Saturday, 14 September 2013

Free Music Streaming, Piracy and the Music Industry

Time to do some serious journalism. Like this guy. Bet he's got urgent matters to attend to, amirite? 

As someone who is passionate about listening to and creating music, the state of the music industry is a subject that's very important to me. The modern music industry is a true cultural marvel: today it is possible to access the culmination of a 100+ years of music recordings for free by merely clicking a few buttons. Music crosses cultural, linguistic and generational boundaries. It reflects life in all its variety. 

As I often say, the best artists manage to strike the balance between art and entertainment just right. If you create music without giving time and thought towards making it accessible, relateable and (to an extent) conventional, then you will be lucky to ever gather a following large enough to live off. There are definitely examples of artists who do whatever the hell they want in their artistic process. For example the Animal Collective occasionally create songs that almost seem like they don't actually want their music to be listenable (no offense to the Animal Collective; a lot of their music is idiosyncratic genius). Other artists are manufactured by record labels in order to fit a Pop sized gap in the market and to produce predictable, trend-following albums at a break neck speed (but I'm not so bitchy as to name any names.)

As an aesthetic relativist I accept that your shit-pie (pictured above) is just as good as my sophistication sandwich.
It's just taste, man.

While I consistently feel out of touch with Pop whenever I hear a chart show I still feel that the music industry is in a very healthy state: there is a constant stream of new talent of all genres filtering into my life at a steady rate. And of course I understand that taste is just that at the end of the day: taste. I don't pretend that my pretentious stance on Pop music and its shitness means that other people shouldn't enjoy it. In terms of artistic taste I'm definitely a relativist. 

The figures reflect the process of change that the music industry is going through. CD sales are pretty spikey: you still get some super high selling records like Daft Punk's most recent release 'Random Access Memories' which sold by the truck load, yet album sales are on a downward trend. Singles sales continue to sore and music purchasing gradually shifts to the internet. The album as a format for music is under increasing scrutiny. The reasons are obvious. A case in point is my decision to buy the MP3 version of Janelle Monae's new album (which is awesome by the way) for £4.99 rather than £10.52 for the hard copy is typical of our age.

'It's a whooole £5.53 more expensive... but I want the physical copy in my arms so badly </3 Leik if you crei everi teim. xox'

As we know the internet serves as a threat to more than just physical sales. Online piracy software like Limewire was a game changer for the music industry. The fact that the Recording Industry Association of America tried (and failed) to sue Limewire for MORE MONEY THAN THERE IS IN THE WORLD ECONOMY is a testament to how pissed off the big dogs of the music industry were at what Limewire had done to the industry. To put that into context, if I've done my maths correctly they tried to sue them for 1617 times more money than there is in Wales' economy (my small little known country). Numerous companies have attempted to capitalize on the fact that in the wake of software like Limewire, consumers are much more reluctant to buy music. Spotify, Google Play, Groove Shark and Last.FM are all 'freemium' music services that claim they provide free services that pay artists fairly. 

Since it began many artists have come forward to criticise its business model: some more eloquently than others. The arguments of these rock stars are fiery and convincing and they're not full of hot air either: the hard data shines a harsh light on how terrible online revenue is for artists. According to this infographic on information is beautiful (which is so staggering that I struggle to believe it) Spotify's standard business model for roughly 4 million streams gives $0.0016 to the record label and $0.000029 to the artist. Now, before your jaw hits the ground like mine did, it's worth noting that rates do not include publishing and recording rights for song writers, the industry average % is used and royalty rates may vary slightly as record labels negotiate their own rates.

Patrick Carney called Spotify's CEO 'an asshole'. Sean Parker replied by cracking wise about Carney's fat momma
(Most of that was true.)


As the basic rate of pay for the artist, this business model is ridiculous. It's a case of distributive justice not been given to artists. While I believe the music industry did need a reality check in light of the explosion of online piracy, I think the Spotify model is not the long term solution.

That said, I am as guilty as anybody else of using/abusing the Spotify model. Without it I wouldn't be able to review as many albums (I currently have four albums in the pipeline that I'm giving my ear to) and I wouldn't be able to go with the 'try before you buy' approach to music. I think the main virtue of free-streaming services is that it allows you to try before you buy. Perhaps there are a lot of unseen generated sales through Spotify: generally if I've listened to an album 3-4 times and I like it, I will buy it- usually a physical copy too. While I'm not saying I'm the model of the ethical music consumer, I don't believe that enough people have the right attitude to music- they don't treat it as financially valuable. I can understand why consumers think this way, we are immersed in a culture which loves free goods, but I don't think it's the right attitude to have.

The music industry, like many other industries and institutions, seems to be in a bit of a moral and political blind spot. The many headed beast that is the free market has pulled, bitten and yanked it in all sorts of new directions. For small artists Spotify is nothing more than a free bill board for their music: it's very unlikely to get them any money or advance their career. It's akin to putting your painting up on billboards all around the country and then feeling sad when nobody comes to see it in the exhibition. While I love the idea of a free flow of art I think the music industry needs to do more to ensure that the business environment is receptive and nurturing for new, small time talents. As we have seen many times in 20th century economic history: in times of economic crisis the gap between the rich and the poor gets bigger while overall profit goes up. This political claim may run parallel to what may happen to smaller artists as the music industry grows and grows: the gap between small time and big time may broaden. It will be a jump to success, not a series of steps. While profits soar the distribution of the wealth is not just- it lines the pockets of shareholders of corporations like Spotify and not those of artists.

A photo of me spreading my message of musical justice through the medium of song.
'Who's gonna save the world tonight? I FUCKING AM.'

In closing I hope that streaming services like Spotify are reformed to pay more in the favour of artists. I think the industry needs to do more to make 'making it' easier for unsigned artists.

There ya go, a lazy attempt at politicizing the music industry. Hope you enjoyed.