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What “The Death of the Music Industry” Really Sounds Like

In the current issue of Atlantic magazine, editor Megan McArdle has a piece entitled “The Freeloaders,” which argues that our shifting attitudes about intellectual property will fundamentally — and negatively — alter entertainment forever.

“The Freeloaders” cites everything from the sales of Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want album In Rainbows to Pew statistics about how teenagers regard file-sharing to argue that artists may soon be dissuaded from pursuing art as a full-time career. “What happens to the supply of willing musicians when the prize is an endless slog through medium-sized concerts at $25 a head?” McArdle asks. It’s a poignant question. And a former magazine editor named Marc Weidenbaum felt it deserved an equally poignant musical response.

After the jump, learn more about the project and download the free album that resulted.

As “The Freeloaders” continues, McArdle follows her question’s thread further, imagining a future in which “the popular arts may come to look more like the rest of the Internet, many labors of love produced quickly and cheaply in spare moments.”

But Weidenbaum, a former editor-in-chief of Tower Records’ in-store magazine, Pulse!, and the founder of Disquiet, a zine about ambient electronic music, disagreed vehemently with McArdle’s conflation of album sales and creativity. To Weidenbaum, McArdle’s attitude is “one that sees music as widgets and people as wallets, and fails to appreciate that people’s involvement in, participation in, music is much more complicated and nuanced.” It fails, in other words, to take into account the exploding possibilities for collaboration, creation, and – yes – popular entertainment that recent shifts in technology and attitude have created.

Weidenbaum responded to McArdle’s piece (twice, actually) in written form, but felt that more could be made of the issue, so he reached out to several musicians, asking for a musical response to the piece itself and also to its accompanying illustration (seen below).

The results, which range from blocky chiptunes and mysteriously cracked, granulated tones to halting, then flowing piano compositions, have been compiled on Despite the Downturn: An Answer Album, which you can download here.

While not exactly the kind of album that will rocket up the iTunes Music Store charts (mostly because it’s free), Despite the Downturn is, like the illustration it’s inspired by, a fascinating auditory Rorschach blot, an alluringly open-ended set of meditations on where music is right now, and what some of its creators think about it.

Despite the Downturn‘s composers used a fascinating range of materials to create their pieces: public domain recordings of Beethoven’s “Adieu au piano,” field recordings of children playing outside in the summer, sampled bits of NES games, Risset tones, and more. They were scrambled, reconfigured, and manipulated in ways most people have never heard before. Depending on one’s mood, they can sound either stranded or intrepid, defiant or lonely, incomprehensible or exciting.

They are also pieces of music that would have been impossible to produce just a few years ago. They may be part of McArdle’s vision, labors of love produced in spare moments. But they also embody the new creative possibilities that enable musical dialog as well as collaboration, and Weidenbaum relishes the opportunity to spur those conversations forward. “I really admire people like Hal Willner and Rick Rubin,” he says, “whose production work is more a matter of setting up situations than it is of writing charts or laying down beats.”

“The decline of the record industry has made a lot of people who aren’t musicians think about the livelihoods of musicians,” Weidenbaum continues. “I think musicians are, generally speaking, all too familiar with the fragile relationship between producing art and eating a full meal, and have been for a long time, long before the arrival of MP3 players and Rapidshare.”

As such, the conversations taking place on Despite the Downturn‘s compositions are more searching than despairing. Even a track called “Adieu for Industry,” by Canadian sound artist Sighup, with its muted, prickling shuffles and chilly, digitized chords, has warmth on its horizons; the never-ending melody of the album’s closer, Jettatura’s “Is It Theft?”, as it skirts an abyss and floats in mid-air, is meant to question “the uneasy alliance between creativity intimacy and technological advance.”

“The Freeloaders” failed to point out a growing number of positive indicators for the music industry. Digital revenues, for example, continue to rise, and royalty payments from performers rights organizations like ASCAP and SoundExchange are growing quickly.

But things like Despite the Downturn might be most exciting of all. It represents a new and exciting way for music, and its creators, to engage with one another about their art. And as McArdle herself should know, as long as art continues to communicate and question what’s going on in the world, people will always want to invest in it.

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