The Ethics of Spotify and the Social Determinants of Health

On March 16,  I woke to the news that Jason Molina had died. Molina’s struggles with alcoholism and associated health problems became widely known in 2009. It also became known that his family were struggling to pay his medical bills and that Molina did not have insurance.

Molina’s death is a singular event. It is unique. It is his death. But a feature bears comparison to the deaths of Mark Linkous (2010) and Vic Chestnutt (2009). All three died without health insurance and with financial difficulties. This scenario is not isolated to these three.

Artists like Molina, Linkous and Chestnutt were never chart-toppers, but during the 1990s they developed strong and loyal followings, including the likes of REM, Glenn Hansard, Tom Waits and others.  Despite gaining more exposure into the 2000s, this did not necessarily translate into greater sales or financial security.

A factor, not the cause, but a significant factor in the scenarios surrounding these deaths has been the rise of websites like Spotify or Grooveshark and the decline of musician income from record sales. Arguments about legality of these sites and their impact on the music industry go back and forth. Most consumers minds appear to be made up – there are 24 million users on Spotify, 6 million of which pay $5 or $10.*

My aim here is not to defend the music industry, but connect points whose relationship isn’t immediately apparent. I contend that the decline in artist royalties due to streaming sites is a social determinant of the poor health and life expectancy among artists. And this places an ethical obligation on consumers.

If consumers are only paying approximately $10 a month, but consuming more music than ever before, and artists** are only receiving 0.5-0.7 cents per stream while also living lives that are socially and medically insecure, then it is time to broaden the scope of questions from legality to ethics.

Spotify and other sites like it may be legal, but are they ethical? There is a lot talk about ethical sourcing of coffee beans or the conditions of workers in clothing manufacturers. This is important. But it would be a sad situation if this ethical concern was not also extended to those who produce the music that enriches and shapes our personal and social realities.

Many musicians of lesser fame than Molina struggle to secure basic needs such as medical care or permanent residence. This is part of mythos of the struggling artist, but it is also a reality that has been compounded by developments in music consumption via music streaming websites.

I am not suggesting that consumers necessarily need to stop using Spotify or other websites – although I am not excluding that option either – but they do have an obligation to ensure an equitable and just compensation to the artist. This could be achieved by hearing a song on Spotify and then buying the album directly from an artists website. I am sure there are many more imaginative approaches. But the point is that if we love a song or an album, then we should extend that love to the person that produced it.

* This fee isn’t for the music, but for the privilege of not having advertisements.
**By Artist I mean people who put their lives into their music. People who may have interim jobs but predominately depend on sales of records and concert tickets to live. I am not referring to hobby artists, people who have a profession and some artistic endeavor on the side.

Searching For My True Self Yesterday: Take Me Home

The three distinctive features of present-nostalgia, introduced here, come into greater relief when Butler’s ‘kids’ and ‘modern man’ are compared to those of Bob Dylan and Walt Whitman. Whitman’s ‘modern man’ is a song to be sung and future anticipated, while Dylan’s ‘kids’ strive to claim the future as their own. However, the tension between ‘kids’ and ‘modern man’ in Butler’s lyrics, and present-nostalgia more generally, can be read through the social theory of Charles Taylor as an attempt to secure authentic selfhood and construct meaning out of fragments of the past. Taylor can help us know whether the longing for a near-past is a matter of growing up too fast, or not growing up at all.

‘Two-Thousand Nine, Two-Thousand Ten Gonna Make a Record How I Felt Then’                Month of May

Eulogizing the simplicity and innocence of a near past that has become complex and tainted by adulthood, responsibility and economics, The Suburbs builds on themes introduced in Funeral and Neon Bible. In many cases the temporal gap between the present and the past event being eulogised is narrow. This is seen in the recurrence of the childhood home as a site of (in)security and drama across all three Arcade Fire albums. 

