Monday, June 17, 2013

On the Economics of Music and the Moral Dilemma of Google All Access

Hallelujah the Hills posted this Facebook status update:
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Our last album has had 17,274 Spotify streams equaling $88.55 in revenue - If 1/3 of those streams were $1/song downloads we'd have about $6000. I point that out not to be all "waaah we could be rich" but rather to say we'd have enough funds to record a kick ass new studio album RIGHT NOW. And that's all we want to do... :)
I ended up responding with the following, partly to hash out my thoughts on Google Music All Access, partly to respond to a sense of people sneeringly responding, "You're getting paid so stop complaining" which always seem to arise in these debates.

There's the bigger problem of the shift in the economics of music, and let me note that I'm saying this as a consumer of music, not in any way a producer. This is the change I've seen and felt on my end.

Pre-streaming there was potentially a little money from album sales and airplay, but the majority of the money for artists came from touring and selling merch. Once downloading hit, people weren't paying for the music, but would buy a shirt at the show on principle to support the band. Now I find myself treating the albums like the shirts; I'll buy them at the show when I can (if the album's for sale and I haven't already bought it) to kick a few extra bucks to the band. In other words I'm no longer buying records from bands I like (or, equally problematic, from my local stores) because I can stream them.

I just signed up for Google Music All Access, $8 a month, all the expected Spotify/cloud stuff, and it does the job. It immediately recommended the new HtH album to me as well as albums that I would have had to work pretty hard to find otherwise. For $8 they were just there waiting, which is admittedly nice, as a consumer. Beyond that though, and the part that makes me worried, 3 albums I'd been looking forward to came out this month. Albums that I would have bought in the store, that I'd marked my calendar to make sure I didn't miss, but that also showed up on Google so I didn't buy them. Because I had them. For $8.

I could claim that I took the $45-60 that I would have spent on those records and plowed it back into my local scene by seeing more concerts, buying more merch, buying music not on Google, but I didn't. I used that money for rent. There is an element of the downward pressure working on all of us that's ignored by limiting these discussions exclusively to how bands make which penny where or what's the most efficient way to be a music consumer or if it's okay for artists to not make a living off their work because their work is fulfilling.

In the discussion of the economics of music lies an unspoken discussion of the economics of all our lives. We're increasingly trying to maintain a culture and lifestyle, as a nation, on a shrinking budget. Taxes aside, our collective wages are what form the capital pool that our culture draws from and with stagnant or shrinking wages, that pool is drying up. I think one of the simplest ways to make musicians--and any artists'--lives easier is to make their lives easier. Increase wages generally so there's more disposable income to support artists through crowd sourcing/shows and so that artists can survive if they take a little extra time off from their day jobs because they rely less on tour income; have universal health care and pensions so artists can leave those jobs without worrying about benefits or not worry about bankrupting the band if they break their ankle at a show; and go ahead and just have the government pay artists through increased grants, paying for public concerts, or subsidizing venues for such art.

I don't think anyone in this discussion would minimize what music is worth to them emotionally or materially so the question becomes how do we get that money into music? Alternately, a question that addresses the root issue a little more, why do we want that money in music and what do we want it to do? I want more money in music, I pay for music, because I want the musicians to keep making music, want them to be able to make a living doing what they and I both love.

Hallelujah the Hills' latest album is a collection of singles, b-sides, and non-album tracks entitled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Trash Can and is available on their Bandcamp page as are their excellent full-length albums.

Update: Tim, in an act of the most elegant timing, posts a more concise take on value and creativity.

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