|State Of Play – how music turned to cheeseburgers and ate itself
by Tom Berlin
We've all heard about the new order in the
music business, right? How these days, artists have nearly total
control over their creative output, are spoilt for choice when choosing
music delivery systems to suit their needs, and benefit from a far
greater share in profits than back in the dark ages of Leech & Burn
Records Ltd. Right?
Wrong. The common myth of musicians making wads of money in their sleep
is just that, for the vast majority of us. It's a concept eagerly
propagated by Big Corporate so that you, dear consumer, feel less guilty
about intrinsically expecting music for free, or as near as makes no
difference. Because let's face it, £10 a month for unlimited
Spotify spinnage ain't exactly breaking the bank, is it? So it may not
surprise you that artists themselves make next to nothing from streamed
music while providers like Apple and Google are raking in the cash? No,
it doesn't surprise you. Because musicians obviously make their own
killing by selling downloads, don't they?
Wrong again. The brief period when downloads ruled as the sole digital
delivery system is long gone. In light of Napster and many other free
peer-to-peer (P2P) networks "sharing" music, offering a legit download
service at $1 a pop always faced an uphill struggle with internet
audiences. Shutting down the pirates seemed to help for a while, but
actually the damage was already done as the seed of "music for free"
continued to germinate in the publics' mind. And anyway, a multitude of
unregulated P2P file-sharing networks remain which honest Joe Punter
finds very hard to resist.
|The Big Stream
Big Corporate knew all along they needed a sweeter deal to extract
reliable cash from a spoilt-for-choice public. And with music now
perceived as a pin-money commodity that few even saw the need to own
anymore, streaming was the answer. After all, there's little difference
between streaming or performing toothcomb searches on a jam-packed
mp3-player. We've been drowning in locally-stored music for years, so
thanks, Spotify, for making our lives so much easier! Cough cough...
– that is exactly what I get paid for the pleasure of streaming you one
of my songs. Stream ten and I may splash out on two sticks of chewing
gum for the grand total of 21 cents. Stream 100 songs and hey - a large
bag of potato crisps could joyously leap into my shopping basket bearing
a $2 price tag. And by the way, that's from one of the more generous
stream providers. For reasons beyond my ken, Spotify only pays me around
half of that, or $0.01046500 per track to be precise. Just for
perspective, downloading one of my tracks would roughly pay me between
50 to 90 cents (provider-dependent), ie. up to ninety times more than
streaming. But alas, my streaming to download ratio has steadily climbed
to around 200:1. So chewing gum it is.
I mention the above specifics not to elicit your pity, but
merely to add my share of hard facts to a seemingly unstoppable trend:
music is in the process of erasing itself. No longer even a valued
commodity, what once were creative dreams to inspire millions has been
ground down to a dusting of ear candy that amounts to barely a
teaspoonful for the more commercially successful bands, and a microscope
slide-full for the rest of us.
|Owning the future
Many interesting articles have been written by those equally sympathetic
to saving music from its current free fall. Some propose fairer
streaming profits passed on to the artist, others advocate the cessation
of audio streams altogether in favour of justly-priced downloads.
Whilst I would welcome both, I feel we need to zoom out a little further
still. Because when we do, the bigger picture of what we have lost
becomes so abundantly clear.
That's what's gone missing. Those who still buy their music on
read-only media like CD or vinyl know what I mean. Old-fashioned? Think
again! Vinyl records in particular are experiencing ever-growing demand
from listeners in their teens and twenties, listeners who wish to make
their bold mark for all to see in these fully disposable musical
wastelands. And if a 'dinosaur' like vinyl can make a comeback, so can
CDs. Of course, both formats require a dedicated playback system,
ideally with a decent set of loudspeakers. Neither of which cost more
than an iPhone or Android pad with high-performance ear buds, which are
great for listening on the move yet make us look like robots at home.
Yes, that very home we pay a large chunk of salary for each month in
return for feeling rooted and reassured in the presence of everything we
are, and everything we own.
