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January 22, 2015

Free Music Isn't Such A Bargain After All

By Holly Stewart

It doesn’t take a genius to realize how much the recording industry has changed in the past 15 years. The digital revolution has made it possible for everyone with Internet access to be able to stream or download music instantly, regardless of whether they are using a computer, tablet or smartphone to do so.

For those who grew up buying vinyl records, cassette tapes or compact discs (CDs), the advent of digital delivery represents a complete metamorphosis in how consumers get their music. For virtually everyone under 30, however, it’s simply the way it’s always been done.

The music industry is suffering, however, because many people get their new music entirely for free by downloading it illegally or asking friends to share it with them. Since the ground-breaking piracy site Napster came to the fore in 1999, sales of music in the United States have dropped 53 percent. A 2009 industry report estimated that only 37 percent of music acquired in this country had been paid for. And although Napster and some of its clones, like LimeWire, have gone the way of the 8-track player, there are dozens of lesser sites where unscrupulous consumers can download music and other media for absolutely nothing.

On the surface, the idea of free music is great, but the future of the art form depends on how many people will continue to pay for it. Here’s why: Music piracy has cost the recording industry more than 70,000 jobs and $2 billion in lost wages to American workers. According to the Institute for Policy Innovation, piracy equals $12.5 billion in losses to the economy every year.

As a result of these economic realities, record labels have shrunk their rosters of established artists and slashed their budgets for the cultivation of young talent. This is bad news for those who appreciate diversity and variation across multiple music genres. In the old business model, the revenue generated by a label’s stars provided the financial backing to discover and promote the next generation of artists, even though many of them would end up as one-hit wonders or fail to capture the public’s attention altogether. This was an accepted part of the process. But where they were once able to spend untold dollars in search of new artists, industry insiders are now only willing to bet on the sure thing, which means the sound of popular music is likely to become more homogenous than ever.

The irony behind this reality is that the digital medium, which has made music accessible to more people than ever, is limiting the artist spectrum by making it harder for talented new musicians to break through to the mainstream. In this climate, fewer musicians are able to make a living wage; it’s estimated that only 42 percent of professional musicians are working full-time at their chosen livelihood. Many of those who do find their way to a record deal find it necessary to supplement their income with day jobs.

So even though it’s easier than ever to get music and not pay for it, the overall breadth and scope of the sound is being thwarted by the current business model. Streaming services like Pandora and Spotify offer the casual listener some exposure to new music, but they pay artists less than any other medium, and rarely promote those who are on independent labels. Downloading from an established online source like iTunes, which pays content holders 70 percent in royalties, ensures that the artist will get a fair share of the profits.

Many established artists are leading attempts to change the way new music is received by the listening public. By creating direct-to-fan links for their wares, they stand poised on the frontier of recorded music’s future. For example, the British band Marillion coined a working model for crowd-funding after the success of the 2001 album "Anoraknophobia," which was financed largely by advanced orders placed by their fans on their website. In 2007, Donita Sparks of L7 and Kristin Hersch from Throwing Muses started their own crowd-funding non-profit called CASH Music. Several dozen similar services are now up and running, including Pledge Music, Feed the Muse and Kickstarter, although most of them are overseen by for-profit companies.

Kickstarter holds the honor of producing crowd-funding’s most remarkable success story to date, when former Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer announced on her website in April 2012 that she would be using it to finance her next album. By the end of May, nearly 25,000 of her fans had raised almost $2 million for the effort, which was released that September under the title "Theatre is Evil." Yet even Palmer needed a reminder that professional musicians should be properly compensated for their efforts; during the tour that followed the album’s release, she was criticized for not paying some of her backup musicians. Palmer offered the players - fans that had volunteered their services - full retroactive pay after an article about the controversy appeared in The New York Times.

Once upon a time, we heard songs on the radio or a friend’s stereo that caught our ear. On our next visit to the local mall, we would scour the Sam Goody or independent music store to find albums or singles by the artist in question. One could become fully acquainted with a musician or a band for about ten bucks. It all seemed so easy, until the home computer became as ubiquitous a device as an AM/FM receiver.

Now it’s even easier to get music without paying full price for it, but don’t use that as an excuse to be a freeloader. Streaming services and radio can still provide a solid backdrop for those looking to discover new artists, but those who value the evolution of music and the geniuses who create it won’t bypass the process by not paying for it. Until the recording industry settles into a new paradigm, music enthusiasts must support the existing business model or accept the limitations that go along with getting something for practically nothing.

The next step is to do a little research regarding music formats and how they can be obtained. Still buying CDs? That’s fine, although a trip to a big box retailer may be necessary to buy them in person. There’s always Amazon for those who like to get their CDs through the mail. Thinking outside the big box will be essential, however, to ensure ample exposure to new musicians. Start by going to an artist’s website, where any relationships with crowd-funding or streaming services are likely to be listed. While researching a subscription to satellite radio or another premium streaming service, make sure the medium pays its artists a decent royalty.

Although many iconic sayings from the heyday of the vinyl LP are now as relevant as the HiFi stereo, here’s one that still applies in relation to this subject: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.


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