As of writing this, I’m a musician, but I don’t sell recordings in any way whatsoever. That may change at some point in the future.
I recently restarted my Spotify premium membership after an absence of 4 months. I’d been just using iTunes in that time and not feeling too deprived since I’d purchased a slew of new music and had plenty to listen to.
But with Don Giovanni happening, I decided that I wanted more varieties of interpretation than my single recording purchase could give me, and I don’t have the money to buy six or seven other recordings in iTunes. Spotify excels at this kind of problem, and within minutes, I could listen to all sorts of DG recordings. Sweet.
I am ambivalent about Spotify and other streaming services though. I wish I could just enjoy it 100%, because as a music listener, it’s amazing. For ~$10 per month, I can just sit back and listen. But like factory farming, driving automobiles, and buying dirt cheap clothing from overseas there are moral questions lingering in the background that spoil the experience for me (though the relevant moral questions have different weights in each of these cases). Yes, you can turn your mind off and just get on with life without feeling bad, and I do in many cases. I am no longer a vegan. Here I am listening to Elvis on Spotify. I don’t drive, but that’s just circumstance.
What’s interesting about the Spotify and streaming issue though, is that it threatens the very product itself. If you eat a lot of steak and drive an overpowered vehicle, you aren’t driving cows or car companies to extinction. Quite the opposite. But streaming – as a business model – is pretty lousy for the musicians themselves who put out the records. Streaming fees are awful compared to iTunes or CD purchases, and you have to wonder whether recording musicians will continue to put out quality records if the likelihood of earning their investment back dwindles to impossible.
Now, this isn’t a sure thing. This is a possibility. The arts are full of people who sacrifice so much to deliver their work. Maybe musicians will just choose to operate at a loss. Or maybe quality will just go down, and we listeners won’t care. Maybe the cost of recording will plummet. It’s also possible that streaming rates will go up once it becomes truly mainstream. Or maybe laws will change. It’s possible that the whole payments system will change.
But right now streaming makes a rough business rougher.
But can we unbake the bread and put Humpty Dumpty back together again? Should we? There are real benefits of streaming above and beyond the ease of access. The most valuable is the ability to share with other people. I rarely see it described as such, but Spotify is a social network. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to a playlist that a Reddit user shared. Click, jump to Spotify, hit play and away I go. To recreate this in iTunes would be incredibly expensive and time consuming. Further, I could create playlists and share them with you and vice versa. There are Spotify channels that curate songs and place them into easy access playlists. Friends on Spotify can send tracks to each other just for fun.
Let me reiterate: This is amazing.
Further: this is legal. The artists involved are getting paid per stream. They just aren’t getting paid very much per stream. I wish they were, and if you care about their livlihoods and the future of recorded music, then you probably should as well.
I won’t prescribe any possible solutions. But something will have to give. I just don’t see recording musicians sitting by forever and allowing the one thing that can possibly scale about their business become nothing more than an advertisement, especially when it’s clear that people still hunger for recorded music.
But similarly, streaming is too good for consumers. I doubt that it’s going away, and I don’t want it to. It works for me as a listener.
I just want it to work for the musicians too.