Everything is Free – Gillian Welch (and, increasingly, others)

I had another post planned. I’m working on it. But I saw this the other day and it sparked some thoughts. So here’s something a bit more off the cuff.

I’m delighted by anything that gives increased exposure to Gillian Welch. God knows she deserves it. Everything is Free is one of the finest songs on Time (The Revelator) – Welch’s best record, and the album that I’d unhesitatingly pick as the best released in the first decade of the 21st century.  I can fully understand other songwriters wanting to climb inside the song and inhabit it.

But here’s the thing. Have they earned its anger at the changes in the music industry that threatened to destroy Welch’s livelihood as she was writing the song? And should the target of whatever ire these artists feel be the same as the one at whom Welch targeted her wrath nearly twenty years ago?

Welch made her first album five years before Everything Is Free was released. She came up in a very different industry to the one we have now – an industry that was predicated on the sale of physical product and in which gig and merchandise revenue were supplementary revenue streams at best. She then found that the music industry had no answer to Napster and file-sharing services, that a generation of young music fans were no longer willing to pay for her music or anyone else’s, and consequently saw her royalties from physical sales plummet.

Meanwhile a generation of digital prophets were telling her, Hey, it’s cool. Music should be free. Just get out there and gig and you’ll make your money that way. You can easily understand how galling such Pollyanna-ish nonsense was to anyone who understood the economics of live performance for any artist who isn’t U2 or the Rolling Stones.

Josh Tillman (Father John Misty), Anaïs Mitchell, Courtney Barnett, Phoebe Bridgers and the others who have recently performed Everything Is Free, either with Welch or solo, came to prominence in the post-Napster world. Tillman and Mitchell, the eldest of the crop, were both born in 1981, so were both around 19 or 20 when Everything Is Free was released, presumably in college and with access to the internet. Did neither of them ever share files, or accept CD-Rs from friends? Neither worked as professional musicians under the old receive advance–recoup advance–make profit model. And neither, to be frank, have had the experience of having a promised income whiffed away from them by changes in technology and consumer behaviour.

If I sound unsympathetic, let me assure you that I’m actually deeply sympathetic to those who work in industries that have been disrupted by the internet. I understand it first hand. I’m a copy-editor, so I work in a sector that has already seen wave after wave of editors and writers lose their jobs in the newspaper industry, and I know that what I do will probably not exist in 20 years, even for those of us that are still left at the moment; at some point, enough people with hiring and firing powers will decide that automated tools do the job well enough to make us obsolete. Yeah, it sucks. Yeah, I’m angry about it. But I’ve been doing this a long time; anyone who decided to be an editor in, say, 2012 owed it to themselves to find out the way it’s all going, work out if it was actually a viable way to make a living and then make their life choices based on that knowledge.

As much sympathy as I have for Welch – and it’s a lot – I don’t feel like anyone who knowingly went into the post-Napster music industry can now make the same plaint about diminished income streams and being expected to work for free without being a least a little disingenuous. What did they think they were signing up for?

And so we come to our last point. Over the last decade, the music industry, and the media generally, has moved away from an ownership model to a subscription one. People who stopped buying physical copies of records decided that, while perhaps they’d have preferred to carry on downloading from torrent sites, £10 a month to Apple, Google or Spotify was a price they’re willing to pay for unrestricted access to their catalogues. Now, that money, billions of it (€17.4 billion of it in 2017), isn’t reaching the artists whose music keeps the whole thing rolling. But that’s a very different problem, and it’s not the problem that Everything is Free is a response to. Everything is not free now; everything is yours to stream for £9.99 a month, plus data.

All of us who prefer the convenience of a streaming service, whether a paid subscription or a free one, all of us who shared files, and burned CDRs, we can’t honestly have it both ways. We are part of the problem, along with the tech companies and the record companies who are once more getting fat off the kind of money they probably didn’t expect they’d be seeing again. If Tillman, Mitchell, Bridgers et al want a song to raise awareness of the shittiness of unpaid (or very poorly paid) labour within today’s music industry, I’ll share the hell out of it and bang the drum with them. But let’s focus our energy on the problems that exist now, not the battles that have already been fought.

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2 thoughts on “Everything is Free – Gillian Welch (and, increasingly, others)

  1. Frank Hudson

    What a thoughtful and closely observed piece on a song that I too found acute when it was released. I’m with you right up to your conclusion, where I part ways on the weight of wrongness or incongruity you give to singing this song today.

    I’m not even sure the song is obsolete in the same (inconsequential) way that singing about coal mining disasters or jealous lords who instruct that Matty Groves be buried at the bottom of the grave, or going to play about palace coups in medieval Denmark. If Courtney Barnett isn’t getting paid appropriately by Apple Music for example, sounds like her “right” to sing the song (if there is a authenticity test to perform things) would still exist. Doesn’t sound like “the battles been fought” and the song is now being sung in moot court. So I’m puzzled why you’d think so (or why I’m misreading your point, always possible…)

    Reply
    1. rossjpalmer Post author

      Hi Frank. Thank you for your comment. I think the issue that Welch faced is a fundamentally different one than that facing artists of Barnett’s generation. We know the revenues are there, and will likely continue to grow. When Welch sang Everything is Free, it was a gesture of resignation. Given what I’ve heard of Barnett and Josh Tillman’s music, they may well be singing the song tongue in cheek. But still, I think they’d do better to get angry. Maybe Money (That’s What I Want) better suits the times!

      Reply

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