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The technological innovations of the past fifteen-plus years have irrevocably changed the way we consume and experience recorded music. Arguably, the most drastic change is that music is no longer confined to the trappings of a physical format. Free from LP’s, cassettes, and CD’s, file-based music doesn’t not need to occupy a shelf or a stockroom in your local record store. Today, the web is the world’s music store. And thanks to the web, we can have immediate and instant access to nearly any music we want, whenever we want it. Most recently, game-changing services such as Spotify and Pandora have allowed music fans unprecedented free access to music via streaming. As a music fan, one might say we are living in The Golden Age of Convenience, sitting pretty at a free All-You-Can-Eat Music-Buffet.
But before we fill up too much and have to be rolled home, let’s stop and think about how we’re eating for a moment.
For the better part of the last fifteen-years, much has been made of the negative effect that technological advances have had on the music business. While doom and gloom seem to be continually prophesied year after year as ever-declining CD sales have become the norm, this past year in particular proved very remarkable for a different reason. Statista – a statistics website – reported that digital music sales dipped for the first time since Nielsen Soundscan started measuring digital sales. Digital music sales had been on an upward trend since the launch of the iTunes store in 2003. According to Statista, the growing adoption of free-streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora is cited as being likely culprits behind this latest music industry woe.
Many artists in the music industry are rightfully concerned, if not outright angry. Famous music stars are now regularly criticizing Spotify and Pandora for leveling the playing field with their controversial artist payment practices (0.01 cent per song play). Last year, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke yanked all of his solo material off Spotify, warning via Twitter that only Spotify shareholders will make money while “new artists you discover on Spotify will not get paid.” This year, Bette Midler tweeted her displeasure as well: “@Spotify and @Pandora have made it impossible for songwriters to earn a living: three months streaming on Pandora, 4,175,149 plays=$114.11.”
Recently, David Byrne wrote his own response in a fascinating blog post entitled “How Will the Wolf Survive: Can Musicians Make a Living in the Streaming Era?” Questioning the long-term sustainability of this brave new music-consuming world, Byrne ponders if free on-demand streaming services like Spotify and Pandora might be “a business model that will deplete the resource—we who create music—that [they] depend upon.” Byrne also wonders if “the feast will be short-lived if no one is paying for the production of the content we are gorging on.”
To hear these established stars share their fears for the future of music professions is incredibly unnerving to say the least. Really, if these guys are worried, up-and-coming artists should be even more concerned, no? That being said, some burgeoning artists are trying to remain hopeful in the face of this latest professional adversity. In her Art Times article, “Speak Out: Everything is Free,” singer-songwriter Emily Mure admits she is conflicted about the current state of affairs but hopeful, suggesting that working musicians such as herself “need to get creative” and “think about developing new income-generating models of making and distributing music that represent us as artists.” Mure ends her article on a positive note, writing that “music, though devalued, will always be in demand. And as long as there are passionate musicians committing to their passion and creating new ways to get heard, we will learn again, to value it.”
Personally, as a performing artist, I want to believe in a future where I will be able to sell my recorded music. I want to believe, as Mure does, that we will value music again. But the question of the value of music in today’s world makes me wonder if we’ve reached a point of no return. Since the switch from analog to digital, we’ve cultured a different mentality. Today, music – whether streamed or downloaded – is regarded, first and foremost, as files. And – let’s be honest – most of us take files for granted every day. We can back-up files, make a million copies, share them, and move them around with virtually no effort. They are, most simply, zeroes and ones behind our computer screens. So how are we, as music consumers, going to value recorded music if it remains as universally accessible and, thus, as inconsequential as a downloadable or streaming file? I’m not sure, to be honest. We can, however, talk some more before we hit that buffet…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eclectic folk-pop singer and genre-jumping songwriter Ryan Hobler (pictured above) has been playing music in and around his native New York for nearly two decades. Performing in various bands and working as a professional audio engineer, Hobler developed a refined, lyric-driven style with a sound that combines intertwining layers of natural acoustic tones, transporting vocal harmonies and surprising arrangements. Thematically, his songs range from intimate personal stories to surreal allegorical explorations that have been praised for revealing a “love, defeat, and resilience in each track” (Examiner.com). Influenced by folk-rock heroes like Paul Simon, Elliot Smith, and Nick Drake, Hobler’s driving force is a desire to connect with others, inspire them, and create great art. He’s currently finishing up a new collection of songs with renowned producer Andy Baldwin (Bjork, Saint Lucia, Wakey! Wakey!) set to be released late 2014.