People are still scrambling to figure out how the hell to get listeners to pay for recorded music. This is an important topic, and in this piece, I think Hyden is asking the right questions, but ultimately, the conversation ends up going down the wrong path. This is a problem with the discussion happening around music right now that goes beyond this article, so I don’t mean to single Hyden out – the announcement of Apple Music has brought the topic to the forefront again and this just happens to be the most recent article I’ve read about the issue.
Hyden and many others rightly point out that people aren’t really interested in paying, or paying much, for recorded music. At this point, we should probably accept that as the starting line for any further conversations about the industry. I doubt there is any way to put that toothpaste back in its tube. This is not to suggest that nobody buys albums at all anymore, just that, on a big picture level, direct album purchase habits do not reflect listening habits. And maybe they never did, anyway, but now we can’t stop talking about it.
Hyden sees a possible solution, or at least possible area of exploration, in the idea of music experiences that involve an exclusive, live element. In this case, he imagines a future in which certain artists might produce an album that can only be heard at a live event – like a limited series of album release parties – so as to create an environment that heightens the listener’s appreciation of the experience. This could be new ground artistically, but transactionally, this basically performs the same function as a live show. The audience pays for access to a one-time event in which they listen to music in a way that can’t be replicated.
Hyden’s not alone here, and the thought process behind these live ideas is so common that it’s almost automatic; the “common sense logic” for both artists and listeners for decades has been that musicians make their money on tour. This has made it easier for some listeners to assuage their cultural guilt over having shifted to a listening model that heavily favors free streaming, discounted pricing, or piracy. Artists never made money from album sales, anyway. It all went to the corporations. Live music is where the real money is made, and on and on.
This is pretty unfortunate, because it precludes any meaningful exploration of the dilemma facing the recorded music business. Recorded music and live music are fundamentally different propositions. They are related, but they are not the same, and tying them together – making them seem as though they must always be intrinsically linked – has done a disservice to the music industry as it relates to independent artists.
This is sort of an odd thing to try and discuss because our conception of music has placed the recording and the live show together for so long, but there are reasons to consider them separately. Music composition and production involves a different skillset and a different set of business operations than playing a live show or coordinating an entire tour. As both creative and economic products, they are distinct from each other. Again, they are related! But they’re not the same.
There are many factors that can play into an artist’s decision not to tour: physical, psychological, economic, whatever. Some musicians may not be capable of touring. Planning and executing a tour is an enormous financial and personal undertaking, and making it a de facto requirement for being a professional musician is a big ask even for those who are capable. Placing so much economic preference on the live experience basically punishes artists who won’t or can’t tour, and it turns their pursuit of music as a career into a pipe dream.
There are some other ways to make money as a recording artist, of course, and licensing is the one most commonly discussed. It’s a good way to make money for artists who create the kind of music that can be licensed frequently and profitably (which is not always the case), but, like streaming music, licensing deals tether an artist’s livelihood to corporate interests. Some may be uncomfortable with this for personal reasons, but even if they’re fine with it, it doesn’t offer a response to the declining value of recorded music on a per-listener basis.
Music as experience will not save us, because it doesn’t address the fundamental economic issues facing the value of recorded music. It’s a rhetorical sleight of hand. I don’t mean this as an indictment but as an observation. I say all of this as someone who a) has been releasing music independently for about five years, and b) pays for a monthly subscription to Spotify. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite. I don’t believe music should be available exclusively to people who can pay a premium for the privilege of listening to it, and I don’t think audiences should be punished for having huge listening appetites. I also think musicians who record music deserve to be compensated for their work, and shouldn’t feel coerced into the performance cycle lifestyle simply because it is the only way to feasibly make a living.
I don’t really know how to reconcile all of these beliefs, and I’m honestly not convinced that there is a way to do so. Our current practices place an enormous cultural value on music but very little economic value on it. This goes beyond how much we want to pay for an album or a single and pervades our cultural attitudes toward people who want to pursue artistic careers but haven’t established themselves yet. Generally, we dismiss or deride them until they’ve proven they can make serious money doing it. Meanwhile, we expect music to accompany all of the most mundane and momentous events in our lives and want constant access to it.
I don’t think of this as entitlement. It’s far more complicated than that, and I don’t think most consumers have anywhere near as much influence over this process as we are led to believe. The music industry didn’t develop as a means of getting music to as many people as possible – it developed as a means of selling music to as many people as possible. Something similar could be said of the tech industry. As both sectors have grown to their current size and influence, the regular listener’s available options through which they might affect meaningful change have basically evaporated. But when we shift our dialogue to focus on the listener as the sole economic agent, which we have done pretty rigorously, we relieve the corporate giants of their responsibility.
This is why I’m also not persuaded by crowdfunding platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter as solutions. They will work for some artists, which is great, but not for most, and they center each listener as a sort of revolutionary consumer. Meanwhile, the same problem perpetuates itself: there is an unfathomable amount of good music out there that audiences want to listen to and support, but they don’t have the means to do so.
That last sentence might be more relevant than any of our cultural perceptions about what a digital download or stream is worth. This is not an economic system that rewards artistic labor for the vast majority of working class musicians, and in fact, it often outright condemns those who try and pursue artistic endeavors. Potential audiences are generally incapable of providing the kind of financial support needed, because they, too, are working against limited means. The prospects for most artists under the current circumstances are grim, and they don’t look to be improving.
Placing music in more exclusive live contexts won’t change that, and neither will placing our trust in the perceived benevolence of corporations like Apple, Google, Universal, or Sony, in the misguided hope that they might innovate some new platform that will suddenly treat smaller artists with financial respect. The question, as it has been for a long time, is still one of how we can encourage and support artists of any medium in the pursuit of their work without asking them to risk immiseration until they catch a major break. At the moment, the answer we should seek under the current system looks to be the same for artists as it is for just about everyone else: at a minimum, universal healthcare and a basic income.