I had an allowance when I was growing up. It wasn’t huge, really just a couple bucks a week, but I always spent the money on music. CDs. I’d make by way to the record store and bury myself for hours and hours, listening mostly to classical or electronic music. You could stand at one of the listening stations and sing as loudly as you wanted and lose yourself in the music. That’s what I loved.
Even now, the bulk of my disposable income goes to music: buying music for DJ sets, paying entry to see shows, and so on.
It never occurred to me that music could be available for “free,” not until I got to college. Even with the Sony BMG subscription service of the 90s, where you “tried” 10 CDs for .99 cents before being charged a larger rate, you still paid something. When I got to college my roommate (hot) introduced me Audio Galaxy and suddenly I was exposed to a world of seemingly unlimited music, just so long as you didn’t get caught downloading it by the university.
I pay for all the things I need in my life: my cellphone bill, my rent, I pay to eat food and drink alcohol and I pay to go nightclubs. Why should music be any different? No really, think about it. What is it specifically about music that gets us thinking it “should” be free when other things we need in life are not?
Though Spotify offers a “freemium” model, where you can listen to as much music as you want for free, even that isn’t actually free. You may not be committing $10 a month to them but you’re still “paying” for the service by listening to the ads they throw at you so you can get those 30 minutes of commercial-free music in. It’s basically a radio model allowing you to listen to music if you can deal with listening to the ads, too.
Now, the economics of record label deals are surfacing and it doesn’t look good. The long and short of it is that record labels are terrible and greedy. Most of the money artists make on the CDs they sell usually goes directly back to the label itself, not to the artists. According to a 2012 study conducted by New York Magazine, a red-hot four piece indie band who’s on the tips of everyone’s lips and hyped on all the blogs might make $2 per CD sold, after label cuts, meaning if they sold 125,000 copies then the band would make $250,000 on that album.
Spotify streams are worth even less, at say .005 per stream, meaning if 20,000 people streamed your music you’d get a check for $100.
If you’re an artist, whether you’re Beyoncé or a small band no one has ever heard of, the real money is in touring, merch, and other licensing — call it the debris from the album. You know how you go to a show to see your favorite band and they have t-shirts and records and all that other shit? That’s their bread and butter.
The way the “free music” debate is usually framed is that artists aren’t getting paid enough money. Artists should be paid for their work. But all too often artists and record labels make it look like it’s the fans’ fault for listening for “free” or for downloading music illegally.
The most important thing you can do to support your favorite artists is not necessarily buying their records or paying $10 to stream their music. Go see them live every time they come to town or nearby. See them twice, three times. Buy some merch at their live shows. Spread the word about them and tell your friends about the people you’re listening to. Have a house party and play their music so other people find out about them, too.
Music has never been free, even if you don’t pay for it directly.