Should Music Be Free?

No one ever had to pay for recorded music—it was always "free" on the radio—and 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 music—they 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 grapes—I 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 inevitable—even 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 more—between 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 leaders—if 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 minutes—you 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 made—the 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 Upshaw—a $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.

James.Seeds's picture

I spent my teenage years growing up in the late 80's with the onslaught of Grunge music and the death of hair bands, even though this was happening there were always music afficiandos to point you in the right direction like must own records/CD's 
Pink Flyod - The Wall
Eagles etc, music that can be listened to over and over again unique in sound and usually conjured up some distant memory and if your lucky you hear something that you missed and never heard before giving you a "Oh" moment.
I've tried to do this with my nephew as much as possible to the point of being anal and managed to at least broaden his listening tastes, he lives in the suburbs but thinks he's a gangster if you get my point. The difference between my nephew and myself is that he consumes music, doesn't matter where he gets it, most likely a Torrent site, resides on his Pod for a while then is deleted when hard drive space becomes a premium, there's no connection between him and the musician it's just sound and I hate to sound like my parents but it sounds the same to me, same thumping beat same lyrics I wouldn't pay for it either if I had a choice but I think it's up to the previous generation to enlighten the next generation, sure the genie is out of the bottle but if they won't pay for it at least download classic albums that are listenable 

Louis Motek's picture

WIth regards to the downfall of musical taste, I believe it is more complicated than just a feeling of disconnectedness of today's youth from the music they 'consume' and quickly delete from their personal mobile devices. 

I was working as a musician and later as a technician in a recording studio in the late 80's / early 90's. This was the time when everything in the recording studio was in upheaval:

- instead of to tape, people started recording to hard drive.

- instead of "take two", they saved valuable time in the studio by just re-recording the few notes which were off. Even if it was one note. They just plugged it in. If it was a repeated section, often times they would literally copy and paste it. Thus, the feeling of musical form was a dying art except on stage. In the recording studio, we were left with just "pure intonation" instead of interpretation. 

-  Myriad computer plugins for the digital audio workstations were being developed. Everything from pitch shift to speed control, EQ, emulation of voices for harmonies, instrument emulators, etc. All this, you would think, would lead to better and better sounding recordings. What it in fact did do is simply take away the time spent by the artists preparing for the recording session. Now, they could rely on the "magic" of the studio to fix any errors. Because this is an economical incentive (they need not spend so much valuable time in front of the mic), everyone embraced it. 

- The whole re-mix fad of the 90's was based entirely on computer audio technology. It was easier to re-mix something that was a hit before and make a few bucks while it was on the charts for a few weeks than groping about in the dark with "new ideas" which were not tested on the market. 

- The advent of midi sequencers and Gigasampler technology (which effectively, for the untrained ear, completely replaced any need for any symphony orchestra) abolished any need for hiring studio musicians. Today, most movie scores are written, performed, and recorded by no more than one or two people with the aid of a thousand plugins on a computer. This artificial type of symphonic sound is what most people who today are <25 years old have ever heard. 

- When even symphonic type music is synthetically generated, and Musak everywhere is generated by computer (see Band-In-A-Box if you don't know what that is, your hair on the back of your neck might stand), and then you throw in the ease of downloading without paying, then you see more of the whole picture which leads to a global degradation of musical taste and appreciation. 

- There is an operation in San Francisco called American Brandstand which monitors how often corporate brand names are mentioned in all Billboard Top 20 songs. Music is seen more and more in a corporate light of profits and less and less as an expressive venue of emotion or a festive occasion. See the upsurge in the regional symphonies to play concerts based on movie themes like Star Wars, Pixar festivals, and such. This is because of the commercial value of the brand names, and for no other reason. They say it is to draw the youth toward the orchestra but in fact it is to satisfy today's desparate need to sell tickets.

If you look at all of these factors together, you will see the underlying thread: everyone has unwittingly conspired to save money and effort in the creation of music, so everyone is unwittingly conspiring to save money and effort in the use of music as well. 


Louis Motek

fullofsugar's picture

In my opinion, music should not be free. Why, because music making isn't that easy, music artist make their own song with lot of efforts and they put their utmost attention on it. So i think music should not be free. It's my opinion anyway.

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