The music industry has never seemed to have a great relationship with the internet, going back as long as I can remember. This past week or so streaming services, specfically Spotify, have hit the headlines when Taylor Swift pulled her tracks from the service with the release of her album 1989. Calling Spotify 'a grand experiment'(1) she claims that Spotify doesn't fairly compensate artists for their work.
Now a cynical part of me thinks that there's been a lot of publicity for an album launch here, but beyond that there are some real questions being posed. At the heart of which is streaming bad for the music industry and artists?
I happen to disagree that it is, but I entirely respect Taylor Swift's decision to pull her music from the service. If she doesn't feel she's getting appropriate value then she has every right to not use a marketplace. However it seems slightly strange to still have your songs on services such as Pandora and YouTube which are reported to pay much less in royalties than Spotify, though one can argue YouTube is a different animal.
Artist Aloe Blacc puts together a nice piece on the payments offered by streaming services over on Wired.com where he put forward arguments around musicians work being undervalued. But this isn't a new problem. I think what is often forgotten is what the internet landscape was before these services came along. It consisted of a hell of a lot of illegal downloading. This is what streaming services are competing against, they aren't stopping people buying albums, they're more often offering an alternative to artists getting nothing. It isn't a case of selling an album or getting a minimal streaming revenue, it's a case of getting nothing from an illegal download or getting that minimal streaming revenue.
Blacc argues that "Purchasing and downloading songs have given way to streaming"(2) which when you look at the linked source is slightly disingenuous, physical purchasing was long in decline well before streaming ever existed. The only thing you can really argue is that it has indeed cut into the growth of digital downloads.
He also paints a picture of fat cat streaming executives making money off the back of hard working musicians. Spotify state that they pay 70% of their revenue to rights holders(3), how much more would Blacc like them to pay? That seems a more than fair amount, although I assume it may not be a standard across the streaming industry, in which case why not work with services like Spotify rather than make a stand in a way someone like Taylor Swift has done and pull the music?
If you also look at a quote from Aloe Blacc
I, for one, can no longer stand on the sidelines and watch as the vast majority of songwriters are left out in the cold, while streaming company executives build their fortunes in stock options and bonuses on the back of our hard work.
Take "streaming company executives " and replace it with "record label executives" and it doesn't sound like you're too far away from arguments you heard in the 90s' before the internet had any real impact.
I don't think we're facing any new issues here when we look at streaming services, at least in terms of the music industry. There are wider issues of monetizing and seeking fair compensation for producing content online that extend beyond the music industry. Streaming is a step in the right direction for a industry that failed to appreciate what the internet was when it emerged and fought it rather than embrace the oppourtunites that were eventually taken by companies like Apple. That may not be the fault of people like Taylor Swift and Aloe Blacc but that is the legacy they're working with. Streaming is a tool that could prove valuable in a fight against online piracy. Yes there needs to be work moving forward but if anything has been learnt over the past 10 to 15 years of music online it is that artists and labels cannot hang on to outdated models and must seek news ways to gain revenue from their content and they should work with those services that are really trying to make it work for everyone.
1 - https://gma.yahoo.com/taylor-swift-calls-spotify-grand-experiment-155600621--abc-news-music.html
2 - http://www.ascap.com/~/media/files/pdf/advocacy-legislation/thenandnow.pdf
3 - http://www.spotifyartists.com/spotify-explained/#how-we-pay-royalties-overview