Damage Done: The Streaming Dilemma
Damage Done is an exploration on the effects of music streaming services from the perspective of everyday listeners.
Napster was released in 1999 and everything changed. Musicians and record labels responded with fear and animosity while fans drooled. The newly-minted MP3 made it possible for anyone with a dial-up modem to digitally posses discographies with the click of a button. Everyone was aware this was a turning point in the industry, but no one could have predicted what the norm would become sixteen years later.
Still bitter from the days when $20 was the asking price for a new CD and armed with a sense of technological superiority, music fans flocked to file-sharing services. It was a thrilling innovation to witness and be a part of. It opened eyes to massive amounts of new music while saving a trip to the record store. But those programs and habits couldn’t last forever. The industry took notice and responded with lawsuits, misplaced outrage, and buggy DRM technology. Napster and DRM both died a painful and public death, but the damage was done. Music had been devalued, and anyone with basic computer skills could access all the digitized music they could ever hope for.
The problem lies not with that illicit paradigm shift, but its legal continuation. Shortly after Napster in its first form was shut down, Rhapsody launched. The first label-sanctioned streaming service, it was met with modest popularity and still operates today as an oft-forgotten minor player in an increasingly crowded market.
It wasn’t until almost a decade later that the public really began to adopt streaming as the main form of music consumption. When Spotify launched its US ad-based service, it was a revelation: the majority of the world’s music catalog for free. And fully legal. All that was asked of its users was to sit through a brief commercial every few songs. The $10/month ad-free version was largely ignored, as it still is today. And with that, the devaluation of music became mainstream, and sanctioned by the industry.
Imagine, for a moment, if Netflix’s streaming service had launched with the majority of Hollywood films released in the past 80 years. Nevermind the fact that $10/month would have been a steal for such a library, what if it were free? Movie studios would have geared up for war. It simply wouldn’t have been tolerated. Why did we decide as a society that a small selection of digital movies was worth $10 a month, but the vast majority of the world’s music should be available at no cost? The history of the industry, the more manageable file sizes and the sheer amount of music released regularly are major contributing factors. But our actions as fans scream the loudest. By using the free tier of Spotify and listening to albums on YouTube we tell artists that we simply don’t value their creative output. Our need for convenience and frugality trump their well-being and the lifeblood of an entire art form. It’s deeply depressing, but it’s the current reality.
Most are quick to vilify the services or labels for paying artists too little. The sad fact, however, is the services are simply following the law. The thousandths of a penny per-stream minimum they pay out is determined by the courts and as long as those rates are set in stone, only the world’s most massively popular artists will make a decent sum. And even then, it isn’t much. And the labels, who are largely in bed with the services via revenue sharing agreements, don’t pass on most of their earnings with their artists. Not to blame the victim, but that is perfectly within the label’s right. Artists choose to give their music and likeness away to a for-profit company, so to be upset at what they signed up for is misguided.
The fight falls on us, the fans. It’s been proven time and time again that the labels and the industry at large are slow to change, so we have to take a stand instead of passing the blame. Album purchases still mean something. In fact, they mean more than ever. Digital downloads and physical sales are the biggest contributing factors for labels deciding whether or not to promote a band. And they’re even more important for independent artists with no monetary backing. High streaming numbers are admirable, but they don’t pay the bills for a new death metal band from the UK hoping to one day tour the States.
Fans need to show the artists they love that their music is valuable. Writing, recording, promoting, and distributing a piece of music is neither cheap nor easy, so to pay bands back in pennies for something that brings hours of enjoyment does them a massive disservice. Here’s my rule of thumb: if I think I’m going to listen to an album more than once, I buy it. The band needs that $10 more than I do and even I end up regretting the purchase it’s still just the cost of a couple pints. I think of it as a donation in return for the happiness that the growled vocals and distorted guitars bring me.
And at the end of the day, artists have to remember being a career musician is a massive risk. Even in the glory days they had to be the best of the best to compete, but in today’s playing field the bar has been raised exponentially in both quality and quantity. Metal bands largely acknowledge this, which is why for the most part they support streaming; the increased exposure outweighs the paltry payments. But if that increased exposure doesn’t result in fans willing to give their support, what’s the point? Few metal bands seek a profit, most just want to pay the bills so they can keep making music. For those that deserve it, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.
It’s easy to blame and balk at the industry at large, but the fans let this happen. Some will say the industry deserved this fate after its notorious price-gouging, or that simple convenience outweighs even a small financial cost. Or that buying music simply isn’t in the budget. Those are all valid points, but everyone has to live with the consequences. Music is immeasurably important to humanity, and any action to discourage artists from creating is a step in the wrong direction.
This isn’t to say the tide isn’t slowly turning.The heavy-handed launch of supposedly artist-friendly Tidal, the growing strength of the Merlin Network, and Taylor Swift’s vocal effort to limit her music’s digital availability show that public opinion is coming around. But it still isn’t enough. All music will forever be free—legal or not—to those who seek it. So it’s up to the dedicated fans to tell the artists we love that they mean something. And we have to speak with our wallets.
I work for MediaNet, a digital service provider that helps manage music services’ content and technology.