The home is undeniably a significant cultural site, however traditionally ‘rock and roll’ as been more about leaving home for a new world rather than continually recalling its complexity. At the time Funeral was released Butler was twenty four, yet the album is imbued with mixed ‘homesickness’ for a home that could still be seen, and perhaps was still being lived in.

In The SuburbsCity With No Children’ Butler intones the return home, ‘Dreamed I drove home to Houston’, however the journey is interrupted by a failing engine and collapsing tunnel. In ‘Sprawl I’ Butler reinforces this longing for the childhood home when he mournfully sings ‘Took a drive into the sprawl to find the house where we use to stay’. But again the attempt of return is interrupted when they ‘Couldn’t read the number in the dark You said let’s save it for another day’.
This longing for the childhood home is powerfully established in the interactive film-clip The Wilderness Downtown. This film speaks of over-indulgence as much as it does genius. Asking the viewer to submit the street address of their childhood home the viewer is taken on a journey through their old suburb with a jogger and Arcade Fire as guides. While Butler sings ‘now our lives are changing fast, hope that something pure can last’ Google Street View takes the viewer through the streets of their childhood suburb incorporating it in the film; at the crescendo the childhood home takes centre stage. Clearly this film demonstrates Chris Milk’s creative ability, but it is also evidences of desire for the everyday of not-too-distant past and a narcissistic celebration in middle-class mediocrity.  

The home is certainly not absent from earlier forms of popular music, but it plays a different role as source of identity and future direction. 

Imagine, Imagine, Imagine

I have just arrived home from the Candle Light Vigil held at Penn State in recognition of the victims of child abuse at the University, and more broadly. I will reflect further on the evening before posting here, but an immediate response to the event that continued to resonate during the walk home was the singing of John Lennon’s Imagine during the ‘service’.
While I have flirted with Imagine over the years, the despairing emptiness of the song was brought home tonight. To be clear, I am not pushing some “you have to have religion or nationalism to have meaning” agenda, but you need to try a lot harder than the insipid and vacuous lyrics of Imagine if you want some substantial meaning. Religion (in the abstract) may be full of paradoxes, knots and apparent contradictions, but at least it is full of something. Lennon’s Imagine is merely careful constructed platitudes in an attempt to mimic depth and gravitas.
The sheer hollowness of the lyrics was driven into my bones like the near freezing wind blowing across the lawn. Apart from the complete detachment from reality, the sentiment promotes empty thinking rather than critical thought. The imaginary of ‘Penn State’ provided the conditions for these abuses to occur and the hubris to attempt to cover them up. The last thing that is needed is imaging. What is needed is mourning, humility, reflection and silence. Not circuses and children’s song about some utopia (literally no-place) where it is always school holiday and ice-cream is served instead of vegetables. 

Obama and Springsteen on Solidarity, Love and Justice

Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album, The Rising, reflects on the impact of the 9/11 attacks on the New York city landscape, national consciousness, and the lives of ordinary people performing sacrificial acts.

The album in its entirety provides an important window into the emotion and sense of solidarity felt among New Yorkers (and the rest of the world with America) in the days following the attacks. In a similar vein President Obama’s speech announcing the assassination of Osama Bin Laden recalls the solidarity of the time.

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

Amplifying this solidarity and sacrifice is Springsteen’s song “Into the Fire”. Drawing heavily on 1 Corinthians 13 “Into the Fire” entwines the sacrificial heroism of the fire fighters with the redemptive love of Christ. In a repeated refrain Springsteen sings of the fire fighter leaving loved ones, as ‘love and beauty called you someplace higher, somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.’ Through sacrificial love the darkness of the terrorist act is overcome. Springsteen underscores the sacrificial act with ‘you gave your love to me, lay your young body down.’

The hope placed in the fire fighter’s sacrifice is that it will transform grief, anger and hate. That death and hate will give birth to life and love. The chorus cites the three ‘theological virtues’ of faith, hope and love, proclaiming: ‘May your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith, may your hope give us hope, may your love give us love.’

