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Paying to not own music

Posted on 24 May 2012

Elsewhere on the internet, singer-songwriter Aidan Knight is getting Facebook debate-y about streaming music services. Specifically, he’s wondering about Spotify (though this applies to Rdio and whatever else is out there). In the thread he writes:

“I’m not a mathmetician [sic] or claim to know anything about how Spotify runs their business, but here’s what it looks like to me. (Again, this is a debate. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong)

“Spotify premium users: $10/month
Artist share (amount Spotify pays per play): $0.00022/play
Song plays needed to utilize $10/month: 45,454

“If the average person listened to 1000-3000 songs a month (60-100 songs per day) they would be paying artists $0.22 to $0.67. Sixty. Seven. Cents. Not just one artist, but all of them.

“Out of $10. Every year, you’d be paying Spotify $120 and the artists that you listen to would receive around $8.”

“I hope that everyone can take a look at 45,454 and realize that it means that you (roughly) would have to operate 3.9 computers constantly streaming music for 24 hours, all month, for it to pay artists that $10. Which is to say: It’s impossible.”

A couple of comments later, he writes.

“I think the thing that I mainly disagree with is that Spotify (“The Company”) is standing to make a profit on the idea that the consumer thinks that they are supporting the artists by using this legitimate service (so hard to not throw a pair of quotes on legitimate) but actually are paying Spotify around 80-90%. Spotify, after all, is supposed to be part of this new wave of re-imagining pirating and online music.”

Here’s the problem: I’m a huge fan of musicians. I’m also a huge fan of music-streaming service Rdio.  But the things you can pay musicians for are often the exact opposite of what you pay services like Spotify and Rdio for.

What’s the use-case for cloud-based music services? Access to the music, yes. But mostly access to music without any physical product to worry about. The ability to listen to whatever music you want without owning it.

This doesn’t just apply to not wanting physical space taken up by CDs and records (though that’s a big part of it). It’s also about the MB or GB of space it can take up on your devices. Even if I torrent an album, I still have to put it somewhere. I have to eat up precious memory on my computer. If I want to listen to it while jogging, I have to connect my iPod and have it take up (the increasingly little) space left on there. If I find myself pressed for space on these devices, I have to delete something else. It’s a first-world problem, yes, but it’s still more of a hassle than simply going on Rdio, hitting “sync to device” and being on your way. Not enough space for that new album? Take something off, it goes back into the cloud, and if you want it later, it’s just a click away. Nothing is deleted permanently. You have easy access to tons of music precisely because you don’t own any of it. That’s what these services are for.

Which doesn’t the solve the problem of how you pay musicians. If we’re handing cash to internet companies for how we store (or don’t store) our music in a digital age, how do we go about paying the musicians. There’s the obvious go to a show or buy a product. But if the goal is to have less stuff, translating songs into t-shirts sales won’t necessarily cut it. And as much as I think the touring musician model is likely the future of anyone who wants to make it as a pro, there has to be a space for supporting the Brian Wilsons or White Album-era Beatles of the world.

I can already see a few models emerging as to how this might happen. Things like Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go let fans donate to bands for various products– you can get perks like album credits, but you wouldn’t necessarily have to get the physical album. Just the knowledge that you gave the group you like money, directly. I see no reason why that couldn’t be applied in smaller increments. Let somebody like Aidan have a “tip jar” on Rdio. If I’m listening to a song that I think is just fan-freaking-tastic, I hover over it and alongside “add to playlist” and “share track” there could be a “pay this artist” option. Click on that, and you can make a donation of whatever size you choose using your credit card or Paypal account (I should note that Rdio does have a “download this album/song” option, so a payment system of some sort is already in place. I’ve never really looked at how this works).

Another thing I’ve actually started doing is buying albums digitally, but then never downloading them. When you purchase music through Bandcamp, you don’t get the link immediately. Instead, you get an email with the information on how to go about downloading the album. I don’t. I just keep on listening to it for free on the Bandcamp site or Rdio. But I know that if I wanted to, I could download it. The possibility of physical ownership is there, but not the necessity. There’s probably a smart way you could turn this into an actual feature through a new or existing site– buy albums, but don’t download them. Stream them at will, but if you ever want to burn a CD or throw it on your iPod, you have that ability, too. Maybe even labels (!) could let you stream their collection for free, but once you listen to an album or song more than x number of times, you’re asked to buy. Who knows?

Ultimately, music fans want to support musicians. But increasingly they don’t want to do this through the purchase model. Not because it’s cheaper to stream, but because it’s easier. More elegant. I know $10 a month for a premium subscription is cheaper than buying all that music through iTunes, but I would probably pay extra if I could choose to distribute that money to the musicians I listen to the most, directly. As it stands, I try to go to live shows, get some merch, and even buy a dozen or so CDs a year. But when I buy them, they rarely come out of their plastic wrapping. That says something.

P.S. Aidan Knight is a very good musician. You should buy his CD “Versicolour” for whatever price you want on his Bandcamp page.

Filed under: Best Of, music

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