My Angry Email to Sub Pop in 2005

In 2005 I wrote an angry email to Sub Pop because the album I wanted to download from iTunes could only be purchased one track at a time. In fact, I wrote an angry email and then accidentally sent it before I could make it sound at least slightly intelligent. But what followed from that first stupid email was a short series of emails where a Sub Pop rep (who’ve I decided to call SPR in these emails) and I debated Sub Pop and the music business.

For those who don’t know, Sub Pop was an indie label that got bought up (49% bought up anyway) by Warner Music. This means they aren’t indie any more, but since it is cool to be “indie” they still try to put on a good show. However, indie is more than just a business status, it’s a mindset. Sub Pop fails miserably in that regard to matchup at all with the spirit of independent music. A quick look at their FAQ speaks volumes (emphasis added):

A sync license for a Sub Pop artist will run you $500, ….If you do not want to pay money to use the music then why are you here anyway? Trust me, people, this is cheap. AND, you like this band, right? So now all of the sudden you’re going to try to take food off their tables by trying to bargain with me?! It ain’t gonna happen. Just so we’re very clear here: this is a festivals, student film or non-commercial license only. Any “for profit” uses of the film are not authorized under the $500 license. That, my friend, is an entirely different lecture.

This “lecture” was what sent me into an email rage. So, away I wrote…. (note: these are excepts, not the whole full text dealy)

Sent: October 05, 2005
From: Jon

…I had just stumbled onto Sub Pop’s FAQ where I learned that students can’t get permission to use any music without paying $500. That to me rings of greed, considering students are not making money, or more accurately, that school is costing them money. What’s more it is petty to complain when someone tries to do right and get permission that doing otherwise would “take food off their tables” especially when there is no logic to such sentiment— people aren’t going to watch a movie instead of buying an album and if anything demanding $500 only decreases the chances of getting any money from students— but I doubt anyone at Sub Pop cares about that, which speaks volumes in itself.

…I read things like that and I see the mindset of a big label that disdains everything about its customers but their money.

Sent: October 05, 2005
From: SPR

Jon! It’s called the music business for a reason, and I hate to burst the bubble, but if these awesome bands weren’t interested in making some money for their efforts they probably wouldn’t be ON a label. If you think you can find more another label this size that cares less about the business I’d be intrigued.

Sent: Wednesday, October 05, 2005
From: SPR

Oh one more thing—regarding the use of music in student films: Did you know that most of the time I don’t even respond to people’s emails regarding using songs when I can tell that it’s just for some school project? …we have to give you the LEGAL* answer? Does this make any sense?

*jon’s note: apparently “legal” here means belligerently accusing student-fans who would like to share their enthusiasm for music with others of stealing food from artists. Rings eerily of the RIAA.
Sent: 05, 2005
From: Jon

SPR, the first label that pop’s into my head is Dischord— maybe you’ve seen it already, but Ian MacKaye gave an interesting interview here* that is worth a read. What I find interesting is he responds as both a musician and the owner of a label. I’m not so optimistic as to assume that everyone could be like him, or fanatic enough to think everyone should be, but I have the hope that the artist and the idea of music take precedent over business. I really have to question any musician that is in it for money more than music, regardless of apparent talent.

…I like the idea of buying music over the internet because if it gets to the point where people can see it as a legitimate and feasible way to distribute music over time it will erode some of the power major labels have over musicians— which in my silly dreams means more creativity, more musicians, and more money for them (and less to gigantic labels). I think sooner or later labels will see that their role in music has changed, and that only the labels that can adapt to that change will survive. …but music wasn’t designed to be an industry in the first place, it’s inevitable that there would be business elements, but industry was never a logical conclusion. All of this is to say, yes times have changed and they will continue to do so in a very noticeable way despite anyone’s effort to suppress it.

*jon’s note: interview available here
Sent: October 10, 2005
From: SPR

That is a very thoughtful response, Jon! I agree and disagree—I think Dischord is a little smaller than SP, but I see where you are going with it. I also understand the whole idea that the industry, for lack of a better word, is heading in a different direction with the internet and all …The real honest to goodness fact of the matter here is that there are always going to be HUGE companies pushing utter crap that the majority of the people eat up, whether it be by downloads or whatever. Additionally, there are ALWAYS going to be kids putting out records in their basements and small to large indie labels doing the same.

There was one final email I sent but it is in the land of lost emails I’m afraid. My memory it could be summarized as something like:

  • The points MacKaye makes don’t really concern label size.
  • Change is inevitable, the big labels won’t change— they’ll just die.
  • People may still listen to crap, but maybe they wont.

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