However, listening to this song post-5/2 the sentiment of “Into the Fire” and incantation of these ‘virtues’ undergoes a hollowing transformation. Rather than demonstrating faith, hope or love – the non-virtue of Springsteen’s quartet was expressed.

Rather than the solidarity, sacrifice and love of “Into the Fire” it is Springsteen’s “Empty Sky” that most resonates in President Obama’s speech and the assassination of Bin Laden.

Evoking the grief and pain felt at the time President Obama describes the horror of the plane’s tearing into the towers yet acknowledges ‘that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table.’ Taking a pained and angered turn from “Into the Fire” Springsteen brought the ‘unseen’ emptiness to view in “Empty Sky”.

From the perspective of someone suffering the loss of a loved one Springsteen gives voice to the hurt and fury: ‘Just an empty impression in the bed where you use to be. I want a kiss from your lips I want an eye for an eye. I woke up this morning to an empty sky.’ The sacrificial love of the fire-fighter/Christ figure is transfigured into Old Testament rage wanting ‘an eye for an eye’.

Having staged two wars and an unknown number of extralegal raids, attacks and assassinations it appears that the US could not and did not follow ‘love and beauty…someplace higher’, but rather the desire of an eye for an eye has dictated the response from 9/12 through to the present.

Neil Young – Rockin’ in the Regulated World

On Saturday 24th January 2009 I went to the most sterile of venues to see one of the most potent of performers over the last forty years of popular music, Neil Young. I last saw Neil Young during his 2003 Greendale Tour – an album and tour which railed against post-September 11 politics, the destruction of the environment and The MAN in general.

Neil Young – like Bob Dylan – has largely been defined by his political messages and protest songs; despite his “other” songs being musically superior and lyrically more profound. In contrast to Dylan, Young’s political agitation has been more open, blunt and spanned across his career – from the chilling Ohio (1970) to 1989’s anthemic Rockin in the Free World and finally to 2001’s Let’s Roll and 2006’s Living with War which has the not-too-subtle Let’s Impreach the President.

So here I was going to see the Godfather of Grunge, the man who bucked the system so hard and shattered the genre boxes so completely that he was famously sued by his record company for not producing “Neil Young” albums. It should have been a night of illusionary liberation and bourgeois emancipation. It was suppose to be a night when those of us in Sydney who could afford the $140 tickets felt good about ourselves because we could sing-a-long with Neil about “Rockin’ in the Free World” while the free-market nose dived. A night where we could absolve our collective guilt for having been manipulated yet again by a politics of fear.

But alas I was rudely awoken from this dream of freedom and significance when I was reprimanded by a “security” officer for taking pictures during the concert.

Just after the climatic conclusion of “Cinnamon Girl” or it could have been “Cortez the Killer” I took this photo.

Then this body appeared in front of me shouting and I took this photo…

The body kept shouting – which I quickly discovered belonged to a “security” official – in spite of the loud cheering. It took a few attempts on the part of the “security” official before the message was passed on to me: YOU AREN’T ALLOWED TO TAKE PHOTOS! IF YOU TAKE ANOTHER PHOTO YOU’RE OUT!

I then said something to the tune of: “That is crazy! Do you think I am going to sell these pictures? What is the harm in taking these pictures? (NB I wasn’t using a flash) Keep on Rockin in the free world!”

The security officer then repeated the above and threatened to keep her eye on me.

Well that was it. I was not a free and happy neohippie – salt was rubbed into my wounds as Neil Young launched into “Rockin in the Free World” about two songs after this incident – it seemed that Neil was in on the joke. And now it all seemed contrived.

Anyway to quiet my revolutionary heart and to prove my zeal in the fight against all oppressors I took the below picture just after the finale – I counted the cost and figured if they throw me out now I will only miss about 30 seconds of cheering, yes I am a regular Che.