Is Music Streaming Killing Composers?

December 21, 2016

Imagine a world with no cars. Try to envision a mass transit system that moves everyone efficiently and elegantly but lacks any personal choice, such as the color and fabric of your seat or the temperature in your cabin, no cup-holders, no windows to open, no moon roofs. Now try to calculate the number of people who previously earned a living producing cars and all the related parts and services required to make those cars. Try to conceive of the devastation to the families of those workers as a result of this massive change in the way we access transportation. It's a scary thought but don't worry. That will not be happening any time soon - for one very compelling reason. Power. Auto manufacturers have so much wealth and power they alone determine the future of transportation. Yes, they must conform to government regulations which can be expensive, but they take it all in stride. You can rest assured that the auto industry will survive and even thrive in the future as we transition to renewable energy.

 

 

Now for a moment, imagine all the composers in the world who previously were able to earn a living selling their music to the public, being paid in a reasonable fashion for that intellectual property, and raising a family from the proceeds of their art. That age is gone. It has been replaced with a new paradigm - the age of music streaming services - the mass transit of music delivery. If you equate mass transit with music streaming services you will see some alarming similarities. With mass transit, there is no choice of quality. You take what is offered but at least you have a choice between isle or window seat. No such luck with music streaming. MP3s are all you get and are less than 1/20th the size of master quality audio files in most cases. They do not offer an accurate reproduction of what the composer intended. You are stuck with an inferior product as the only choice and the government supports this for some odd reason. You will see on the home page of my website this quote: “If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed, if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer.”  (Confucius)

 

Composers have no power. They have no organizational skills or advocates to help them organize. They do not have the ability to dictate the terms and prices they charge for their music as auto manufacturers do - because those abilities, those privileges, indeed those basic rights have been usurped by the giant streaming services who control everything. This life altering change was allowed by a government that values profit for a few over the basic human rights of the many. Many would disagree, but bear with me.

 

What music consumer in his right mind would choose to pay for his music when he can have it delivered to his ears for free - any time, any song, 24 hours a day for eternity? How do you compete with a company that offers free products - cars, clothes, music, food? You can't. Music streaming services do indeed pay for the right to broadcast music over the internet and composers receive some of that money. Copyright holders and the original songwriter share the astounding sum of approximately 0.00018th of a penny every time a consumer listens to his song through a music streaming service. One million plays of an artist's intellectual property will get him about 180 bucks. Compare that to traditional radio which pays many times that amount for broadcasting music. If a composer's song was played one million times on the radio, the potential profit to that composer would be close to a quarter million dollars. How in the world was this system ever allowed to come to fruition? The answer lies with the noble men and women in congress and other branches of government who have tacitly agreed to peg the value of intellectual property - in this case, music - at zero dollars. Music is now worthless as a commodity. Yet oddly, if music was removed from our lives, most people would eventually commit suicide. A day without music is not worth living apparently.

There are some composers who still make a decent living of course, but they make it through associations with media producers or publishers they have known for years. These lucky few produce music of high quality for film, television and video games - mediums that still pays handsomely in many cases. Every composer wants in of course, because of the potential cash windfall this particular part of the music business still provides. The problem is, it is nearly impossible to gain a foothold in that arena, especially for new composers - regardless of how talented they may be or how amazing their art. In a world where mass transit is the only option, you can equate this music business model to a private lane of traffic where fancy personal vehicles are allowed to travel right next to the mono-rail but where only a select few are invited in. The music business is broken. Copyright laws are outrageously outdated and composers are literally dying out. You cannot hope to earn money and make a living for your family in a system that forces you to compete with monopolies that charge nothing for using your product or with cliques of producer/composer associations that are in effect, private clubs.

 

Taylor Swift is my hero. She has rejected the Spotify/Pandora business model in favor of her own; a business model that says, "My music has value and I will not allow you to devalue it". For Taylor, it's rather easy because she earns so much money from her music sales, concerts, product endorsements and a list of other very profitable ventures, she can call the shots. She is one notable exception in the new paradigm of course, and very few composers have that kind of clout to determine the worth of their own art. For artists or bands that earn a majority of their income from concerts, music streaming services may actually be helpful to them. It helps them increase their following - a following the artists hope will pay real money to see them live in concert. However, for the growing legion of composer/producers who sit alone in a studio creating their art, and who do not have the time or resources to tour, music streaming services are the kiss of death.

 

Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify, likes to brag about how he is changing the music world for the better by paying artists for every single stream. He says his service is helping to stop piracy (free music, essentially) by offering layered subscriptions: Free and Premium accounts. That may be true to some extent. Even with the free account, Ek says he is proud of the fact that artists/copyright holders are still paid for each individual play (gee, thanks Daniel), just as they are with a premium account - as if that is supposed to make us feel better somehow. Ek uses some weird "Bistro Math" in his calculations to illustrate just how much money artists make from having their content on Spotify. The artist Drake received 1.8 billion (with a B) streams last year and the resulting revenue to Drake was around 4 million dollars. But many thousands of artists are getting royalty checks from Spotify that are closer to $2.50 for an entire year of streaming.

To put this in perspective, if an artist had his music played on radio a billion times he would earn somewhere around $250,000,000. See the difference? The music business is not only broken, it is allowing (with tacit approval from an ill-informed congress) an individual company to accrue vast sums of money off the backs of artists while at the same time, preventing those artists from finding an alternate way to earn revenue. Why? Because consumers want their music for free and streaming services know this and are allowed to exploit that fact. They have become a virtual music monopoly. Despite Ek's claim that he is doing more to improve the music industry as a whole than anyone else, I vigorously disagree. I believe he is simply exploiting antiquated copyright laws to enrich himself at the expense of artists, publishers and even music labels. It is similar to our current health care industry. Insurance companies are getting obscenely wealthy from the suffering of the sick and dying. Both models are evil and they need to change. Will they? Probably not in my lifetime and definitely not with Trump holding office.

 

I write music because I can and more importantly, because I love the process. It gives meaning to my life which would otherwise be rather empty. For someone like myself for whom music has indeed been their entire life, only so many rounds of golf, ski trips, vacations, parties, dinner with friends or perhaps bottles of booze are going to fill that void. As I get older and closer to the end of it all, I am beginning to feel an urgency to create even more, to fill the vacancy with the only thing in the world that holds any true meaning for me. How can I do that when my music has no intrinsic monetary value? How can I continue to create when my music is distributed world wide but the revenue generated isn't enough to buy a Big Mac? Why would a government allow music to be so devalued when that government knows full well that music is in fact, one of the most valuable, intangible, socially important products ever created in the history of man? Mr. Trump doesn't know the answer to that and he doesn't care. Some would argue it is simply the free market system at work but I don't buy that. There is no product in the world that has less monetary value while at the same time being in such high demand. If the free market system was working properly, we would not have this problem. Music streaming services are killing composers. That is the new paradigm. Good luck to all my fellow composers. You're going to need it.

At dwaynefordmusic.com we offer an alternative to being forced to listen to MP3s. You have a choice on my site between MP3 (360mbps), FLAC, 44.1Khz/16 bit WAV files and the original high resolution 48Khz/24 bit WAV files. It isn't much in the big scheme of things, I admit, but at least you have a choice.

 

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