Goin’ Cracker(s)

A few weeks ago NPR staffer Emily White blogged unapologetically that, like many members of generation, she had never paid for music. This prompted a firestorm of response and attention, including a few New York Times pieces ( here, here, and here). Musician David Lowery responded eloquently and forcefully, piquing my curiosity about him. It turns out that Lowery has been writing interestingly about the fate of the music industry in the face of digitization. Lowery is also the brains behind two bands I greatly admire, Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven.

Back to the story. Among Lowery’s interesting writings are some criticisms of my recent work on the evolution of music quality since Napster. His argument, in a nutshell: file sharing has made it difficult for artists to make a living. Hence there’s no way that the recorded music industry can be putting out products that consumers find appealing.

My argument, in a nutshell: the “quality” of music has not fallen – and by some measures has risen – since Napster. Lowery is focused on the declining revenues of artists and seems disinclined to believe that artists would still bring forth good products. What puts him off about the work is the word “quality.” For reasons that I should have understood earlier, the word “quality” makes many people apoplectic. But I use the term in a pretty mundane sense. Anything that shifts demand is, by definition, a determinant of quality. So replace “quality” with “appeal” or “marketability” or “demand.” My evidence shows that program directors and the record-buying public find the vintages since 1999 more appealing that the vintages before. (I also have evidence more directly relevant to traditional notions of quality: the number of works meeting critics’ threshold for inclusion on multi-year best-of lists has not declined since 1999.)

Lowery’s argument:
Here is a study from the amusing Pop Economist Joel Waldfogel. Normally I like this guy. He is arguing the same point but in reverse. This is a little harder to explain. But basically he is arguing that he can measure the “quality” of music. And since advent of file-sharing the “quality” has not decreased therefore file-sharing has no effect on musical “innovation”. Which also implies that this kind of copyright does not encourage innovation.

Don’t worry about it if you didn’t follow all that. Just remember you laughed or scoffed when you read “he can measure the quality of music”. And you should. No one can measure the quality of music.

To Prof Waldfogel’s credit he has devised an ingenious and very complex way of seemingly measuring current music “quality” and comparing it to past music. The only problem is it does no such thing. Frankly it doesn’t measure anything. Further I’m reminded of a phrase normally applied in the financial industry: Complexity is Fraud. In this case a needlessly complex formulation leads to false conclusions.

I could go a lot of different routes here. I could feign offense. (“I’m hurt to be criticized by a famous guy.”) I could go on the attack (“How dare he criticize me without seeming to understand the work? Here’s a boring technical explanation of why he’s wrong: blah, blah, blah.”) Neither of these responses seems ideal. First, Lowery’s perspective on the business is interesting. Second, he seems like a decent guy who, after all, “normally likes” me. And third, he’s the dude from Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven!

So instead of whining or issuing passive aggressive insults disguised as academic arguments, I’d like to invite Lowery to discuss these issues – and my work – with me.

I had wanted to get in touch with Lowery to share my latest paper, a follow-up to the quality work that gives what I think is a plausible explanation of why music is now better. I suspect that Lowery won’t like the paper; but I bet it will also prompt a thoughtful and interesting response. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find his email address. So I’m going to wager that he has a “David Lowery” Google alert that will bring him here to my invitation at Digitopoly. Here goes:

Dear David:

You’ve written interestingly on the evolution of the music industry, including some reactions to my recent research. Let’s meet to discuss the current condition of the music industry, either over a beer or, better still, in a public forum where we can discuss and debate the issues. From my perspective, the worst thing that can happen is that I’ll learn something and get to meet an artist I admire. The best thing that can happen is that we’ll both learn something, and we’ll discover some areas of mutual agreement.
In the meantime I’ll send you a copy of my new paper. When we meet, we can share our perspectives on this work and, more generally, how the music industry is evolving.

Whaddya say? Either way, I’ll buy the beer. And I’d love it if you’d autograph my love-worn copy of Kerosene Hat.


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