I’ve been fortunate to receive some coverage of Freeloading over the past month.
At VICE/Motherboard, Michael Arria
wrote a profile, “Chris Ruen Is Taking the Anti-Piracy Argument Back from the Music Industry,” and zeroes in on some key contradictions in the way we celebrate some aspects of supporting music culture all the while ignoring or even endorsing the consequences of freeloading:
“Of course it’s great that so many different kinds of music are now readily available and people around the world can be readily exposed to them, but what about all the great bands who were forced to break up, over the course of the last decade, because they couldn’t afford to keep making music? Why do indie-rock fans, and websites, loudly celebrate Record Store Day, instead of simply encouraging people to buy more records? You vote with your dollar, the saying goes and, yet, the cliché holds no weight in the modern music industry.”
Joe Hemmerling of Tiny Mix Tapes offered the book an extensive review. Not only is his piece a fantastic summation of FREELOADING, but it also presents thoughtful critiques of the book while accepting its core argument. It also features embedded video of my appearance at the New York Public Library last December with David Byrne and a panel at the Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit on working musicians. One of my favorite passages:
“None of these objections, however, can discredit Ruen’s central argument. The bottom line is that music matters to us. It enriches our lives and moves us in ways impossible to quantify. If we derive meaning or sustenance or even simple pleasure from an artist’s work, then it’s only fair that we consume that work via channels that the artist has condoned and that we compensate those who have fronted the necessary expenses to bring that work to market. To do otherwise is a violation of the creators’ rights and an abdication of our responsibilities as fans to support the communities that nourish us. Labels like Touch and Go and Hydra Head were valuable components of the musical landscape that provided talented artists with a chance to reach an audience that might otherwise have been out of reach for them, and when they fold up, their absence leaves the world a slightly worse place.”
It’s always heartening to see talented, hard-working artists getting the credit they deserve. That seems to be happening these days for Brooklyn-based painter/musician Dima Drjuchin. Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds recently asked whether Dima is “this generation’s Keith Haring or Shepard Fairey?” Impressive company, to be sure.
I was lucky to be put in touch with Dima when I needed a poster design for Chris Ruen’s Terrible Idea last October. The more familiar I became with his work, the more sure I was that his frantic, drippy, acid-baked style would make him a definitive artist of our time. Was even more lucky that he gave me the ‘Greenpoint discount’ for the resulting poster, below. I asked him for “psychedelic vomit” and–sure enough–he delivered. Very proud to be associated and I’m sure Metzger’s praise is just the beginning.
A few weeks ago I emailed James Bradley, whom I interviewed for FREELOADING, about carrying the book at Sound Fix. Turns out it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, he said, as the store would soon be closing. Bradley requested that we sit down to talk; that he had some things to get off his chest. Anyone interested in the future for record stores (specifically those that sell new music) or wonder about the viability of vinyl should read the interview below. As you might imagine, it isn’t a particularly rosy picture. Bradley also reflects on the changes he’s seen in Williamsburg over the years and the role Sound Fix played in the local music culture.
Thanks again to James Bradley, and everyone who worked at Sound Fix through the years, for providing a great service to the community. I have many youthful memories of wandering off of Bedford Avenue into Sound Fix and writing in their old cafe/bar space, The Fix. I discovered Eluvium and Nobody and The Monks there and bought scores of great albums from Bradley’s counter. The place will surely be missed.
Those in NYC can visit Sound Fix, on N 11th in Williamsburg, for their final day: this Saturday, April 20th (Record Store Day). Sounds like they’ll have a few copies of Centipede Hz on sale…
CR: I’ve heard rumors in the past of Sound Fix closing. What happened?
JB: A realization sunk in that this was a losing battle. What clinched it for me was the record industry and what I perceive as their decision to give up on retail as any part of their formula. They are looking at licensing/digital to stay alive and they’ve given up on retail.
The record industry and specifically the majors were never pressing enough LPs. They would never meet the demand. I would order 50 of a new Black Keys album and get 15. We would sell out in four days and then wait six weeks before we got them back in stock. It would be the same thing, over and over.
Then you’ve got another problem with majors who do an initial pressing and that’s it. You talk to label owners about vinyl, even indie label owners who are down to earth—not all dollars and cents people—and they’ll tell you the same thing: that it’s a bitch. Pressing vinyl is a bitch. They are barely making even on vinyl, if that. I’m sympathetic in that regard.
“Spending money on music is the very definition of discretionary spending.”
The other thing hurting me is you can’t do vinyl returns. We can return CDs but nearly all labels forbid vinyl returns. So what does this mean? It means when a new album comes out I have to be on the conservative side when I order, because you never know. An album may seem like a sure-fire hit but… I’ll give you two examples from last year: Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors. I don’t know why the Dirty Projectors didn’t sell well.
I’m surprised. That was a great album.
