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Posted Dec 12th, 2014 (3:00 pm) by Matt Felten
Starving Artist

The introduction of the Internet as a platform for music sharing has been both a blessing and a curse. The floodgates were opened, and there is now more music in circulation than ever before. However, the new problems that have arisen with this technology now threaten the creative minds who shed their blood, sweat, and souls to bestow us with the gift of music.

Pandora, Spotify, Youtube, SoundCloud: these four Internet tech services are the golden tickets for the common musician’s ride on the digital train to widespread recognition. That's not the only thing they have in common.

They’ve all been slammed in the past year for unfair treatment and compensation of the very artists who give them life. Pandora has been criticized for grotesquely underpaying artists for plays, highlighted by the story of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” which had over 168 MILLION plays on the biggest internet radio service and yielded only $12,359 in domestic royalties. That comes out to only slightly over .007 CENTS PER PLAY, split between 3 songwriters in addition to the publishers. Taylor Swift was recently the center of attention for pulling her entire catalog from Spotify, because of how little she felt they valued her work, and the small amount of compensation she was receiving for an enormous number of plays. In May of this year, YouTube strong-armed independent labels by threatening to block them from their new streaming service unless a non-negotiable, unfair licensing contract was accepted. And finally, SoundCloud has been ruthlessly taking down any artist’s music that could be deemed a copyright risk, done by lifeless and overzealous bots. Kaskade has been most vocal about this issue, as many of his songs have been wrongly torched and millions of recorded plays on those songs have been lost. On top of this, SoundCloud has also been forming shady deals with the Big Three (Sony, Universal, Warner) which would essentially require the service to pay the big record labels “Royalties” for each play, in exchange for not getting sued for copyright infringement. However, these deals completely bypass the artist’s cut of the royalties. Now I know the music business has never been incredibly generous to the hardworking musicians it employs, but the trend that the current music industry is creating is heading towards disaster.

It’s safe to say that the CD is essentially dead, at least for now, in terms of a lucrative source of album sales and worldwide distribution at least. It’s pretty clear that digital is the new standard format for music. What’s most apparent however, is that music purchasing on the whole is declining, and music streaming is rapidly on the rise. This means that artists are becoming more and more reliant upon streaming services as a source of revenue. In the days of vinyl, cassette, and CD’s, the music was attached to a tangible object. When you bought someone’s album at a music store, you could hold it in your hand, as a single unit that now belonged to you. With the shift from physical to digital media, this balance and cohesive value has disintegrated. When I purchase a song or an album digitally, it’s almost like the sense of ownership is no longer there, because this physical element is gone. I believe this has lead to a widespread change in the modern listener’s relationship to music, and part of the reason why people are less and less willing to spend on music digitally.

Ok, so people aren’t as personally attached to music as they used to be, and are spending less on music purchasing. But people aren’t less interested in music than they were before, it’s just the platform that has shifted. Yet we are still allowing our musicians and songwriters to go hungry. Why are we, as listeners and admirers of our beloved musicians, allowing these overly profitable tech companies and increasingly irrelevant major labels to shortchange, push around, and abuse the music that we cherish on the online platforms on which they are increasingly reliant upon? Three reasons:

The obvious one:

People just don’t realize it’s happening. This is also the easiest one to remedy. Talk about it with your music-loving friends. Spread the word.

The Stigma:

I believe that we as a society have developed this idea that music is not a day job, and that if you choose to try and make a living as a musician, you should expect to live poor unless you miraculously make it big. Years ago I attended Berklee School of Music for a two-week guitar camp, and you know what they said to start of the orientation? “Be nice to the homeless people around, they are all Berklee grads.” And this was a professor that said this! And that’s the thing, is that not only do the general public no longer believe, but musicians themselves are believing less and less that what they do(or hope to do) merits a living wage. For so long they have been told that the hundreds or thousands of hours they spend to produce the pieces of art (art which has made America so culturally significant throughout history) are next to worthless. We allow these companies to trample all over our creative talent, to make millions off their hard work while paying them minuscule fractions of a cent per play to the creators. We continue to pirate music, and support the music streaming services that are neglecting the work of musicians, because “hey, it’s a tough industry man.” The consumer has made it so.

Outdated government regulations:

According to the NMPA, or National Music Publishers’ Association, outdated copyright laws and oppressive government regulations are costing U.S. songwriters about $2.3 billion of potential revenue per year. These pre-digital age regulations are held in place by people who understand only one thing: profit at all costs.

Demand fair-trade music. Demand relevant regulations, and a free music market. Stop pirating, and support independent artists who’s music you enjoy through direct purchasing like Bandcamp. Allowing this trend to continue will not only hurt independent musicians, but also you, the music consumer. With decreasing financial incentive and ability for musicians to create the music that we love, less music will be created.

Citizens have been fighting for worker’s rights for hundreds of years. It’s time to include and support musicians in this battle. Don’t let our independent artists fight alone. You have the power, and the obligation to break this cycle.

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