Hey, Lu —

Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams

I hope you don’t mind the informal greeting. I figure we’re on a first-name basis since we exchanged tweets recently.

I’m listening to your new album now. I just bought it from iTunes. I don’t buy much music these days. Mostly I rent it. I subscribe to Beats Music, and for the most part its 20 million songs are enough to keep me happy. I know I don’t own the music, but it satisfies my musical curiosity, and the $10 a month it costs me is less than I’d probably spend to buy albums, many of which I’ll rarely return to after a few listens.

Where the Spirit Meets the BoneStill, Beats’ 20 million songs don’t include 19 of the 20 on “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.” And I’ve got a Lucinda fix that must be satisfied. I’m about to take a road trip, and a new Lucinda Williams album is always good company on back roads in the South.

It’s not the first time I’ve downloaded one of your albums to accompany me on a trip. The day “West” came out in 2007, I downloaded it while waiting for a flight at Tampa International Airport so I could give it some attention on the plane. Some of my best listening is done at 30,000 feet through my not-quite-noise-cancelling-but-close Etymotic earbuds.

What I’d really like to know is why your new album is not available on Beats and other streaming services. Is it too much to ask? I mean, shouldn’t we have it? Shouldn’t we have all this and passionate singing from you?

It turns out one new song, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” is on Beats. I didn’t recognize it at first because it isn’t listed as part of “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.”

I’ve read that the same song is also available on Spotify. The people who Tweet for you told me so, but I can’t seem to find it.

So why did you choose to put just one song on streaming sites and not the other 19?

  • Maybe it’s a marketing move. The whole album was available for streaming on NPR for about a week before it was released. I imagine a lot of your listeners are simpatico with NPR Music. They’re probably also part of the “mature” demographic that still buys CDs, so giving them a taste of one track might loosen pursestrings.
  • Maybe you agree with David Byrne that streaming music is a raw deal for artists, and you’re taking a stand by withholding your work. If that were so, though, the folks who tweet for you probably would have mentioned that when I asked about streaming.
  • Maybe you’re pulling a reverse freemium move: Withhold the album from streaming at first so that loyalists like me will pay dollars for it and then later release it to streaming where you can gather digital pennies from more casual fans.

Lu, I don’t have to tell you that the music biz is changing. You can hear the change rumbling like car wheels on a gravel road. Itunes and streaming sites rescued publishers and artists from the massive free sharing of the Napster era. Now there are revenue streams from digital sites, YouTube plays, digital radio and on-demand sites. I have no doubt that the revenues aren’t what publishers and artists would like.

Once again, the Internet has blown an established business model to bits, and created a tension between the expectations of producers for compensation and expectation of consumers for free or cheap content NOW. As a recently displaced journalist who has followed digital delivery for two-and-a-half decades, I understand the tension.

Musicians fought putting their vinyl on the radio in the 1930s and 1940s, but radio turned out to be a great promotional vehicle. I know streaming sites aren’t going to get folks to start buying albums in great numbers. But maybe the algorithms that suggest music to people will spread artists’ popularity and get them to concerts. (I remembered your new album and bought it after Beats Music’s “Just For You” page got me listening to “World Without Tears.”)

CD sales will continue shrinking just as print newspaper sales are shrinking. But the optimist in me tells me that the ingenuity of artists and journalists will find new ways to get compensated for creating, probing and reporting.

This ain’t the Crescent City, where everything is still the same. Let’s hope the road ahead stays exciting and brings fulfillment to creators.