I thought so too. The one before that (Bitte Orca) went though the roof. So I got 60 copies and we sold 35 or 40 and we had to sell a bunch at cost. The Animal Collective one was admittedly a god-awful album that everyone hated. That one—I took a bath on that. I got 50 and we sold 15. So they’re in my throwaway bin. I’m selling it for like $10. I spent $18 on cost on them.
For a record store that depends on selling new vinyl, a workable model just doesn’t seem to be there.
No. And frankly I don’t see how it can work.
Because the labels aren’t profiting enough to see incentive in investing in that market.
The only two exceptions I see these days are Sub Pop and Matador, which are as close to commercial as an indie label can get. They’ve got Vampire Weekend and Beach House and Fleet Foxes and these artists can go Gold. With those exceptions, a retailer can’t survive without wholesalers. And if the records aren’t being made in sufficient numbers, and they’re not going to cooperate and try to come up with a formula that can help us… They’re adamant. “Sorry. We can’t take them back.”
If they accepted returns, it would help a lot.
It would help a lot. I would order more with the realization that I could return them. I mean, no one wants to do returns. They’re a drag. But sometimes you gotta say, “This one was a flop.”
Between the time we talked for the book, two or three years ago, and now, what’s been the story for CD sales? Consistent decline?
It’s very peculiar, CD sales. The Black Keys do great on CD. The last Cat Power did great on CD. And I know you can say the fans are a little bit older—I think there’s some truth to that but also certain artists have found a way to make their physical products interesting to fans. They try to make their albums work as a unit from beginning to end rather than as a la carte singles.
So there are exceptions to the decline.
But few and far between.
What’s interesting is we do great with classic rock titles, which now are hugely popular again. The major labels have slashed their prices dramatically. Sometimes as low as 4.99 – retail! The Talking Heads catalogue, The Doors… The kids coming in and buying these CDs—they do realize what they’re listening to on their computers and phones is junk.
The great recession—that was huge. In the span of one month we saw our sales plummet. And that’s not everyone discovering Limewire, that’s just not having money in their pockets. Spending money on music is the very definition of discretionary spending. And I think a lot of people moved to alternative models and habits in this period and now they’re stuck with them.
“John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats told me he gets checks for fifty-six cents in the mail.”
Then Spotify filled a big gap for people. I have a friend who had a big CD collection and boasted, “I’ve never downloaded a song in my life and I never will.” About a year ago I went to his home and he was almost apologetic to me. He said, “It’s all sitting here on Spotify and I can’t spend $15 all the time when it’s sitting right here.”
I guess it makes people feel a little less guilty because you’re not technically stealing anybody’s music. But I’m sure you’ve heard from musicians. John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats told me he gets checks for fifty-six cents in the mail. So I don’t know how anyone’s making money on this. I can’t imagine they are.
A few labels like Drag City refuse to do Spotify and I applaud that. And I think more are going to have to make a statement that these are artists that have worked hard and deserve to be compensated for their work. We can’t just give them pennies.
“This year, music has been terrible!”
The old phrase is, something’s gotta give. We might be seeing it now for all I know. This year, music has been terrible! If people can’t make a living in music how are they going to make music?
People need to eat and put a roof over their heads, first and foremost, no matter how much they “need” to make their art.
You know, the history of art—it’s filled with examples of artists getting screwed. We don’t have to talk about African-Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s having their music stolen, getting pennies for it. It’s interesting how people have managed to make a living doing these things. You always hear about writers living in tiny studio apartments living on food stamps. They do it cause they love it.
And then they kill themselves.
Yes, and then they kill themselves.
Because they love it.
Ha. Right, because they love it. Yeah…
What year did the store open?
Same year I moved to New York. The store has been here in Williamsburg during this media explosion; explosion of creativity and money. And thinking back to The Read being in the space we’re in now, which was a grimy, cramped coffee shop… And the environment of Sound Fix now, surrounded by condos… Do you have any reflections on what you’ve seen?
I mean, this is a classic story of gentrification and big money. All because of location.
Which the store definitely benefited from in its early years.
I came to Williamsburg at a time when this place was becoming a nexus for artistic types. They weren’t poor—they seemed to have some money from what I could gather. But we didn’t have the sort of professional class that we have now. So I do feel like there’s been a changeover in the population.
Our core customer was a kid living in a rental with three other people that loved this whole environment… concerts and music and the festivals and everything. Williamsburg really was unusual in a few regards. Williamsburg didn’t have a “sound.” People would come up to me and ask, “What’s the Williamsburg music scene like?” And I’d say, well, Haight-Ashbury in the 60s had a sound. Detroit Techno in the 90s had a sound. Williamsburg has no sound. There’s TVOTR and Animal Collective and there’s folk and there’s psych. And there’s indie rock. Yeasayer… There’s people doing all kinds of stuff.
“Our core customer was a kid living in a rental with three other people that loved this whole environment…concerts and music and the festivals and everything. Williamsburg really was unusual in a few regards.”
