Two summers ago, a girl not so different from me was interning for NPR in Washington, D.C. and managing her college radio station. Emily White wrote a short and honest essay for the All Songs Considered blog, which ignited an enormous response from the online community. She received everything from marriage proposals to threats, and even response letters from The Wall Street Journal and NBC. To me, her voice sounded strikingly similar to the majority of my peers. She cited that she had bought only 15 CDs in her life. The rest of her 11,000 song music collection was entirely created digitally, most of it from ripping CDs onto her laptop, downloading songs from her friends’ iPods, or streaming it from Internet applications like Spotify and YouTube.
In the article, she states:
“I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric… I wish I could say I miss album packaging and liner notes and rue the decline in album sales the digital world has caused. But the truth is, I’ve never supported physical music as a consumer. As monumental a role as musicians and albums have played in my life, I’ve never invested money in them aside from concert tickets and T-shirts.”
She probably never imagined the hellish backfire this statement would create, and from reading that I wouldn’t either.
I am also an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. Although I have bought far more than 15 CDs in my life, a large portion of my music has come from the very same place as hers, and I didn’t buy it. Does that mean Emily and I are entitled music kleptos that should be punished along with the rest of our generation for ruining the music industry, like many of the thousands of comments on her article suggested?
In response to Emily’s post, ex-rocker turned music industry professor David Lowery wrote a lengthy counter-argument which garnered just as much attention, with millions of reads and thousands of comments. In fact, the two pieces combined personified a feverous philosophical debate that has risen in our society. It is a war of attitudes between those who want music for free, and want music paid for. It deeply separates people and forces them to argue over the future of something we all love.
Lowery’s primary point to White and the rest of the world was to highlight the financial blow artists experience when their music is not paid for, and how ethically wrong it is for people who call themselves “avid music listeners” to not pay for the music they listen to. Whether it’s downloaded illegally, burned from another CD, or streamed from your free account on Spotify is irrelevant, it’s not paid for.
Lowery also criticized White and others of our generation for not paying for songs, but willingly paying for a laptop or iPod to store all our music, or even paying a little extra for organic fair trade coffee. The problem with that insight is, it is much more difficult to get a laptop for free than a song. If someone hands me an album that I want and offers to burn it on my laptop, the chances that I will decline the offer and instead go on iTunes to pay $11.99 for it are slim to none. It has nothing to do with me not wanting to support the artist; it’s purely human nature, at least for most of us.
While Lowery makes some insightful points, he is unfortunately living in the past. Of course, I don’t know the answer to the billion-dollar question of how to create a sustainable music culture, however know that music piracy will never end. Never. Seeing “free music” as a foe in a culture where technology and convenience rule will only lead to an increasingly divided industry that will continue to separate musicians and listeners.
So, what now? What is the future of music?
First, let us take a little dip into the past. We cannot forget that getting music for free has been going on far before the digital generation of today. For all of you who are products of the 70s and 80s, remember mixtapes? Essentially, making a mix cassette tape is the same science as burning a playlist of songs on a CD from iTunes. It’s not stealing music, but it’s not buying it either.
The arguments used today against streaming services were used decades ago against radio broadcast. Home stereo systems and boom boxes allowed early peer-to-peer sharing through dubbing copies of entire albums. While these both allowed listeners to gain their music for free, neither killed the music industry. In fact, in the time since radio and cassette tapes, the music industry has grown exponentially. The time of pop radio, the Walkman and tape-to-tape copying was also the time of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, the single most successful product in the history of recorded sound.
For decades such practices and such growth were the norm. Then, when Napster entered the scene in 1999, the music industry changed forever. Napster introduced worldwide networks of P@P (peer-to-peer) sharing. Suddenly, music became instantly available as long as you had a computer and an Internet connection, and it was free! Since then, the RIAA (Recording Industry of America) has reported a consecutive 47% drop in record sales since Napster’s release. Mega record labels have been fighting an uphill battle for years, filing suit against college students for upwards of $1 million each for uploading music to filesharing networks.
In September 2012, The Guardian released an article stating, “The first ever Digital Music Index showed that there were 43,314,568 files shared in the UK, with the data being collected from people who used BitTorrent in the first six months of this year… The data shows just how mainstream filesharing is now. It isn’t just members of Anonymous sitting behind their MacBook’s downloading obscure doom metal, the culprits are your next door neighbors, your relatives, your own kids and perhaps (probably) even you.”
Although neither Emily nor I use BitTorrent, this statistic indicates that we are definitely not alone in the habit of getting our MP3s for free. This issue is no longer a question of morality; it’s the new norm. Suing a college student is not going to solve the problem of decreased income to labels and artists. More likely than not, most of the millions of people doing exactly the same thing don’t even know it happened.
I think a better use of record labels’ time and monies would be to work towards creating an integrated model for artists they represent, one that naturally deters users from illegal sites to supporting legal ones. This model would be working with legal entities such as Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, and even venues to maximize revenue with a mixture of income from merchandise, advertising, streaming, digital, ticket, and hard copy sales.
So, what is the future of music? The Internet. In fact, it’s already taken over.
Today, technology and music are deeply intertwined. If you’re under 40 and listen to music, chances are you have a Spotify or Pandora account, buy your songs off iTunes, rip them from your friends’ iPods, or download them for free from P2P filesharing networks such as BitTorrent or The Pirate Bay. We probably don’t even know where the nearest record store is and haven’t bought a CD in who knows how long – minus my college radio and music aficionado friends who still relish scouting out a good record (we can thank them for the 15-year high in vinyl sales in 2013).
