For years now, the music industry has been in decline. Illegal downloading, torrenting and streaming of tracks has for a long time been commonplace. Such activities are the spiritual succession to recording mix-tapes of tracks directly from the radio. (Gosh, do you remember cassette tapes? I’m getting old.) When home computers became more readily available and the CD boom occurred, burning CDs and sharing between friends was even more popular. But nothing’s left a greater scar upon the music industry than high-speed internet and everything that’s come with it.
I remember cassette tapes recorded from my dad’s car stereo, I remember burning CDs and writing, “For Lucy,” on the blank face of the disk as a gift to the girl I fancied, I remember the veritable feast that was Limewire and allowing my hard-drive to gorge on thousands of tracks I’d never get around to listening to. I remember being a huge part of the problem! But I’m not sorry for having done any of that, nor do I regret it. I was just a kid and, more to the point, I still think the blame lies largely with the music industry itself.
Booming businesses fear change because it poses a risk. The music industry is no different. When technological advancements made each new act of piracy possible, the industry wanted to legislate rather than to embrace the new culture. Instead of developing new ways to deliver content for the information age, laws were passed which threatened to shut law-abiding businesses out of the race to master these new platforms, but which would do nothing to deter piracy.
In a recent TED Talk, musician, Amanda Palmer discusses her own conflicts with her record label and presents a message of loyalty and trust between musician and consumer. “I didn’t make them,” says Palmer of receiving payment from her fans for her music, “I asked them.” Her message is one of letting the consumer pay on their terms, rather than restricting content until a price set by the maker is paid. Very much in line with the ethos that art, once created, no longer belongs to the artist but to the viewer or the listener of it. A certain degree of mutual control is exercised along with a large amount of trust which Palmer admits does seem alien to many.
Spotify very much allows the consumer to pay for music in any way they want to. Listeners can make use of the service for free whilst incurring advertisements and certain restrictions to the amount of times they can listen to content, or they can subscribe to one of two plans which will enable uninterrupted listening and, in the premium model, synchronisation with mobile devices. It’s a novel way of paying for music, and it’s helped to mark the industry’s first rise in over a decade.
“After years of seemingly irreversible decline, it appears the music industry may have found salvation from an unlikely source,” writes Josh Glancy of The Sunday Times, who goes on to describe Sweden’s less than savoury relationship with piracy. Attitudes to intellectual property are very different in the Scandinavian nation which, as well as Spotify, has given the world The Pirate Bay and the Church of Kopimism, a religion founded on the love of file-sharing.
A rise of just 0.3% was measured for 2012 by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. It’s a small number but a very big deal considering the year on year loss since 1999, largely due to illegal downloading. But this notable success isn’t the whole story.
Spotify may be to thank for a small rise in the industry as a whole, but many artists aren’t satisfied at how much revenue is paid out to them through the service. Only 70% of the revenue Spotify receives is paid on to the content owners, a fixed expense which is divvied up based on the popularity of tracks and albums. It may sound like a lot, but that 70% is divided between many individual artists, producers and labels who still aren’t making nearly as much via the subscription model as they might through an equivalent amount of sales.
While artists and distributors argue amongst themselves, some – like Amanda Palmer – are embracing new models of distribution. Spotify may not be the perfect solution, and perhaps there are many who are still too blinded by greed to see other opportunities, but we’re getting somewhere. For the longest time, record labels and lawmakers told us we were in the wrong for wanting our content given to us in a different way. But by embracing digital distribution and the new service models it can provide, they’ve seen their first sign of growth in thirteen years. It isn’t perfect, we all know things need to be improved and deals need to be better negotiated. I just can’t help but to think that we might be a little further ahead had the new age not been resisted for so long.
What are your thoughts? Is Spotify a good thing for the music industry? A bad thing for artists? Is Amanda Palmer crazy to make her content openly available and to expect her fans to pay? What do you think the future holds for the music industry? Add your comments to the discussion below.
This article was first posted on March 5, 2013