What’s Music Worth?

There's a fine line between free and stealing, or is there?


Now I don’t want to sound like some old codger (I’m mid-40s), but what’s wrong with young people these days?

Two days ago a college senior and National Public Radio intern wrote on the All Music Considered blog about her relationship to music. She’s a music fanatic, has a large collection, and plans a future in the music industry. Yet she says she’s paid for virtually none of the music she “owns.”

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She says “I’m almost 21, and since I first began to love music I’ve been spoiled by the Internet.”

This isn’t starting out good.

I thought the NAPSTER/Limewire land grab was over, but apparently not, and many people still feel they’re entitled to anything they can get just because it’s easy to do. “My world is music-centric. I’ve only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs,” write the intern Emily White.

See where this is going.

Where did she get all this wonderful music? She got it from friends who copied entire hard drives for her, from CDs she ripped at her college radio station and from music she copied off the internet. She also depends on streaming services like Pandora and Spotify—neither of those are completely free. You can pay for upgraded functionality or use the unpaid ad-supported option.

Here’s the real stinger:

“As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums.”

Of course, she doesn’t think of most of that music as stolen. If a friend bought the CD and made her a copy, she doesn’t consider her copy illegal. Digital copying has turned a generation of music listeners into cool ninjas who believe that if they can get away with it, it must be OK.

In fact she says she wants artists to be paid (even though she hasn’t done much of that herself). She all for a Spotify-like service that offers everything to anyone and paid all the artists fairly. That’s nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s benefitting from conveience that gives her all the power and makes suckers out of artists.

Let’s not leave electronics manufactures out of this either—products like iPods, smart TVs and, yes, even my beloved Sonos, all contribute to a mindset that music is a free commodity because the hardware (and internet connections) cost so much.

Not surprisingly, her blog has generated a wave of aftershocks on the internets. One of the most interesting rebuttals came from David Lowery of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker and who is also a lecturer in the University of Georgia’s music business program.

Lowery tells the blogger in his own post at The Trichordist: “I’d suggest to you that, as a 21-year old adult who wants to work in the music business, it is especially important for you to come to grips with these very personal ethical issues.”

So what does an artist make from today’s streaming services? Acording to Hyberbot.com if you listen to an album 10 times on Spotify the artist gets about $0.35. If you listen to it 100 times, the artist gets about $3.50. One play of one track gets the artist $ 0.0038.

Writes Lowery:
“Now while something like Spotify may be a solution for how to compensate artists fairly in the future, it is not a fair system now. As long as the consumer makes the unethical choice to support the looters, Spotify will not have to compensate artists fairly. There is simply no market pressure. Yet Spotify’s CEO is the 10th richest man in the UK music industry ahead of all but one artist on his service.”

I admit that when I was a kid in the 80s I taped a little music off the radio and recorded some friends’ cassettes in my dubbing boom box, but the vast majority of my music was purchased. In fact most of those old tapes have since been replaced by newer iTunes or eMusic purchases. I also admit that most of my listening now is from streaming services Pandora and Slacker, plus a little Spotify, all three of which are legal and do pay artists, but not enough to base a career on.

So going forward, what’s music worth? Both my kids are talented singers and musicians. They hope to have some kind of career in performance that doesn’t include waiting on tables. Is this evolving music economy going to be able to support the next few generations of artists, or will corporate-created artists, backed up by TV shows or theme parks going to be the only future?

I worry that as we devalue our media we devalue an important part of the culture. How long can we take all this access for granted before there’s nothing left to access?


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