The Internet is also a place that can become virtually impossible to regulate. Controlling ownership of something that is basically just a digital sound wave has proven very difficult, and it’s easy to forget that a good song is just as much a work of art as a painting in a gallery.
However, the Internet and getting one’s music for free isn’t all bad; it can be a blessing. Artists who never would have dreamed of making it are able to “bedroom produce” (aka without the use of commercial production facilities or a label), post it on music sharing sites like YouTube or Soundcloud, and reap in thousands, and sometimes millions of listens. Us college students and music hounds then become free promoters. We may not have paid for the music, but we listened. We shared it on social media, we played it on our radio show, we may have even illegally downloaded it and played it with friends on the car ride home.
Through this kind of unintentional advertising, that bedroom artist gets noticed worldwide. Producers like Ta-Ku out of Australia got their start just that way. Now, he tours the world and writes beats with the artists that originally inspired him, in partial thanks to the Internet and his ability to share his music digitally, for free.
Bedroom producers aren’t the only ones reaping benefits of the digital age and free music. Prince, Radiohead, and electronic DJ and producer Pretty Lights among many others have also released albums to the public for free. After their releases, each artist had sold out tours. They are forging a path that is less reliant on the record label, more on the fans.
Radiohead released their digital album on their website in 2007, with the option for consumers to pay whatever it was worth to them. They were able to go this route because they ceased ties with their record label and did the release independently, taking out the large profit percentage that the label would have received.
In an article in The Telegraph also released in 2007, James Bates, media and entertainment director at Deloitte states, “Radiohead are clearly trying to build an independent business model that suits their needs. Unless record company giants wake up and find a model that delivers real value to artists, technology will continue to be used to bypass the record companies, and in comparison piracy will seem a relatively small problem.” Bates is on point.
Some studies even show that those who seek free music may actually be the music industry’s biggest allies. Professor Anne-Britt Gran conducted research on this topic in 2009:
“The Norwegian study looked at almost 2,000 online music users, all over the age of 15. Researchers found that those who downloaded “free” music – whether from lawful or seedy sources – were also 10 times more likely to pay for music. This would make music pirates the industry’s largest audience for digital sales.”
Apparently, music lovers like Emily and I may not be the problem after all. This study suggests that most people who end up getting their free music fix are doing it because they are exploring music they otherwise wouldn’t have bought.
Contrary views from David Lowery in his letter to Emily White and musician David Krukowski in his piece on Pitchfork argue that legal music streaming corporations such as Spotify and Pandora are no better than illegally downloading your music or burning a CD because of the meager royalties they pay (fractions of a cent) to the artists per song stream, and should not be supported. However, if the Internet is the future of music, then Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube must be part of that future. Imperfect as they are, these applications have revolutionized music society and are not about to disappear (my new MacBook Pro doesn’t even have a CD drive in it at all!).
The thing that people such as Lowery may have forgotten is apps like Spotify run on a completely different model. It allows people to listen to bands they never would have otherwise, through their “related artist” tabs and unlimited access. While rising artists may be receiving basically nothing per stream, it creates a platform where potentially new core fans are made. Core fans are the ones who do buy albums, concert tickets, and merchandise. Additionally, a song that may receive hardly nothing in a month will receive much more over the course of 10 years. Over time, I expect that as streaming becomes more and more popular, illegal downloading will naturally decline in popularity. Simply put, it’s more convenient and user-friendly. That’s why I’m not going to cancel my streaming accounts in “protest” of the inevitable.
In an interview in The Atlantic, cellist Zoe Keating aptly summarizes our music streaming culture:
“The income of a non-mainstream artist like me is a patchwork quilt and streaming is currently one tiny square in that quilt. Streaming is not yet a replacement for digital sales, and to conflate the two is a mistake. I do not see streaming as a threat to my income, just like I’ve never regarded file-sharing as a threat but as a convenient way to hear music. If people really like my music, I still believe they’ll support it somewhere, somehow. Casual listeners won’t, but they never did anyway. I don’t buy ALL the music I listen to either, I never did, so why should I expect every single listener to make a purchase?”
Streaming applications can be a springboard for music discovery and casual listening, opening up an environment where we have more music at our fingertips than we know what to do with. All these digital apps are still fairly new in our world, and there’s room for so much improvement.
I hope to see conglomerates like Spotify create a healthier conversation with artists, such as providing them with listener data so they can further connect with their fans. If all the mega conglomerates are using this data anyway, why don’t they use it for good? Royalties need to expand to artists, which can be done through increasing incentive for users to cough up that $9.99/month for a Spotify Premium account and direct that cash flow back to the artists and expanding labels.
Understandably, this incredible influx of music instantly available to us can and does cause a lack of connection with music that we once had. In an interview for Gigaom, Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation articulates his take on how music consumption has changed:
“I go through and I’ll listen to 30, 40 seconds of 30 different songs without getting to have that emotional bond that I would if I actually put on a piece of vinyl, and just sit in a room and listen and connect with the whole experience of, say an album, which is kind of a foreign concept today because a lot of it is built on popularity on iTunes or Spotify, which songs are more popular by a particular artist… People are just snacking. ‘Oh, I want to try a little bit of this. Oh, I want to try a little bit of that.’”
We all experience song ADD, and while Internet streaming applications have allowed us to consume music like a bag of chips, it makes me sad to say that these very same applications have aided in this loss of connection. It’s just like Facebook or Instagram, we’re scrolling through songs like we scroll through (and judge) photos.
While I admit that I am guilty of those habits, I also love music to the core. I hope to see a continually healthier conversation among music streaming tech conglomerates, artists, labels, and fans like me. Let us not forget that ultimately we are all rooting for the same thing: music.