In the dusk of last year, the coughing, wheezing music industry – that is to say its surviving, thinned-down record companies and young bloggers pitched up in squalor, were rocked in a way few imagined still possible in this digital, post-iTunes age. As you, your mum and your Luddite uncle know by now, Adele “dropped” (or released, it was perfectly intentional) her third studio album ‘25’. Her release broke multiple records which virtually no one imagined could ever be so much as dented so long as the internet remained in existence and single downloads, pirating and streaming services remained alive and kicking. ‘25’ snatched the title for most U.S. albums sold in a single week, shifting 2.43 million copies in just three days; an astounding feat, attributed largely to the refusal of Adele to stream her album via Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal.
Most musicians, though, are not Adele. Like Taylor Swift before her, Adele possesses the power, fame and cultural capital (among with more traditional forms of capital) to fight back against the unedifying devaluation of music that streaming services have carnivorously feasted upon since their inception. Reportedly Swift attempted a liaison with Spotify upon the release of her last album. The Archduke Swift was happy to allow Spotify to stream ‘1989’, so long as it was only available to Premium users who pay £10 per month, a request they allegedly refused at the time but are now reconsidering.
Devaluing music is not some passive unintentional side effect of Spotify, Apple Music and their competitors; it is a fundamental pillar of their sharp-elbowed business models. Spotify claims that its average pay-out for a single stream to labels and publishers is “between $0.006 and $0.0084” though some industry experts have suggested it’s actually as low as $0.001128 per stream. As any statistics student will tell you, employing use of the average as a measure of normality is, well, a little bit dodgy given how prone values are to being skewed by outliers. In this case, your Beyonces, your Biebers have representatives who can negotiate far heftier cuts of the pie than a new artist with neither money nor power who records music around shift work or studying. Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke worked in a cinema; Brandon Flowers was a hotel bellboy; even Kelis worked behind a bar before breaking into the music industry.
Kanye West tiptoed out of his shell recently to release a new album exclusively on his pal, Jay-Z’s streaming service Tidal. As with everything “Yeezy” does, his thirst for exclusivity has been taken to the extreme: he insists that ‘The Life of Pablo’ will not be released on iTunes or in physical form (sorry, Uncle Luddite). It will only be available on Tidal where subscriptions are priced at £9.99 or £19.99 per month depending on whether you opt for the basic or the “Hi-Fi” package. And he’s as morally justified as Adele or Darth Swift in demanding that music be valued monetarily, annoying as it is to be preached to by an already wealthy artist wrapped up in his own hagiography.
Working class musicians can’t afford to keep writing and recording without returns for their effort. Nonsense poetic lecturing on how musicians should just get on and “do it for the love” ought to be applied elsewhere to illustrate how magnificently wretched such a stingy approach is; many data analysts and primary teachers adore their jobs but would quite rightly not turn up were they asked to effectively work for free – or worse, “for exposure”.
If it doesn’t become more accessible, the music industry risks shrinking its talent pool to a puddle and free streaming services are only accelerating this process. Sam Smith is fortunate that his investment banker mother could fund his vocal lessons and continuous studio sessions, singers less privileged and perhaps less dead behind the eyes are not afforded this opportunity if labels won’t invest in them without gains on the horizon.
“Free” music platforms are as oxymoronic as they are plain moronic – nothing is free, ever. At some point along the chain, someone else is bearing the brunt for your indulgence. There are huge structural issues with paid-for streaming services, but little can be gained from tackling these without plugging the immoral gap in revenues lost via “free” services. Music, as with other creative pursuits, must be paid for in some capacity if it is to thrive rather than merely survive. £10 is not a life-shattering sum to fork out monthly, it’s two pints of Fun in the GUU or two hundred A4 printouts in the library. The musicians behind your playlist of the future will certainly appreciate it.