Should Music Be Free?
No one ever had to pay for recorded musicit was always "free" on the radioand the home taping of LPs, the copying of cassettes, and, later, burning CDs made buying music optional. Then Napster and other file-sharing sites kicked it up a notch and made it very easy to assemble a 10,000-song collection without spending a dime. Now, Spotify, BitTorrent, SoundCloud, MOG, and YouTube make music instantly accessible on demand. It raises the question: Will music lovers continue to buy music? Paying for recorded music is now, more than ever, a voluntary act.
A generation gap is part of this story: Today's music fans of high school and college age grew up with music files. I don't blame them for not feeling an obligation to support their favorite bands by paying for their musicthey never had a physical connection to it. If you can't touch or see or covet the medium through which it's delivered, music might seem worthless. Older folks, like me, had to work a couple of minimum-wage hours to buy an album. That's not sour grapesI still listen to some of those records, and music is the only thing from that long ago that's still valuable to me.
The ecosystem of record companies, record stores, and record buyers is fading fast, replaced by a model based on free or nearly free music. Streaming quality is improving, and high-resolution streaming is inevitableeven die-hard audiophiles will soon no longer need to buy music to hear it at its best. I have no doubt that Spotify, Google Music, Rhapsody, MOG, and Pandora will eventually "win," and the number of people actually paying for music will drop to the point where it's no longer feasible to make physical copies and sell them at affordable prices. Yes, the streaming companies pay royalties to the labels, but those fees are a tiny fraction of what the labels received from sales of downloads, CDs, or LPs. The streamers will grow rich as their subscriber bases swell, but the bands (remember them?) will make less and less money from their recorded output, make fewer albums, and write fewer songs.
That's already happening, Adele, Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, the National, and Radiohead, even at the peak of their creative powers, barely squeeze out an album every three or four years. Amy Winehouse released just two albums in her tragically short seven-year career. Industry insiders say that recorded music is now just 6% of the music business; the major revenue streams are concerts, licensing, and merchandising.
So if Jimi Hendrix had arrived in 2010 instead of 1967, he would have made one album before dying in 2013. Luckily for us, in his three-year run he made three studio albums, one of them a two-disc set, because back then most artists averaged an album a year, and some put out many morebetween 1966 and 1993, the year of his death, Frank Zappa released 62 albums, half of them multi-disc sets.
It's a complicated issue, but the root cause of the blight is that today's fans don't appear to believe that bands have a right to make a living from recordings: Fans support bands by buying concert tickets and "merch." That's great, but when the band breaks up, their only legacy will be their paltry recorded output. Bands no longer record for their fan base; they've come to see recordings as promotional tools, loss leadersif they're lucky, they might earn some cash if a tune is used in a film or TV soundtrack, video game, commercial, or ring tone. Fans whine that paying $10 for an album on iTunes or CD is way too much, but they don't have a problem with $4.25 Starbucks Frappuccinos, consumed in a matter of minutesyou can't download Starbucks for free. If my friends are any indication, audiophiles still buy a lot of music, but we're a shrinking minority.
A lot of anger is directed toward record labels. Sure, they screwed over countless artists, but with the old system, there was a payday and a record contract. Nowadays, most bands pay out of pocket to make recordings, which rarely make money or break even, so the bands have to stay on the road to make a living.
Perhaps the most hopeful sign for the future of recorded music is something along the lines of what singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer began with crowd funding. Palmer's fans commit to buy her records before they're madethe recordings can't be ripped off, file shared, or streamed, at least not at first. Palmer set out to raise $100,000 to fund a recording as a Kickstarter project in 2012, hit the jackpot, and raised $1,200,000. After that, Palmer's story gets a little murky, but pay-in-advance might be a viable path for bands still wanting to make money from their recordings.
Jazz composer and big-band leader Maria Schneider works with ArtistShare, another fan-funding site. I asked Schneider if she would accept a recording contract from a major label, if offered one, and even before I finished asking the question, she blurted out, "No way!" Her latest album, Winter Morning Walks required two orchestras and features Dawn Upshawa $200,000 project that no label would finance. All of Schneider's recordings have been profitable, possibly because she, a tireless advocate for changing the copyright laws to better protect artists, is adamant about keeping her music off streaming services and file-sharing sites. "For a pittance, you can listen to the entire worldwide collection of music. That's insanity."
Musicians will continue to make recordings, but the professional community of recording studios and of producers and engineers who have devoted their lives to making great-sounding recordings is contracting at an alarming rate. Some musicians will always make art for art's sake, but while once there was a glimmer of hope that their recordings might sell, that now seems far less likely.