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"Everything I ever done/ Gotta give it away" — Gillian Welch, "Everything Is Free"



If you don't pay artists like Gillian Welch for their music, they may just stop making it. Photograph by Mark Seliger


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by Michael Goldberg

Monday August 13, 2001

For Gillian Welch, 'Free' Has A Cost

An important artist takes a stand against file-sharing.

"Everything is free now," sings Gillian Welch. "That's what they say/ Everything I ever done/ Gotta give it away." There is resignation in her voice. Though it's never stated, Welch appears to be singing about life in a post-Napster world.

The big record companies, who have tried to stamp out file-sharing through the courts, have written and spoken a lot of words on the subject. We've also heard founders, employees, or other representatives of the file-sharing companies defend themselves and their software, but from the point of view of a musician trying to make a living, none of their rationales make much sense. Finally, programmers who keep building better mousetraps and music fans have asserted, in a variety of ways, that music should be free. Why? Well, it just should be, they say. And even if they know it's not right to take something for nothing, the software is just too seductive.

But who speaks on behalf of the artist? A few have taken a stand. Metallica's Lars Ulrich caused a PR nightmare for Metallica by voicing his belief that he and other artists should be paid for their music, whether it's purchased from an offline record store or downloaded off the Net. Limp Bizkit and the Offspring took a pro-Napster stance — which certainly gained them some added cred with the kids.

Sticking It To Corporations

It's easy to rant against big music corporations that charge too much for CDs, want to charge too much for downloaded music and place many restrictions on its use. After all, they're faceless and anonymous. They've got too much money already, some fans think. Some rationalize that the money is going to the record company, not the artist, and who cares if the record company suffers a bit?

Gillian Welch has released three albums. Her latest, Time (The Revelator), is just out on her own label, Nashville-based Acony Records. She used to be signed to AIMo, the label of A&M Records founders Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. But AlMo is no more, and her brilliant first two albums are now also available on Acony.

Welch was lucky enough to be included on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, although she's singing on other people's songs — so although that album has been quite the hit, it won't result in a big royalty check for Welch and her collaborator, David Rawlings. She does have three songs on the new Down From the Mountain album, a live recording from a concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville where many of the artists featured on the "O Brother..." soundtrack performed. That one could bring her some money — and maybe the attention will help her sell more copies of her three solo albums.

"I Can Get A Straight Job"

Music fans don't usually think about how the artists they love get by. Often they assume that if an artist is on the cover of a magazine or just gets some good press, they must be rich — that is, if they think about it at all. But most musicians aren't rich. The other night, over dinner, a friend of mine recalled what made him give up his dream of being a successful bass player. He was in an unknown band at the time — the mid-'70s — and he ended up at the home of an artist who had appeared on dozens of albums — some really classic — who was going to perform with my friend's band. The guy's house was in a bad neighborhood, and it was a wreck. "Here's a guy who had appeared on something like 50 albums," my friend said. "He had nothing. I decided then and there that being a musician wasn't the way to make a good living."

It's true that the Metallicas of the world won't starve if their music is passed around. Most artists aren't as successful as Metallica. If you take Gillian Welch's music without paying her for it, perhaps soon she'll have to take a day job. "I can get a tip jar," she sings. "Gas up the car/ Try to make a little change/ Down at the bar/ I can get a straight job/ I've done it before/ Never minded working hard/ It's who I'm working for."

Sing It Yourself

These days, most of the really good artists aren't on big labels. They don't sell millions of albums. I bet unwound, for instance, will be lucky if they sell 50,000 copies of their amazing Leaves Turn Inside You, and I can't imagine that Low's Things We Lost in the Fire will pass the 50,000 mark either. For many important, critically acclaimed artists, selling just 10,000 copies of an album is difficult. And that was before file-sharing.

Musicians should be able to spend their time working on their music, not working day jobs to pay the rent. It used to be that if there was an artist whose music you came to love, you paid to get a record, a cassette or a CD. Artists who could build a following could quit the day job and live off their music.

If music fans don't start being responsible and paying for the music they want, we could well see dire consequences. Later in "Everything Is Free," Welch sings: "Everyday I wake up humming a song/ But I don't need to run around/ I just stay home/ And sing a little love song/ My love and myself/ If it's something that you wanna hear/ You can sing it yourself."

It would be a tragic thing if it came to that.

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