It’s like the moment that pain in your side gets so bad that, as much as you have been fighting it, it’s time to go to the doctor. Or when that noise in your car has grown louder than that other noise in your car, maybe it is time to get thee to the auto repair shop. In both cases, you know it is gonna hurt but…you know it’s right.
You know what else was right? Lars Ulrich, or rather, the crusade he waged in the early 2000s against Napster was.
You remember Napster. If not, here’s the TL:DR – an app that linked users around the world and scraped their hard drives to complete downloads of songs for free, which could then be burned to CD-R and, voila, you didn’t need to buy CDs anymore.
Not entirely true. Many files were misnamed or, worse, were demos stolen from artists and never intended to be released to the public, at least not in that form. However, if this was about the odds, then the odds that you could squeeze out an entire album – top to bottom – were still pretty high.
Into the breach came Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich who wasn’t the messenger we wanted but was the messenger we got. It hardly seemed so at the time, and part of that remains Ulrich’s fault. His messaging was faulty. He framed his ire with Napster (and its variants including LimeWire, etc.) most often as the criminal element out on the information superhighway stealing money from Metallica’s bottom line. He wasn’t wrong about that, mind you, but as a method to win hearts and minds to your cause, it was an absolute stinkbomb.
“Meanies marauding Metallica’s money machine! Boo hoo!” would counter those who sided with the opposing viewpoint.
It’s too late to suggest how things should have gone down. The genie’s slipped out of the bottle, but if you’ll indulge my penchant for imaginary crammage, I suspect the argument should have been made this way: “Metallica’s got a lot of money and we’re not going broke anytime soon, but this technology would take money from all artists, not just a few. It would legitimize music as a free resource rather than a piece of work with a fair market value, and this affects new, struggling artists far more than those with a legacy that can weather that turbulence a little better. This will drastically reduce new artists’ desire to create, not because money equals creation, but because you cannot survive financially on a dream alone. The landlord doesn’t care where you get the rent from. The loan company won’t stop repossessing your car because maybe someday that CD you had duplicated at DiscMakers will finally sell one.”
I don’t believe that would have stopped the eventual digital drain of the music income pool, but it would have rallied more artists to Ulrich’s cause. It might have caught the ears of the up-and-comers who could have put two and two together and realized that “free exposure” could wind up free forever. Rather than sounding like spoiled entitlement, it would have been a warning to everyone with unanimity.
With the slow death of the MP3 as a marketable format, along with the iPod and on, and the rise of the smartphone as a powerful computer in your pocket, users tap into free and paid versions of Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, and other, or they just plug in and play music videos through YouTube.
Residuals from streams are pitiful. If you are committed to creating music, you find ways to continue doing so, but they can be painful and injurious to your career. Take for example Bill Mallonee, formerly the head man of the band Vigilantes of Love, and now a solo artist who regularly releases music via Bandcamp. He also regularly sells off prized guitars which, if you are a guitarist, is a problem. Again, your landlord doesn’t care where the rent came from so long as it gets to them. Bill Mallonee has been, at different stages, signed to the famed Capricorn Records and Warner Music labels. He relies on fans doing the right thing and buying the albums from Bandcamp, and thankfully, they do. Nonetheless, he receives royalty checks from streamers amounting to cents, not dollars. It is literally more money for the music associations to send the checks than what is usually inside the envelopes.
On the other hand, most artists quit. It’s isn’t because they don’t love what they do, but because it has become a complicated hobby. You could hold down two jobs with that time instead and actually make a living. That’s deeply depressing.
So why was Ulrich’s phrasing so important, and what might have happened if he’d been more diplomatic, given that music streaming was an eventuality? He would have had an army – young and old – that backed him up enough so that maybe the artists had enough power to influence how much they received from future corporate entities. He might have had those superstars yet to come holding more of the cards, now able to say, “You know you can make lots of money off this album we are presenting to you, Mr. Label CEO. We get a say in what our cut of the streaming revenue is, which you will negotiate with the streaming CEOs of the world upon, or we take our album somewhere else, or we market it on our own.”
This wouldn’t stop outright piracy, but as it stands at this very moment, it is more tedious to pirate music than to stream it. The artists would be able to conjure with their management and lawyers the parameters of free agency that would afford them something. Right now? The best they can hope for is that TikTok latches onto them and drives their streams upward, not as validation of the art, but as a side effect of a fad, a meme. Careers are unsustainable if they hinge on just one song that goes viral and all the rest languish as if they don’t exist at all. New artists? Well at this stage, they would rather be the influencer dancing to the song in the video than the one who made the song. They’re not wrong in that calculation.
Here we are. Music is ephemeral. Some vinyl albums get sold, mostly as curios and investments, some as real sources of musical entertainment. Still, it’s a tiny drop in a huge streaming ocean. Artists who should be enjoying retirement and cannot perform at their best need to stay out on the road (provided COVID doesn’t once again kick them all in the crotch) because that’s the only way to sustain the career.
Side note: every artist who wants to get out on the road and still can, can perform well enough, and have an audience to support them should be free to and encouraged to do so. The ageist notion that they should hang it up because of advanced years is flat wrong. But we have to be truthful and say that a part of the decision – for some, a very large part of it – is because without the live revenue, that’s it. That’s all.
Lars Ulrich may not have been elegant in his phrasing about the situation back in the Napster days, but he was right where it matters. We are poorer for not getting past the “how” it was said to the “what” was said. Music is everywhere, omnipresent, and plentiful, but every time you utter, “They just don’t make music I like anymore,” that’s because your company’s I.T. guy had to sell the gear and get his certifications. The landlord did not care where he got the rent from.
Someone please let Lars know, although I’m sure he already does.