By the dawn of the third millennium, the music industry was reeling from the proliferation of peer-to-peer music sharing sites such as Napster. As the corporations that run the record companies began to sort through how to handle this new reality, recording artists were also trying to work out how to make a living in the complicated digital age. Fifteen years later, the questions still remain, with musicians finding innovate new ways to get their music to – if not the masses – anyone who’ll listen.
Early in the “aughts” (July 2001, to be exact), Gillian Welch (with guitarist David Rawlings) released what would go on to be recognized as one of the best albums of the 2000s. Time (The Revelator), most of which was recorded at RCA’s historic Studio B, melds quaint, dreamy Appalachian folk melodies with rock & roll themes, and while much of it sounds as if it could have been recorded in the Thirties, one of the subjects broached – on the melancholic “Everything Is Free” – was ripped right from the current headlines, most of which decried Napster and other file-sharing sites as the downfall of the music industry, and the bane of an artist’s existence. Welch and Rawlings, however, could each see different sides of the complicated issue.
“Ultimately, it’s more of a threat,” Welch told NPR of the song in 2009. “It’s the ultimate threat that the artist has at any point to stop sharing their art with the world. And what’s sort of implied in our song is, ‘I can keep doing what I do and I can entertain myself and don’t need to take it out of my living room.’ If it ceases to be feasible to make a living, I could just stop going public.”
Rawlings, however, acknowledged that easier, more instantaneous access to music has an upside, saying in the same interview, “If anything, all of this availability and convenience has made it so that people have incorporated music even more into their lives. Whether… you’re washing dishes or walking on your commute, music has the ability to transport you. It’s just people manipulating their environment in a way they find pleasurable.”
During last week’s broadcast of the Music City Roots radio show (portions of which are also featured on public television across the country), Welch and Rawlings were joined by musician-producer T Bone Burnett for their performance of “Everything Is Free.” Burnett had produced for the couple the one track on Time (The Revelator) that was not recorded at Studio B. “I Want to Sing That Rock & Roll” was recorded live on stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and was included in the Down From the Mountain concert film and soundtrack, which had been released one week before Welch’s LP.
Also during their Music City Roots set, the couple performed their “Look at Miss Ohio,” which Miranda Lambert later covered on 2011’s Four the Record.