Ownership engenders care, passion and pride. Exactly those
qualities sadly lacking from what some now call 'McMusic'. And I believe
only truly tangible media can reward buyers with that sense of
ownership. Downloads, for all their presence in name and number on your
slice of silicon, are rentals only; they stay with you until your phone
drops, your hard drive crashes or a cloud goes poof. How can anything
this easily lost – or this easily forgotten – ever belong?
I seriously doubt that in fifty years' time many, if any, original music
files downloaded today will have survived on whatever data storage is
the flavour of the day then. Quite the opposite will be true for CD and
vinyl. Granted, perceived lack of physical space may remain enough of an
issue for some to keep kicking their album collection kerbside. But
nowhere near as many as ditched their hardware back in the noughties to
the dulcet tunes of industry-cranked mp3 hype. Small wonder – selling
endless copies of pure digital information from a server seemed – and
is! – infinitely more profitable than pressing and retailing records.
|Fixing A Hole (in four easy steps)|
Here, for what it's worth, is how I would address the rapidly
evaporating value of recorded music. Given the radical nature of some
recent views projected by industry experts, you may not find mine as
shocking as I once thought.
|1. Make it illegal to charge for streamed music.
Streaming is nothing other than interactive radio, and as such should
be free. This would stop Big Corporate from making millions for little
or no investment in artists.
|2. Downloaded music auto-expires after 3 months.
This enshrines what previously has merely been implied: downloads are a
temporary joy before they eventually get misplaced, forgotten,
discarded, corrupted or simply lost. Defining downloaded music as
time-limited also helps curb constant price hikes which were a big
factor in driving listeners towards (paid-for) streamed audio.
|3. CD and vinyl albums include a free copy of digital media.
This could be attached as a dirt-cheap 1GB Micro SD memory card or
similar to allow easy transfer to mobile devices. CDs could also be
manufactured as mixed-mode media to contain the audio files, ready to
copy to hard drives. Either way, albums must include their own portable
version to satisfy the needs of a mobile public. But – and it's a big
but – read-only media like CD and vinyl would continue to represent the core ownership value
to the buyer; the master copy, the fingerprinted musical time capsule,
and thus a key possession owners may well see fit to rescue from a
|4. Price-cap CDs and vinyl.
This would prevent disgruntled punters from being driven back into the
greedy arms of exclusively digital vendors. $10 - $15 seems a fair price
to pay for a CD, whilst vinyl can justifiably attract a $5 - $7
surcharge for material costs and additional shipping charges. Let's try
and keep it that way.
does that leave Big Corporate? We need their financial clout for
distribution, funding, advertising etc., don't we? Well, sort of. Their
money could be made by driving hardware album sales through their
streaming and download services, now that they can't cash in easy on
I'm not so sure Big Corporate would stay the distance, though. Nor that
they should. Because now that I and thousands of artists like me have
learned how to get our albums manufactured at affordable prices, the
primary support we need is distribution, really. Amazon roughly take a
30% bite for selling my album. I can live with that as long as their
logistics remain reliable. Smaller distributors are less greedy and
hence may be an option down the line. A little self-promotion on social
media isn't beyond anyone's grasp these days, so no help needed there.
Which leaves advertising. I don't, but other artists may wish to either
scrape their pennies to buy a slot in print/on-line media or get creatively
chummy with magazines' review editors. Financial or practical help here
would be more than welcome. Handy then that, once CD and vinyl are
re-established as the primary sales target, their fairer margins would
galvanise many currently sidelined artist support businesses back into
© copyright 2015 Tom Berlin / Enthalpy Publishing
Interesting further reading: A Fairer Music Streaming Model Is Possible by Anil Prasad
|Feel The Benefit
Sometimes hindsight is the only way forward. Few could have foreseen
music's fall from grace, surely? Well, maybe some. But one thing is
certain: as the incentives to create original music diminish so will its
quality, and hence its perceived value and longevity. There's a reason why nowadays more youngsters than ever drool
over back catalogue re-issues from bygone greats like Led Zeppelin, Pink
Floyd, Queen… Nothing wrong with that, of course. And yet it also asks a
big question, doesn't it? I don't know about you, but I'd rather live
in a world where worthy future classics stand a good chance of being born