Is Black Keys Drummer Patrick Carney the New Lars Ulrich?

Patrick Carney, right, of the Black Keys thinks artists should carefully consider whether to stream their music on Spotify.
Patrick Carney, right, of the Black Keys thinks artists should carefully consider whether to stream their music on Spotify.
Danny Clinch

Take a look at the following quotes about digital music and try to guess which came out of the mouth of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich during the Napster days and which came from Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney a few weeks ago while talking to New Times.

"It has nothing to do with [us] worrying about people buying our music. It's about the common goodwill toward other bands; that's all it is . . . What people don't understand is that if [file-sharing is] available, then of course people are going to use it and of course they should use it. And why not? The only problem is that the labels haven't figured out how to fucking compensate artists yet. That's the main problem."

"Right now, it's not about the money. It's about control, and it's about the future. The money that's being lost right now is pocket change. To me, it's about people's perception of the Internet, people's perception of what their rights are as an Internet user and how it relates to intellectual property . . . It affects anybody who creates any type of original work, all artists who create anything from scratch."

See also: Black Keys Drummer Calls U2 iTunes Stunt a "Disservice" to Artists

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Harder than it looks, right? Keen observers of the intellectual property rights debate over the past 15 years probably can deduce that the first quote describes an atmosphere in which labels have a financial stake in digital music, while the the second raises an even larger issue: how to philosophically make sense of intellectual property rights in a new digital medium. It's a framing that we haven't seen in a while.

So, yes, the first quote belongs to Carney, justifying his criticism of U2's move to insert its new album, Songs of Innocence, for free into the account of every iTunes user. The second is from Ulrich in 2000, talking with Charlie Rose about the future of file-sharing.

Still, the way the two drummers talk about music in the Internet age is strikingly similar. Both men couch their protests as part of a larger battle. They both dismiss the idea that their objections have anything to do with their own personal net worths. Rather, they express solidarity for all artists who might not have the pull to stick up for themselves.

For example, the Black Keys have refused to release their latest two albums -- 2011's El Camino and May's Turn Blue (their eighth)-- to Spotify, claiming that Spotify didn't pay artists enough to justify the move.

"People like to go in on anybody who says anything negative about Spotify . . . and anytime an artist speaks up and says, 'Hey, that's not really fair,' they're looked at as an artist being greedy," Carney tells New Times. "It has nothing to do with that. We're thinking more long term about every single artist out here -- everybody who wrote a song in 1975 and doesn't get paid for it."

The Black Keys have been fighting this battle for quite some time now. The two-man band -- the Keys' other half is guitarist Dan Auerbach -- emerged from Ohio in the early 2000s, just a few years after Ulrich and Metallica were making headlines for suing Napster. The duo made bruising, high-octane blues rock more rooted in the sounds of yesterday than the present, drawing inspiration from Muddy Waters and R.L. Burnside. With every album release, the band got successively popular and by 2012 had two platinum albums, Brothers and El Camino, to prove it. (Though in terms of records sold, Metallica has the Black Keys stomped -- the "Black Album" probably has sold better than all the Black Keys' albums combined.)

That said, the band has always worn, and continues to flaunt, its blue-collar cred. In 2010, the band expressed regret at turning down $130,000 for a British mayonnaise commercial. At the time, they say they thought they were preserving the integrity of their art. In retrospect, Auerbach and Carney later recounted, they were broke and they both love mayonnaise.

"That would have paid my rent for two years," Auerbach muttered to Spin in 2010. "It's almost insulting to my mom, who works everyday teaching kids and doesn't get paid shit. As long as your art is pure, who cares where it is?"

In other words, the band isn't in it for the approval of bloggers who went to private liberal arts colleges. So when they got an offer to place one of their songs in a Twilight movie, the band shrugged and said yes, not caring whether the move alienated fans. Because if you exist in a world where digital distribution has devalued recorded music to almost nothing, why would fans care where artists make their money?  

Is Black Keys Drummer Patrick Carney the New Lars Ulrich?
Danny Clinch

It's in this sense that the parallels between Ulrich and Carney become clear. Looking back at interviews Ulrich gave in the Napster era, he seems almost prophetic. Sure, some of his assumptions were just plain wrong -- no, downloading a song illegally isn't the same as shoplifting an album from the store -- but at same time, his objections to people obtaining master copies of albums for nothing still rings true today. As valid as the arguments for file-sharing are -- that it allows bands exposure to an infinitely large audience, that it removes greedy record labels as gatekeepers, that it encourages artists to make money off their live performances -- there's no doubt that in today's world of Spotify and YouTube, no one wants to pay for music.

And music doesn't arise out of a vacuum. There's the old joke, "Artist dies of exposure." If artists opt to give away their albums for free, more power to them and their business model, but the rest deserve compensation. Telling artists they should wait until touring to make money off their music is like telling a carpenter he shouldn't get paid until the house he builds gets sold.

Carney is of the firm belief that artists should get paid for making music, not just performing live. That's why he got so mad when U2, one of the biggest artists in the world, gave away its album for free. Carney likened it to a corporation pricing smaller competitors out of business.

"Without realizing it, [U2] did a disservice to most independent artists," Carney says. "People perceive music to be a free commodity. When you have a band that needs to sell their 5,000 [or] 10,000 albums, and it's a big fucking deal so they can pay their bills and make another album, and you see that the biggest band in the world is giving it away for free . . . [it's] basically showing the consumer that music shouldn't even be fucking paid for. When you have some of the richest guys in music doing that, it's super-selfish."

Carney believes that as a successful artist, he has an obligation to stand up for the little guys, and he wished U2 would have thought the same way about it.

"I think that U2 had a really strong position right there that they could have done a lot of cool things with," he says. "Instead, they did the most confusing thing I've ever seen."

The Black Keys are scheduled to perform Monday, November 10, at US Airways Center.

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