Does streaming “free” music, rather than buying it, undermine the music industry? Alex Ross think so: his article in the New Yorker laments our culture’s drift from physical albums to digital, freely available content, though he understands the appeal:
If I were a music-obsessed teen-ager today, I would probably be revelling in this endless feast, and dismissing the complaints of curmudgeons. No longer would I need to prop a tape recorder next to a transistor radio in order to capture Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. The thousand-year history of classical music would be mine for the taking.
Ross is referring to the rise of music streaming services like Spotify, websites that offer free access to a catalog of artists. They make their profit almost entirely from advertising, though a few offer “premium” subscriptions that cut the ads. He argues that streaming music services, no matter how enjoyable for the user, signal only danger for the music world:
As the composer-arranger Van Dyke Parks has argued, in a recent essay for The Daily Beast, the streaming model favors superstars and conglomerates over workaday musicians and indie outfits. Its façade of infinite variety notwithstanding, it meshes neatly with the winner-take-all economy. And if it ever comes crashing down—streaming services have struggled to turn a profit—hoarding may return to fashion.
Ross describes his nostalgia for his CD collection: the way a simple visual perusal of the album covers, stacked side by side, brings to mind as many warm memories as listening might. These albums are music embodied—they need not be heard to be loved. In his mind, the old model is the most sustainable system, connecting consumer to artist in a mutually beneficial way. Ross fears our abandonment of this model is thoughtless.
But is this necessarily the case? No one argues that the new streaming model has always been good to artists: Spotify recently released figures that showed their royalty algorithm often offers small artists literally thousandths of a cent per play (though, as Spotify points out, these royalties are still more than standard radio plays offer). However, Spotify’s policies are not unchangeable, and if they should prove stubborn, similar services are quickly populating the market to take its place. Citing a given abuse as evidence of systemic failure isn’t fair.
The streaming model opens more doors for artists in the marketplace than it closes. For instance, one of the greatest obstacles to the up-and-coming artist is publicity. Small gigs lead to word of mouth and limited income, which can then lead to initial studio time and demos, and those eventually can lead to record deals and ticket sales. At every step, the artist faces limits: limited visibility, limited funds, and limited artistic liberty—the larger the record company, the more likely its executives painstakingly craft the sound of their records, narrowing creative options for unsigned artists. Online streaming services offer rampant and immediate exposure to likely fans all around the world: Spotify’s “similar artist” feature links musicians based on style and sound, thus allowing listeners to find a brand new artist on the profiles of artists they already enjoy. A variety of aggregators and license groups, like Indigoboom and Tunecore, are dedicated to cheap, easy, and artist-friendly production, allowing artists the chance to build an online presence with little to no capital, safe from the pressures of conformity associated with large record labels. Services like Bandcamp and Noisetrade help popularize album releases and publicize concerts. These services grant artists far more exposure than they’ve had in the past, and this exposure is key to any artist’s success.
Does the satisfaction of owning an album trump unlimited access to a vast, interconnected artistic community? It shouldn’t. Streaming services offer musician and aficionado alike greater opportunities to connect. The next few years may require dedicated labor, creativity, and commitment to fairness to optimize the model for all involved—but this is not an impossible task. For the music industry, a good place to start would be fixing unfair royalty standards that are still in place, or otherwise promoting fairer streaming practices as they become available. The streaming model has too much good to offer to simply dismiss in favor of purchase-only models, the return to which would only incentivize a resurgence of piracy. Ultimately, whether we allow artists to profit from it or not, this much is true: free music is here to stay.
Stephen Gibbs is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.