Local Current Blog

Downloads and diatribes: Jeremy Messersmith and Christian Erickson on modern music fandom

Credit: Ben Clark

The response to intern Emily White’s first-ever article written for NPR Music and viral retort by Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery has been tremendous. The comments, tweets, Facebook rants, and follow-up think pieces number in the thousands. Even here at the Current, a simple email recommending that we read Lowery’s post resulted in a massive chain of heated responses back and forth between our staff.

I’m not really interested in picking apart the fine points of each article. Judging from the hours of conversation I’ve already logged on the topic over the past few days, that endeavor could fill up pages and might not even be all that productive. It’s an incredibly nuanced debate that extends far beyond whether White or Lowery were correct in their assertions, and it has raised some incredible questions about the relationship between musicians and fans.

Rather, for some additional insight, I asked musicians Jeremy Messersmith and Christian Erickson (who fronts Blue Sky Blackout in addition to working as a partner at marketing firm Zeus Jones) to share some real-world anecdotes and educated opinions about this complex topic.

Most of our discussion centered around a few key questions.

What are the moral implications of “stealing” music or otherwise consuming it without paying? 

“My quick answer is that I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with it,” says Messersmith. “Loaning a friend a book or film isn’t morally wrong in and of itself. Making mixtapes for someone is still an incredibly meaningful and personal gesture. So I don’t think we’re dealing with a moral absolute here. People have consumed music and other forms of art without paying directly for it for years. In fact, we even built places where people can engage in this kind of free information exchange. They’re called libraries. They work kind of like an analog internet, but with librarians working as your search engine.

“I feel like I should make a distinction between theft and piracy as well. File sharing (be it a copied hard drive, mix CDs or files via bittorrent) isn’t theft in the literal sense. Here’s a quote from Minecraft developer Notch: ‘Piracy is not theft. If you steal a car, the original is lost. If you copy a game, there are simply more of them in the world.’ So what we’re really talking about is unauthorized duplication — you know, the thing the FBI warns us about every time we pop in a DVD. For years, person-to-person sharing was tolerated and accommodated for, while duplication by companies for profit was prosecuted. Now, with the internet, person to person sharing is easier yet even more complex.”

Erickson points out that in many modern cases, independent artists actually want people to consume their music for free as a way to grow their audience. “Lots of artists, and I am one of these, are much more interested in their cultural contribution than their monetary gain,” he says. “I don’t mean to imply that artists who want to make money shouldn’t be able to. I only mean that many artists are not looking to be ‘professional’ in the way the Lowery is implying, and are therefore setting a different precedent for the value of their art — one that isn’t money-based.”

Exactly how has the rise of file-sharing, Spotify, and other streaming services affected artists’ income?

“I’ve only made music in the file-sharing era, so I don’t have anything personally to compare it to,” says Messersmith. “I’ve read a lot about the tanking music business profits, but since I’m not plugged into that system at all I haven’t noticed. One thing to note is that most of the music industry ‘numbers’ on losses to piracy are completely fabricated, sometimes comically so.”

Messersmith generously agreed to share some hard statistics on his own experiencing distributing music through streaming services. Here’s what he’s earned through Spotify and Bandcamp for his latest album, The Reluctant Graveyard:

Spotify

Streams: 509,434

Revenue: $2,505.02 

Revenue/Stream: $0.0049

Bandcamp

Streams: 214,434

Album Downloads: 6,503

Revenue: $9,896.42

“Bandcamp (pay what you want downloads and free streaming) fares a lot better in my opinion, at least in the streaming part of it,” he says. “It also looks like people pay around $1.50 per album. That may sound awful, but that’s 6,500 new people who are now on my mailing list, which is super important. I still do very well from iTunes and physical sales, but basically, I don’t make much money at all from streaming services.”

“To me, services like Spotify — and even to some extent iTunes — are not ever going to be of any use to artists who want to make money,” adds Erickson. “You only have to look at this graphic to see how hard it is for a solo artist to make even minimum wage selling things this way. Now imagine you are a three- or four-piece band. On the flip side, people like Amanda Palmer are raising millions on Kickstarter by reaching out to people who are more motivated than Emily White to actually jump in and participate. The future is most likely going to be centered around truly engaged fans who help bring art to the world for others to enjoy.”

Which brings us to another big question:

What can a fan do to support their favorite musicians? Emily White said “I can’t support them with concert tickets and t-shirts alone.” Is that true? 

“The single biggest thing someone can do to support my music is by sharing it with someone,” says Messersmith. “It can be via mixtape, Facebook wall post, email or whatever. If people don’t want to pay as much for records, then I better get a lot more people listening! To quote Oscar Wilde: ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’ There is more music recorded in a year than can be listened to in a lifetime. Okay, not really. I totally made that up, but there is so much music out there. You are damned lucky if anyone is listening to you AT ALL”.

“Fans are now able to support artists in much more direct ways,” says Erickson. “Instead of just buying what artists produce, people want to feel like they are part of the creation process — and they are putting their money into things like Kickstarter campaigns. And typically artists doing Kickstarters will offer up all kinds of ways that supporters can benefit, giving them lots of different ways to interact with the artist beyond just buying their stuff — private concerts, swag, personalized stuff — well beyond just the transaction of paying a buck for a song. White’s plea to make it more convenient for her to pay for stuff — that just tells me she doesn’t truly want a relationship with her favorite artists. Real fans are looking for much more than that.”

