I’m getting really tired of having this conversation. It’s been obsolete for years, but yet there I am, slightly buzzed at Thanksgiving dinner and having the conversation with my family; there I am, walking over the Williamsburg Bridge on a sticky summer night, drunk and ranting about it to friends I haven’t seen in months; there I am again, in some dive bar in the midwest going on about it, ending each conversation with the same tired retort, “I can’t believe we, as a culture, are still having this conversation,” – and yet, here we are – almost 20 years after Napster and still listening to industry buffoons and mega rich pop stars whine about royalties they’re owed and using music piracy as some bogey man for 21st century record industry woes.
Many fans and (usually major label) artists from Jay-Z to Jack White are hiding behind a faux ethical argument of “but…but…artists should be paid for the music they make, shouldn’t they? What about artistic and intellectual property?” Which really translates to “shouldn’t artists be compensated for their music in relation to number of songs or albums downloaded or streamed?” Now, first and foremost, no shit, artists should be adequately and fairly compensated for their music. But do you really think the money to pay them should come from, or better yet, actually is coming from the number of times their songs get played on any number of online music platforms? And how on earth can we even begin to find a way to agree on a standard rate per play? I assure you it is and would be incredibly minimal. And once we do, how do we go about splitting that between the producer, mixer, label execs, bandmates, etcetera? Is that .07 cents a stream or download really going to add up and support these working artists and their families? No amount of streaming will provide the financial support they are in need of; not through iTunes, and Spotify, and not through this phony band of artist-supported services like Tidal. But to industry insiders, this isn’t news, most of their artists never made much through album sales before, but we’ll get to all that in a minute.
I declare that artists have, could, and should make money by touring and based on the time and work they put into creating their music. Those are practical and positive ways the industry can and has compensated artists; we as fans can support our favorite bands by seeing them live.
But the issue is that we as Americans are subscribers to a sort of Ethics of Convenience; we want to do the right thing but don’t want to put in too much effort. We buy local because we want to support farmers, but don’t think of the underpaid workers who till their fields. We’ll pay a flat rate for a service like Spotify or Tidal or download an album from iTunes or some other streaming service because – “artists rights and intellectual property”, but do we worry about these same artists rights when we conveniently stream a song or two from the new Beyonce album from Youtube, or show our friend the new A$AP Rocky or Kendrick Lamar video using the same website? Are we worrying if Pretty Flacko is getting paid for each time you show a different friend the music video for L$D and ask them if they’ve seen Enter The Void? Or better yet, are we thinking of the video director or cinematographer and how they will be adequately compensated for this instant of media consumption?
No. We trust that the cinematographer was paid for his skills and labor in relation to the time it took to shoot the video; he never thought to be compensated based on the number of times the video was watched. Or the best of all outcomes is that we don’t even think about any of this at all and instead allow the indescribably wonderful sensory experience music and image produce to wash over us.
But back to the “shouldn’t artists get paid when we stream and download their music because of artist rights?” argument, which is rooted in an industry-designed position of equating downloads and streams to record sales, (a model they are more familiar with) which breaks down on a number of levels. For example, a ’45 sold in 1964, (or CD sold in 1998) was moved as a single unit, the teenage girl in the suburbs of Detroit played that Beatles 45 over and over and over, but did John, Paul, George and Ringo see any green each time she dropped the needle? Next, it falls apart because we all know that most artists, at least the kinds of artists who haven’t gained corporate sponsorship and developed careers that more resemble brands, (Nicki, T. Swift, Miley and even Kendrick Lamar) all make money touring, and always have. I’m speaking of most working artists; Deerhunter, War on Drugs, Vince Staples or Azealia Banks, these are artists who are all career musicians no doubt, but ones who must rely on the road to make money. That’s how labels re-coop studio costs, because they’re not dumb enough to think the .07 cents per download or stream or album sale is ever going to add up to enough to do so.
The problem with this, from the record industry’s perspective, is that the “get in the van” model has become increasingly more viable in recent years and it is working to democratize an entire business which, as it happens, is already becoming increasingly flat (because, internet) which threatens their pocketbooks. We are seeing more artists sign with indies or self produce their own music (see: the rise of mixtape culture in hip hop), tour and keep their money, therefore becoming less dependent on The Industry. But big labels are scrambling to figure out how to still keep artists under their thumb in this new landscape.
The biggest joke is that we all know it. Because we ALL steal music. Because we all know deep down in our soft, 21st century hearts that art and music should be free and accessible to everyone. The beauty of the internet is it has brought us one step closer to this. But as label executives and industry puppets like Taylor Swift talk of “artistic property” and keep looking for cheap and desperate ways to convince us that music is something that should be monetized when we all know that it is inherently mystical and as concrete and out of reach as the cosmos, we destroy its magic a little bit.
Because the truth is even major label folks have always known that the bulk of the money is made on the road, but they used to be able to count on a few mega stars on their roster to rack in album sales to help generate just a little bit more revenue to spread out among the label. As record sales continue to plummet across the board that revenue must be made up somewhere. But it’s just the extras, the whipped cream or the cherry on top, it’s the extraneous perks for the artists and convertibles for the suits back in the office that they’re losing. So they tell us that artists deserve to be paid in this new landscape but they really mean themselves and they try to pin down music like a butterfly and count its spots and patterns by tallying number of streams and itemizing a song’s worth and value in consistently obsolete ways while slowly, we forget and kill what made music beautiful in the first place.