential growth, some of which would have translated into downloads and sales.


    If nothing else this exposes the nonsense peddled by David Lowery that internet is bad for creative artists.


  7. Jared Negley says:

    I must admit that I don’t know a whole lot about how much Spotify pays artists for their music. I’ve done a little looking as to how much they actually pay per song, but the rate seems to fluctuate and that various figures presented that shocked people, namely the Lady Gaga only getting $167 for one million plays, is actually misleading.

    Still, I see that it can be a means to locate new music to purchase. The last three records I bought were because I was able to listen to the whole thing on Spotify first. Instead of using Spotify, I could have previewed all three records on youtube, which would have earned the artists no additional revenue. At least when I listen to music on Spotify the artists make some money. And who knows, if Spotify becomes the next trend in music consumption, maybe a service will come out that is more fair to the artists, or industry pressure will make Spotify be more artist friendly in the future.

  8. Pingback: MT-Headed Blog » Blog Archive » Digital Music Battle Royale: Reax & Roundup

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