It’s just that they were in an environment—a real artistic flourishing—and they fed off that. And I felt that we were a part of that. You know, I don’t want to speak for Kyp Malone, but I feel like we turned him on to a lot of music at my store. And he put out a solo album years ago called Rain Machine, which I thought was fantastic, and it was real folk-and-experimental oriented. I felt like Sound Fix played a small role in the kind of music we led him toward. That always felt really good to me that we were shaping people’s identities to some degree. For a while we really fed off that excitement.
We had to move unfortunately in 2009 and I underestimated the loss of the bar; I underestimated the loss of Bedford Avenue. I wasn’t happy about these things, but I thought, Eh! A block away. We’ll do fine.
“It’s a real kind of frat boy atmosphere.”
And then last year the owner of Whiskey Brooklyn came to me and said, “We might want to expand. We are interested in buying your lease.” And I was going through changes to my personal life at the time. With a lot of reluctance and sadness I took their offer. And that’s where we are now.
I just think things were only going to get worse. 2009 I’d say to myself, I’d kill for the sales we had in 2008. In 2010, I’d be saying, I’d die for last year’s sales.
How much of the sales decline has to do with challenges all stores are facing and how much has to do with the population change in the neighborhood? Do you think the newer population is simply less interested in music?
Yeah. My block does not attract the finer elements. It’s a real kind of frat boy atmosphere. You’ve got Brooklyn Brewery. Brooklyn Bowl. Whiskey Brooklyn. The football jerseys and backwards baseball caps. They’re loud. They’re unruly. I don’t think they live around here.
Where are they coming from?
Long Island, New Jersey, some from Manhattan. You know, they were not the audience we spent seven, eight years cultivating.
And where is that audience now?
Bushwick. Any neighborhood in Queens. I’m always really touched to see an old customer that moved to Sheepshead Bay or something and pops in his head to say hello. But you can’t expect them all to be making regular trips to Williamsburg.
Any positive memories that might define the life of Sound Fix for you?
I remember once, the year we opened, it was a Sunday afternoon on a summer day and it was beautiful and the store was just packed with people and we were playing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I think “God Only Knows” was playing. And this kid walks up to me—he’s young, early twenties—and says “What’s this playing right now?” And I didn’t snicker, I never do, and just said, “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys.
“It’s pretty good!” And he walks away.
“I have more great memories than I can count. Of course, it’s sad to see it go…”
And something about that moment for me… we created this atmosphere that people warmed up to. The idea of a place where you can soak up the whole experience, where music was performed and sold and embraced and artists came there. Some kid was in the store one day, and Tunde Adebimpe was shopping. And this kid said, “Is that the guy from TVOTR?” And I say Yeah, go talk to him. He is a very nice man I assure you. And he walked up to him very nervous and said hello…it was nice to see.
But, so many great concerts in the old bar space, by Mountain Goats and Art Brut, who put on the best show. And Michael Hurley played here twice! A hero of mine since I was a kid. I have more great memories than I can count. Of course, it’s sad to see it go…
Record stores were places that made me happy. I’d go in there and buy a record and bring it home with me and for two or three weeks my life would be lifted a little bit. And I loved playing that role for people. But, as they say, it is what it is.
I’ve really been happy with the response to the store closing. Warm emails from everybody. Even the Brooklyn Vegan comments were nice.
I’ve been doing a reliably awful job of updating this lovely little blog here. Though I’m planning and hoping to post on a number of things that have happened over the past month with Freeloading (in the US, Canada and in Australia), for now you can visit this page on my website and scroll down to peruse the various new articles, radio interviews and videos that deal with the book.
Thanks for visiting. Will have more here soon, I promise.
Last week I was lucky to share an enjoyable 90+ minutes speaking with David Newhoff, who has been unleashing a steady stream of pro-artist blog posts over at The Illusion of More. For the most part, David and I seem to view issues of artist exploitation via piracy from a similar vantage. Independently, we have both noted in our writing the superficial “illusion of more” associated with an acceptance of mass freeloading and compared the rhetoric that fueled the SOPA blackout to the claim of “death panels” made in opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
Newhoff and I differ on whether to reform the length of copyright terms (I believe the new paradigm for addressing freeloading should include a 50-60 year max term, but with effective enforcement measures for works within said term). I can understand why David sees longer terms as a means of giving creators greater leverage in negotiations, but it’s unclear to me how to reconcile that point with rights that traditionally lasted for a “limited time” or with respect for the Public Domain itself. I still strongly believe a sense of balance between private and public rights is necessary for copyright to achieve its institutional potential in the digital age. Stewart Brand spoke of the “tension” that arises when information wants to be both “free” and “expensive” and how that tension grows more severe with each round of technological innovation. We may be living through a time when that tension has become too great for the center to hold. As we look on, it teeters.
When we argue over sampling, or licensing costs that prohibit new methods of digital distribution, or any enforcement measure, it strikes me that reducing the maximum length of copyright (yes, I know, much easier said than done) to a term that primarily respects the lifetime of the author, while allowing some period for descendents to benefit, would let a great amount of steam out of this issue–a pipe that, left to rattle on untended, may one day explode to bits.