Erickson adds that the desires of modern musicians and the mechanisms of the old-school business model don’t quite sync up. “As all these new ideas are bringing artists and fans closer, the traditional recording industry is attempting to drive a wedge between them,” he says. “Make no mistake — the RIAA, their draconian lawsuits, their constant attempts to block technology and their support of ridiculous bills in congress are a huge part of what puts them at odds with the larger culture. Lowery talks about how Google and other companies are profiting from stealing — which maybe is true — but on the flip side they deliver value to people in so many ways. People LIKE those companies. The RIAA delivers NO VALUE to anyone, and young people know it. So while they purport to be advocates for artists and the industry, their actions just make it worse for both artists and fans.

“So, you have a music-listening public that wants more involvement with artists than ever, a huge number of artists who have chosen to bypass profit altogether, and an industry organization that ruthlessly persecutes its biggest fans and alienates them from the art they want to support so badly,” he continues. “Where do you go from there?”

So, where do we go from here? 

“No one has the formula figured out,” admits Erickson. “But one thing I love about Messersmith and the way he markets himself is how he makes the most of these culture changes. For one thing, his material is released as ‘pay-what-you-want’ — this means it’s more of a pain for people to pirate his stuff that it is to get it from him. Net result? People of the Emily White ilk who want ‘convenience’ are not obligated to pay, but people who truly want to support him as an artist do anyway. And if people want physical media, they can buy it — something that makes money for him, but also for the record stores that support him.

“My guess is the smaller number of avid supporters generate more income for him than a bunch of casual listeners paying a buck for a song. And those people are much more likely to be in for the long haul — people who might support his future work, attend his shows, etc. And because he is doing this on his own he is bypassing the distaste people have for the music industry. When I pay money to see him play I know that part of that money is flowing directly to his band, his manager and others who have a direct impact on his career — not some faceless corporation.”

“My first record came out in 2006 and only in the last few years have I considered myself a ‘full time’ musician,” says Messersmith. “Of course, I also teach at McNally Smith College of Music. I think you have to play to your own individual strengths. I love being in the classroom and I’m not a huge fan of touring 200 days out of the year. The trick is really finding fun, involving ways of doing, well, everything. There’s no defined career path these days because nobody really knows what the hell they’re doing. 

“I guess I don’t worry as much about selling records. It’s one part of my revenue stream, but not all. What I do worry about is how to increase the quality of my interactions with people. I just think, ‘What would I LOVE my favorite band to do?’ Then I try to do that.

“In some ways, the problem of making a living doing music feels like a generational one. If the bulk of my career had been in the ‘70s-‘90s, then my business model would revolve around selling records. I’d be super pissed that people don’t buy records and would probably think of file-sharing as theft (see Lars Ulrich). I wonder if they’d grown up with the internet and saw all the advantages and benefits if they would think the same.”

Are we forgetting what it means to really be a fan?

One thing that both Messersmith and Erickson pointed out is something that I’ve been mulling over the past few days as well. Fans provide an intangible but ultimately more valuable service to artists than simply forking over their cash: listening, participating, reacting, and being part of the art. It’s hard to quantify that in album sales or hard statistics, but it’s something Jeremy and many other independent artists treasure. Are we overlooking the importance of simply being a fan? As Erickson points out, it’s the people who engage in the art and connect with it on a deeper level that ultimately end up feeling compelled to contribute to things like Kickstarter.

Messersmith offered up an anecdote that summarizes this topic quite nicely:

“When I was in college I worked as a barista at Dunn Bros coffee in Minneapolis,” he says. “One day, Tori Amos came in and ordered a skim mocha (yes, I remember her order). Then she came in again, ordered a second one, then invited me to see her show that night with Ben Folds. And I quote, ‘I’d be honored if you’d be my guest for the evening.’ I was giddy the rest of the day. At the show, Tori started improvising a song. It was super simple and her band quickly hopped in too. She sang about how she left her hotel room and went for a walk, then found a little coffee shop. She ended the song by singing something about how she loved Dunn Bros. Of course, the way I took it was that Tori Amos sang to me, like, me personally, at a show with thousands of people. 

“That’s the kind of experience I want people to have with my(our) music. That once in a lifetime kind of experience is what makes fans for life. Sorry America, but not everything of value has a price tag. I don’t make music to make money. Don’t get me wrong, I like money and want money, but that’s not why I do music. I played music for years before I ever made any money doing it and I’ll probably still make music even when I stop making money. I make music because I think it’s powerful and life-altering (at least for me) and I want other people to have that experience with my songs.”

Erickson agrees. “I guess what I’m saying is that the debate about why you should/shouldn’t pay to download songs already has a foregone conclusion — a huge number of people just aren’t going to do it. So what we need to do is look at more innovative ways that fans can support artists,” he says. “A lot of interesting stuff is already under way; the problem is that the traditional music industry can’t figure out how to make money from it. But I believe artists can.”