by Ben Shine
I know that sometimes I might come across as a musical Puritan, someone who thinks that music and the technology around it peaked 40 years ago and will never be as good as it was then. In reality, I love technology and what it's done for me as a listener. I also enjoy contemporary music a lot. I love maxing out my iPod or iPhone with gigabyte upon gigabyte of music. I love seeking out new music online and relish the moment when I hear something new that truly blows my mind. New to me this last year is Spotify, and I have to say I enjoy the level of access to a vast amount of music that it gives me. I signed up for a "pro account," because I don't mind paying for the service it provides and would prefer not hearing ads. I hate ads.
I love what technology makes possible for today's artists, too, and I'm confused as to why some musicians and listeners reject the possibilities it creates on a wholesale level. Some artists are using it and the new reality of the music industry for their benefit and some artists are trying to hold onto a system that doesn't really exist anymore. Frankly, it was a system that most artists complained about back in the day, too.
One of my favorite artists of all time recently sounded the hyperbole alarm and claimed that not only are services such as Spotify and Pandora bad, but they will be the DEATH OF ALL CREATIVITY IN THE WHOLE WORLD! It's the creative's equivalent of "You kids get off my lawn!" But, what David Byrne is really saying is that, at the heart of what's bad about Spotify and the like, major labels will make money licensing their catalogs to Spotify, and that only a pittance will actually make it to the artist. But isn't that what musicians were saying about major labels before the Internet emerged? Isn't that what the "bad" part of being on a major label is for everyone that doesn't have a major hit? I don't see how adding a potential revenue stream for a label is all that bad, as long as it's contractually lawful.
The argument is also there that online services might keep people from just illegally downloading music; and since services such as Spotify can generate additional profit, selling ads on top of selling subscriptions, there's at least a chance that some revenue gets generated on behalf of the artist that wouldn't happen otherwise. Is it ideal? Of course not, but no one seems to have a perfect solution. The technology is here, and Spotify is a far cry from Pirate Bay or other sites to download music without having to pay at all.
Some bands are getting crafty and finding ways to take advantage of having a presence on streaming services by trying to profit from audiences that typically just download their music without paying. Iron Maiden (yes, I had raised horns in the air even just typing the name) has been using advanced analytics to figure out where the largest numbers of illegal downloads of their music are taking place. Then, the band schedules its tours around that information -- to get paid for performing live, selling merchandise and making an appearance. Iron Maiden is not suing mega-fans who simply do what is largely the norm these days. Instead, the band gains payment in other ways and handsomely.
Then there's Beyonce, who recently turned the world upside down and recorded an entire album, created a video for each track and plopped it into the world as a complete surprise on iTunes, nonetheless (notice no one complains about iTunes anymore?). She used the new technological landscape to deliver and sell it -- and saw a tidal wave of online press and, likely, click-throughs to her iTunes page. She's not arguing with the new realities of the music industry. She's trying to outsmart it and give fans what they want now -- a full experience. But it also came with major label backing and financial support, to be fair.
Locally, hundreds of musicians have made their music available via Musical Family Tree, motivated more by a desire to share their work and less by a desire to make money off of it. But it's an entirely different model with a more archivist approach to cataloging music made in Indiana. MFT is not trying to generate revenue for artists, instead it provides a space where people can engage with each other around a common love for Hoosier creativity and get access to and share in the music of their home state.
This is a pretty big issue, and I know I've only touched upon it, but it's on my musical mind. What do you think? How do we balance technology and user trends with an artist's right to earn a living? Are online streaming services helping or hurting artists? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below.