“Nobody buys music anymore” said a poster on my Facebook timeline recently. They went on to point out that given that music is pretty much the background for our lives, and triggers for emotions and memories, it was a shame that people just want their music for free.
I thought about this. It wasn’t the first time that such a comment had been made to me, the previous time being when I had told a friend that I had moved to Spotify and was no longer spending as much money as I did on CDs.
Putting aside the big music labels where the company takes a massive chunk out of the purchase price, streaming services pay a fraction of a penny to the artist every time a track gets played. Financially for the artist this is a rubbish option.
The issue is that the model has changed – both for music and art. A good example of this change is the world of photography. When I moved to digital photography I stopped running up huge processing bills taking my films into be processed; hoping that at least one was going to be half decent. Even though the quality of the image has improved, there has been one other noticeable change – I no longer print out pictures. I can view them on my tablet; and I’ve even converted an old tablet to become a digital photoframe. Effectively, apart from the cost of the camera, this is now “free” (and actually, the camera is the one on my phone so I could argue that’s now a free app too).
So that’s the point – the whole model for how we listen to music has changed. Whilst some people will still place the vinyl on the deck, most will listen digitally – and it’s almost human nature to seek out the cheap/free option.
The person making the comment had a point – but at the same point had shot themselves in the foot. As well as making the physical version available, they made a digital download version available … and then they put it on Spotify. Effectively, they made the free version available. Oops!
I suspect that part of the problem is the perception of the artists lifestyle. Listening to how they have lived the high life, how champagne etc comes easy, how they lost millions through bad investments – it’s quite easy to see how this will result in people not really worrying too much about getting the free version. Now, I’m sure not all artists will have that kind of income, but it is easy to get swept up in a stereotypical group.
So how do we / the musical artists change this? For me, the answer is relatively simple. Get out there and play live – and go see the artists playing live. If you think of the single and the album as a “lost leader” then the money is off the live performance and the merchandise. Not every ticket will cost over £100 … In the last month I’ve been to five concerts and still not broken the £100 – and if you consider that one of those had a five band line up it isn’t bad value for money at all.
A sidebar issue to this is the bootleg recording. This isn’t a new thing, but with the internet connecting everyone in an instance, and with technology now at a point that it can be carried by anyone, it’s not a challenge to create a video of the concert using three mobile phones and a decent sound recorder. Again, this is an issue that musicians (and comedians) have a problem with. But is this really a bad thing? Everything is negotiable. If you play a rubbish set you can say “yup, that was a rubbish set” or you could offer to back the recording (or better still, make your own professional version). But if you do decide to make your own, being quick at releasing is also important. Years ago I saw the Mission in concert, and before I left I had a two disc copy of the whole show. It doesn’t need to be that fast, but it should be pretty quick to beat the bootleg version.
The final challenge with music is that publishing companies are not interested in music – they are interested in the money that comes from the music. Consequently, there seems to be a shift towards a homogenized sound that is appealing and “safe”. It also means that on a 12-track album there might be four good tracks and the rest is filler. With my Spotify option I can listen to the album and decide if it’s really my taste.
Ultimately the second part of the message holds true. Music is the background to our lives – it’s just how we’ve got it that’s changed and artists (and their labels) need to change too.