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What price to pay when Everything Is Free?

Country music star Gillian Welch predicted musicians would face a stormy financial future in a song nearly 20 years ago. But the fight to make things fairer for artists is gathering pace, says Malcolm Jack

Perhaps most extraordinary about the song which sums up the sorry state of the music industry in the 21st century better than any other is how early in the new millennium it arrived. Gillian Welch’s Everything Is Free was released on the Nashville country-folk singer’s defining album Time (The Revelator) in July 2001. Coincidentally the same month in which Napster was shut down for copyright infringement, having spectacularly let the genie out of the bottle insofar as MP3 sharing, the collapse of physical sales and the devaluation of recorded music in the digital era goes.

Listening to it today, at a time when Covid-19 has wrecked live touring – the only dependable source of income most full-time musicians had left when streaming still pays a pittance – Welch’s angry lament for the slow demise of professional songcraft sounds near mystically prescient, and more hauntingly sad than ever. Little wonder it resonates strongly with a new generation of musicians from Phoebe Bridgers and Courtney Barnett to Father John Misty and Conor Oberst, all of whom have covered Everything Is Free.

“Everything is free now, that’s what they say,” Welch begins plaintively over softly picked chords, “everything I ever done, gonna give it away.” She ponders if she might not need go back to singing for tips in a bar, or even get a straight job (“I done it before”), eventually consoling herself with the thought that at least nobody can take away the private joy of singing to herself.

“That song is like a lightning rod of white-hot anger,” explained Welch to Rolling Stone. “I want people to feel the robbery, the theft. I want them to understand all of our guilt and culpability in this situation.” Phoebe Bridgers injects added fury to her cover with an F-bomb and a long pregnant pause that switch the final verse into a seething excoriation of the freeloading listener. “If there’s something that you want to hear,” she spits, “fucking sing it yourself.”

The song has come to represent a howl of indignation against the entire culture of free that infects the musical ecosystem – an elegy for the boarding up of much-loved record shops and the shutdown of iconic magazines like Q. It’s the song I thought of recently when Spotify CEO Daniel Ek enraged many with glib comments about how it’s a “narrative fallacy” that his £38bn operation doesn’t pay musicians sufficiently (average fee per stream: £0.0004), instead blaming them for not pumping out material quickly enough, “creating a continuous engagement with their fans”. As if songwriters are merely mindless content creators and not artists whose work is hard wrought of human experience, emotions and aspirations?

There remains proof that a minority will still go into their pockets time and again for something which they value

A power nerd whose background lies not in music but big digital tech, Ek strikes me as just the sort of person whom Welch obliquely refers to in the chorus of Everything Is Free – the guy who “hit the big score… figured it out”, ie realised that musicians, out of sheer passion, are “gonna do it anyway, even if doesn’t pay”. Spotify alone can’t be blamed for the current state of things – they’ve simply done most to capitalise on major labels falling all too cheaply into the arms of streaming services in the mid-Noughties for fear of another Napster. But the Swedish giant possess more power and responsibility than any right now to try and help change things for the better, and based on Ek’s words, they’re in no mood to do so.

And yet, while everything might be free to those who like it that way, there remains proof that a minority will still go into their pockets time and again for something which they value. Having already helped independent artists and labels earn more than £15m since the pandemic began with its monthly one-day levy-waiver Bandcamp Friday, digital music and merch sales platform Bandcamp has announced that the scheme will be rolled out until the end of 2020. On August 29, Record Store Day will make the first of three “drops” of exclusive physical stock through participating shops, much of which will be snapped up fast to benefit struggling merchants and musicians.

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Led by PRS for Music director and Gomez member Tom Gray and loudly backed by musicians including KT Tunstall and Tim Burgess, the #BrokenRecord campaign is meanwhile steadily gaining traction in its fight to make the entire economical model of music streaming fairer – leading to questions being raised to the Culture Secretary in Parliament.

The issue goes beyond music, to the value of labour itself and the principle that, just because someone is fortunate enough to love doing what they do, that shouldn’t somehow disentitle them from earning a decent living from it. Especially if their work enriches our lives and brings us succour and levity in hard times. It needn’t matter that Welch and her like would do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay. She and every other gifted songwriter like her quite simply deserve that it does.

Gillian Welch’s new album of rarities, outtakes and demos Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol 1 is out now.