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Speak Out: Everything is Free

ART TIMES Spring 2014

“Everything is free now , that's what they say. Everything I ever done, gonna give it away. Someone hit the big score, they figured it out, that we’re gonna do it anyway, even if doesn't pay.”

These words from “Everything Is Free” by singer-songwriter and Americana Goddess, Gillian Welch, resonate with me daily. As a musician, I am hyper aware of the truth that music is becoming easier to access for free. With modern technology and new ways to listen to music without paying a penny, Gillian’s words are even more relevant than they were when she wrote this song for her 2001 album, Time (The Revelator).

The topic of music accessibility comes up often, though the tone of this conversation varies greatly depending on who’s having it. Amongst non-musician and active music consumers, it is a light-hearted topic fueled by the excitement of having seemingly unlimited access to new and desired music.

For musicians, however, this topic is a lot more complicated. After all, musicians are music makers and music consumers, and many rely on modern day technology to get their music heard. When it comes to free music, many musicians like myself, are torn. Torn between the undeniable fact that people want free music, and the frustration of knowing that what that means is getting a lot less pay.

When Gillian’s song first came out in 2001, Napster was new. Other file sharing networks existed at the time, but Napster brought music file sharing to the masses. Though eventually, Napster and other file sharing services ceased their operations because of legal issues over copyright infringement. But what Napster created which ultimately prevailed, was the understanding that people could share files easily.

Over the last decade, new file sharing models developed, modifying their format to meet consumers’ needs with the attempt to legitimize their practices. In just over a decade, file sharing morphed from something that only a few people did, to part of the everyday routine of hundreds of millions of people.

In 2008, Spotify, a commercial music streaming service, was developed. With this service, you can browse music by artist, genre, playlist or record label, and listen to full songs without downloading or purchasing them. Spotify offers a basic service for free (streaming/listening to songs with ads), and a premium service (listening without ads) for $10 per month.

In 2012, total Spotify users reached 20 million, 5 million who paid and 15 million who used it for free. In December of 2013 Spotify became available on all mobile phones and began to offer an offline listening option to premium members, enabling these members to listen without internet access. The service pays .01 cent per stream (song play) to their artists and has been incredibly controversial, causing outrage among many musicians, producers, and record labels. In July of 2013, Thom Yorke of Radiohead pulled all of his solo work off of Spotify and tweeted "Spotify isn't fair to artists... make no mistake, new artists you discover on Spotify will not get paid. Meanwhile shareholders will shortly be rolling in it...” In March 2012, Patrick Carney of the Black Keys said, for "a band that makes a living selling music, streaming services are not a 'feasible' option.” Roseanne Cash on her recent interview with Mashable talks about how she was shocked to learn that in the last year she had hundreds of thousands of streams and only received $200 for them.

In the last 5 years, Spotify has reworked their model and has issued many statements in response to claims like these. On their website, they say that “unfortunately, the majority of music consumption today generates little to no money for artists” but that they are “attempting to restore much of the lost value by convincing music fans to pay for music once again.” There is a chart that shows that the average US (non-Spotify) paying listener value per year is $55 million, and that Spotify US premium subscribers spend $120 million per year. Spotify also claims that with every new premium subscriber, the more royalties they pay out to the industry. They also stand by a conviction that they are providing a legal way to stream, keeping people from engaging in piracy and illegal fire sharing.

It's no surprise that with an increase of file sharing, album sales have dropped drastically and record labels are losing lots of money. Even well established musicians and labels are finding it hard to fund albums the way they used to, they simply are not making back what they put in.

So what does this mean for the future of music?

Personally, I find it terrifying. I worry about the future of albums. I worry about how musicians will continue to make a living in a world that gets music for free. In her Mashable interview, Roseanne Cash says “it’s harder to make a living; I have to go on the road more often, and I have a teenager at home. That's really hard. I hate leaving him.” Many musicians have expressed the need to go on tour more because of the drop of album sales.

There is a strong part of me that wants to fight Spotify, join Thom Yorke in his campaign. Take my music off, commit to the idea that if people want it enough, they’ll buy it. Artists certainly deserve to get paid much more than $0.01 per stream. And now with offline streaming, there’s less of an incentive to buy music because you can listen to songs anywhere for just $10 a month. There’s a lot to be upset about.

But if I’m truly being honest, most of my anger is not for Spotify itself but for the truth that it exposes. A truth that musicians and album appreciators have long resisted and denied: that file sharing is becoming easier and more popular among the masses.

I guess Spotify seemed inevitable, tapping into a mindset that already existed. I guess it could be worse. It’s certainly possible that by creating a legal streaming system that pays royalties, we could potentially be avoiding something worse. Without Spotify, perhaps piracy and illegal downloading would prevail, perpetuating a harsher depreciation of music. Maybe.

For me and where I am at in my career, frankly and personally, having my music on Spotify has meant reaching a wider audience. I often change my mind about this, but the hard reality is even some of the most well-intentioned music consumers don’t buy all the music they listen to. By not offering my music for free, I limit who hears it, as upsetting as that may be.

Last week, I sent two CDs to fans in Switzerland who found my music on Spotify. This is the best-case scenario; people hear you and then decide to buy your music. These are the supporters I am most grateful for. After all, it is still true that the best way to support artists we love is to buy their music, to put money in their tip jar, to pay them for their work. For many artists, music is not just a passion, it’s a career. We are getting too used to getting things for free. File sharing’s biggest negative effect has been devaluing art in a world that desperately needs it.

What we as musicians and music consumers need to do now, is think about what we value and make a choice. We can reject the system all together, we can adapt to the new system, or we can work to change the system within our own control. What Thom Yorke and Roseanne Cash are doing is admirable and it’s bringing an issue to our attention that needs to be continually addressed and discussed. Spotify claims they are bringing value back into music. I am skeptical, but I hope they are right. And just as the models for file sharing have drastically changed, I can’t help but hope that how we value music will change drastically. We can’t get to the point where musicians can’t afford to make music anymore.

And as working musicians, we need to get creative. We need to think about developing new income-generating models of making and distributing music that represent us as artists. This is already happening with the development of crowd funding models that give fans an opportunity to help raise money for projects, a shift to live and home recording, and a rise of independent artists, even in the mainstream. The increase in accessibility and growth of social media, despite its controversies, is giving control to the artist, increasing the possibility for us to pave our own way.

The feeling that everything is free now is disheartening. But my favorite part of Gillian Welch’s song is the last line in her chorus, “we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.” Perhaps that isn’t taking a powerful stand against an injustice. But 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.

(Emily Mure, is a singer-songwriter, arranger, educator and Contributing Writer to ART TIMES).

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