Freedom Isn’t Free: Streaming Music and Concert Musicians

Before I was became a highbrow, elitist composer, I was a wayward teenager of the late nineties. My clothes were baggier, my hair was highlighted, and my musical tastes were much, much worse. More importantly, I was one of the first teens to get his gawky hands on Napster, the icon of turn-of-the-century music sharing. For those of you who may need a refresher, Napster (as well as its fellows Limewire, Morpheus, Kazaa, etc.) were ways to anonymously and quickly download music files from other Napster users, while sharing your ever-growing collection with them. In the wake of the DMCA, and due largely to a well-funded smear campaign by the RIAA and many independent labels, these file-sharing giants dropped left and right, and most people, save for a dedicated contingent of online subversives, forgot about sharing music illegally.

People didn’t stop being people, though, and the market for software that makes music available free (legally or not) hasn’t gone away. In the last five years, a new business model has emerged in the form of Spotify, MOG and a few others; music that is free to stream online for the consumer, paid for by ads or through a nominal subscription fee. Everyone should be happy; artists are being paid for their work (or are they? More later) and the consumer gets what s/he always wanted; music instantly available for free. But free, digital access to music is as controversial as ever, as was made painfully clear this summer by the response to a letter by Emily White, an NPR intern, entitled I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With. Most notable was a scathing retort penned by David Lowery, formerly the guitarist for Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, on his blog; the post went viral in a matter of days.

What followed was a large-scale internet firestorm, with arguments of all stripes and volume levels being hurled from both sides of the debate. Free-music advocates and a certain group of artists moved in to point out the many problems with Lowery’s argument that free music is destroying the market and removing incentive for artist to create new music; some even jumped in correcting his insistence that Spotify and other streaming services serverely underpay artists they stream. As the dust settles, the core disagreement remains: one side believes that musicians are best served by the old system and that streaming services are a sign that artists’ standing in our culture and economy is doomed. The other believes in streaming as a way to make music more accessible to a more demanding generation of consumers, and that through crowd-funding and other non-royalty streams of revenue musicians should learn to make up the difference in income.

So how should classical composers and musicians feel about this when it comes to our own music? It’s a trickier question; most of us are used to relying on royalties and album sales for little more than a few dollars a year, but all of us have used recorded music as valuable tools to introduce ourselves to the world. Many of us have nervously watched the changing music landscape for years to see where the paltry market share classical music occupies would end up fitting. We can all evaluate the facts and take our own stands on the ethics of streaming vs. old-school album sales, but here are what I see as the relevant facts for composers and classical musicians:

  • First and foremost, no one is obligated to sign a Spotify contract. The biggest issue with the royalties that free streaming produces is their contracts with labels, both big and small.  As an independent artist recording and producing your own music, you decide completely the method and extent of its distribution. With DIY recording easier and higher-fidelity than ever, and the internet providing countless options to market music through websites, CD’s and downloads, providing music through free streaming is not a leap any artist that’s uncomfortable with it ever has to take.
  • Thanks to Spotify, MOG and others, streaming is the new normal, and this is wonderful news for us. The listening experience is evolving from one based around discs and stereo systems to one centered around a computer screen. For those of us without Naxos releases, the computer screen is where our music finds listeners, as we stream our music on websites, podcasts and aggregators. Even if our music never makes it to Spotify, as the consumer becomes more internet-savvy and reaches past his/her streaming service, we stand a greater chance of them reaching us.
  • We were never going to make it on recordings anyway. Even before the Big Four starting gutting their classical divisions and subsidiaries in the late ’90’s, composers were small business and American performers were seldom featured, outside of a handful of soloists. Now the outlook for Big Classical is even bleaker. Nine months into 2012, Sony Masterworks, SME’s classical division, has only released six albums this year, only three of which are classical and not a crossover act (featuring a grand total of one recently-composed piece). Naxos, once the great white hope for classical recordings, has never paid residuals to its performers. No hope there for a sustainable income.
  • The potential for crowd-funding is boundless. It was a bit over a year ago that we at Melos Music celebrated our second successful new music recital, and it would absolutely not have happened without the fine and generous supporters who helped us fund a Kickstarter project. A quick perusal of Kickstarter, just one of the fantastic crowd-funding platforms out there, reveals myriads of successful projects of all genres. Clearly, classical musicians are already wise to this potential; a scan of successful projects in the last week reveals all sorts of different classical projects, from a Chicago-based art song project to a documentary about pianists in San Francisco.  If we consider just the recording projects that were funded in that time, Kickstarter has funded classical music to the tune of $20,000 – in a week. And including performance and other kinds of project, that number jumps to $45,000. That’s over $2 million a year, not considering other crowd-funding websites’ potential. What’s more, this funding source absolutely dwarfs the income streams so often touted as instrumental to an art musician’s success: the average weekly royalties from recordings to a classical musician with one album? About 12 cents. The amount given to individuals by the NEA in the entirety of 2011? Zero.

Maybe we’re scared of free streaming and what it means for the music market, and maybe we’re indifferent. But maybe, just maybe, we can look at the ways it’s changing the landscape and see a brand-new niche in which classical music can survive, even thrive. If you’re an musician, classical or not, what do you think?

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