The New York Times featured an article by Ben Sisario titled As Music Streaming Grows, Royalties Slow to a Trickle that caused quite a few waves within my social networks today (as well as some absurdity within the article reader comments).
The premise of the article is simple enough – the current distribution model of entertainment product is not sufficient enough for the majority of artists to earn a living on. This is an indisputable fact within the music industry as even the most popular artists receive a pittance for streaming their songs online. The larger question remains how sustainable is the endevour overall.
For the better part of a decade now entertainment companies, regardless of the media (music, television, film, print, etc), have struggled with the digital disruption and none of the “saviors” that were spawned have come close to fulfilling the complete stakeholder needs for entertainment.
To some degree it could be argued the consumer benefited from the changing landscape, allowing them to consume more than ever at the lowest possible cost even if the consumption experience itself could be considered substandard.
In most cases however the content creator themselves though struggled with the prospect of pennies on the dollar return for their artistic investment. Although most musicians perform out of love of music first and a pay heck second, the money plays a vital role in the viability of their career choice. For every Madonna, Metallica and Mary J. Blige there are hundreds of artists producing thousands of songs each month being distributed digitally who will never see a cent for their efforts no matter how good they are. Although the digital revolution was supposed to produce success along the “long tail” of industries it rarely succeeds in its promise for the majority that fall beyond the top 10% of the consumption experience.
To bemoan what musicians earn in royalties is almost cliche at this point since song writers complained as far back as Tin Pan Alley, never mind the countless examples like Richard Wagner, Franz Schubert, Antonio Vivaldi and Mozart (buried in a pauper’s grave) one can use. The few examples of artists who earn a living wage (or better as celebrities) are rarely given to the income from the creation of the music itself and too often that success overshadows the grim reality of how the vast majority of musicians, even those with recording contracts, actually live.
Worse, the commiditization of music (and the arts in general) continues to devalue the worth of the product to the consumer. The assumption falsely accuses musicians and record labels of overt greed and thus justifies the act of stealing for many. After all, would Madonna, Metallica or Ms. Blige really notice a few unpaied royalities? The problem is though the dwindling royalties may do little to hurt the currently established big names but it has a profound effect on each new generation of music makes who struggle infinitely more in supporting their art. Ironically, the greediest companies within the banking, insurance and petro-chemical companies see little theft among their gargantuan profits and patent mistreatment of their consumers.
A suggestion is not to carbe out unnecessary restrictions to the digital distribution process or put undo owness on the technological minds creating these new channels. Technology and musical success often go hand in hand. Consider, for example, the mechanics of some instruments (piano, electric guitar, midi), the process of recording and playback (piano rolls, records, tape, CD), consumption (radio, home hifi systems), performance (acoustically designed halls, amplification, DAT) and so on. In every instance a potentially disruptive advancement kindled new greater art, greater consumption and in turn new revenue streams corresponding with the change. The right answer isn’t quashing the progress of technology as much as it might be better understanding of it by both the consumer and the artist.
I’ve argued for years the average consumer has absolutely no idea what it takes to produce music or most any entertainment for that matter. This is in part because of the extremely poor music education system within the United States; because of the past errors of musicians and music industry folk in portraying themselves to the public; and finally because the process itself is constantly evolving making it difficult to explain over time. That’s not to say even if the consumer understood the effort in time, money, etc. required they would pay a greater premium for it but it might provide a greater respect for the product than what the average consumer has. Unfortunately, in today’s high speed world just getting the message through the rest of the noise proves to be more difficult than just getting the music itself out to be consumed.