Collateral Damage: How Free Culture destroys advertising.

A funny thing happened on the internet last week. On Sunday, an NPR’s “All Songs Considered” intern named Emily White wrote an intriguing post called I never owned any music to begin with. Miss White is 20 years old and missed the milestone when we changed how we acquire music. In the post, she speaks of having 11,000 songs, despite only having purchased 15 cds.

In the short post two things jumped out at me.

“…I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.”

“All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?”

David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker fame, posted an open letter to Emily White as a response on his blog The Trichordist. Unlike Emily, Mr. Lowery does not believe the music to be had on internet is the same as a free all-you-can-eat candy store.

Mr. Lowery’s response was illuminating, and while passionate, never resorted to polemics. You should read it. If for no other reason than the fact Lowery sees the bigger picture, likening the “free culture” movement to a collective erosion of ethics via technology.

Okay, Kidsleepy, why’s this on Adland. What’s this got to do with advertising?

Everything. Because the same thought that prevails with Emily White that is destroying the music industry, is doing collateral damage to the advertising industry.

I was fortunate enough to speak to Mr. Lowery and others, to get a larger perspective on this issue.

Part 1: David Lowery:

You most likely know him as the front man for Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. But David Lowery wears many hats. His social media fame shot up last week as the person behind The Trichordist, a community blog designed to promote a more ethical treatment of musicians.

Lowery sounded bemused on the phone. He was not expecting his Emily White Letter to go viral. But it did. “I think it had been forwarded to me by 25 people by the end of the day….on a good day, we have 2,000 visits to the site. But the next day, when I went to check (the analytics stats) it was a huge spike.”

Lowery, who is also a music business instructor at The University of Georgia, ended up educating or infuriating those who have been misled by false notions. The latter group is the most curious. Like Emily, they believe they are entitled to free culture. And yet they feel like somehow there is something wrong about it. Probably because they are denying facts.

“File sharing has an effect. Is it all the effect? That’s hard to say. There may be some room for debate, but it does have an effect. And there are fourteen academic studies to prove it.”

As for the responses, “What was interesting was it got picked up by people who really didn’t like what I wrote.” But there were some who “had a quiet opinion, who thought what I thought. “

Lowery’s position is unique for a musician. It has little to do with artist’s royalties or even the law. He sees it more as a societal break down. He is talking about a “broken contract among all of us in society….people are changing ethics to fit the technology,” rather than applying our ethics to technology.

Technology shaping our brains? Sounds like part of a Tron 3 script. And it's pretty heavy stuff for the guy who wrote Take the Skinheads Bowling.
The irony is it was predicted by an original Silicon Valley visionary who also popularized the term “virtual reality.” Lowery recommended Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget ” as being the starting point to mind opening. “Some friends of our have been highly influenced by it. The book crystalized a lot of stuff for some artists.” It’s easy to see why. The book makes a case that the open source free for all movement is destroying culture. It’s also easy to see why a lot of people wouldn’t want to read it. Who wants their apple cart flipped over?

When it comes to the advertising side, Lowery’s had his own music licensed, and licenses others’ music, too. He’s partnered with Rain Maker Studios, to create a original music and licensing house called ShockoeNoise . He’s worked with shops everyone’s heard of like The Martin Agency . Basically he knows his shit.

When we got to the topic of music production for TV spots, for his long-running venture Rain Maker Studios, Lowery talked about how the process of working with ad agencies shifted. During the Pre-iPod days, advertising creatives wouldn’t have sent over music references, "…because they were afraid of us ripping off the track." And now? "They're sending it over, and trying to get you to block out the song."

In other words, ad agencies or clients don’t want to pay the royalties for a song.
So they become as prescriptive as possible. Not only is this an insult to the musician hired to create original content, but the song they want to copy is the probably one that wasn't paid for to begin with.

As for his blog, Trichordist represents a small but growing vocal community of artists who are fed up with the Free Culture movement, and an internet taken over by looters and outlaws with money concentrated in the hands of the few.

Lowery is "a little skeptical about musicians organizing in an effective way." Musicians are artists after all. Few are activists. Perhaps some day an ad agency will join the movement, and create an awareness campaign to try and correct the problem. Not a campaign that is tied to a big studio. Not a campaign designed solely for the purposes of winning awards. But an awareness campaign unafraid to use an ethics as a persuasion to start thinking differently about what really has become a serious problem.

Until such time, let’s hope Lowery keeps writing the open letters so people might have their eyes opened.

See also Collateral Damage part 2 - Adam Weber
Collateral Damage Part Three: Rob Levine
Collateral Damage Part Four: Britta Phillips.