Streaming Music: Who Wins, Who Loses

The topic of Streaming Music came up in a conversation today, and I wanted to make my position clear. This site directs readers of my reviews to a site where they can purchase the artists’ music. Spotify links are provided for one reason, and one reason only…I know many music aficionados like to hear music before they purchase. That’s fine, but if you stream exclusively, no one wins. The artist who created certainly doesn’t (more on that below), and neither do you, because the artists have all of the same living expenses that you and I have. If they can’t make a living wage from their music, they can’t create new music…it’s that simple.

It’s worth looking back to a little history and understanding how we got to this point, and what you can do in order to enjoy music as well as the artists you enjoy.

If I could point to one moment in time that triggered the avalanche, it would be somewhere around the late 1990s / early 2000s. I purchased most of my music at Tower Records. I was there on every “New Release Tuesday,” and the new music was often available at a “sale price,” but the cost of an average CD soared to somewhere around $20. If you love music, that adds up fast. and that’s OK, as long as you get a solid album in return.

There were two problems with this.

First, at the time, the manufacturing cost of a single CD was around $1. That means that $19 of that $20 went to the record labels. After “expenses,” the artist received royalties.

All evidence that I’ve seen, and I’d love to see factual information to the contrary, is that the spike in individual CD sales did not translate directly into increased royalties for the artists. They remained in a “holding pattern,” while the additional profits went directly to label executives, and other “non-creative” personnel.

When a consumer is asked to pay more for something they purchase on a regular basis, they do one of several things.

1). They bite the bullet and continue to pay, perhaps not happy with the price, but realizing that eventually the price goes up on everything.

2). They become more selective about what they purchase, or go “brand shopping” for the same thing at a cheaper price.

3). They eliminate “non-survival” items from their budget.

4). OR…the rebellion against high prices being equivalent to perceived value gives birth to pirated music via the original Napster, Limewire, Bearshare, and all of the other “file sharing” services from days gone by.

Obviously, the concept of illegally “sharing” music didn’t sit well with the artists. You can debate over whether the record label’s anger was based on artists being cheated out of money they had earned, anger at their own loss of profits, or some combination of the two. What matters is that neither the artists nor the labels chose to sit still while their music was “given away.”

Enter Metallica, specifically, drummer Lars Ulrich. He was vilified for testifying before committees on the subject of music piracy, but put yourself in his shoes for a moment. If you were an artist, and you knew that your music was being illegally passed from hand to hand, would you sit back and say “No big deal?” Of course you wouldn’t. Metallica were simple defending their intellectual property. regardless of how badly it played in the headlines.Fans, and non-fans alike, howled that he was “going after the kids” who put him on the map, but ask yourself…how can you “go after” someone who is stealing from you?

The fight against illegal file sharing services eventually prevailed, and in the wake of all the lawsuits came iTunes, “legal” (paid) Napster, and more. Consumers could purchase individual tracks or full albums, and they could hear previews of each track. This smoothed over concerns over the number of illegal downloads. but it created two new problems:

1). Any time a business model shifts to a new structure, so does everything within the structure. Apple and the other companies selling digital downloads became “middle men” between the record labels and consumers. This wasn’t a public service or an act of altruism. They expected to be paid, which meant the record labels were forced to consider how to slice up the pie. I hate to inject spoilers at this point, but you can take it to the bank that when a record label decides who is going to get paid, and how much, the artist isn’t the first entity in the equation to “take it to the bank.”

2). ANY TIME a new industry or sub-industry is formed, an anxious “entrepreneurial” public licks their collective lips and thinks “There’s probably some money for me to make here,” so they spin all of the possible combinations and arrive at a business proposal. By the time iTunes really took off, they were selling iPods as the device of choice to play them on. That led to competitive “MP3 players,” and eventually music capabilities on mobile phones. So the entrepreneurs thought “Let’s take this one step further. Let’s cut out physical media altogether, and offer a “library” of songs that people can listen to anywhere, on any device.”

Sounds great, right? Maybe, but backtrack a couple of paragraphs to the bit about slicing the pie. When the Streaming companies launched, they paid record labels for each song stream, and let the chips fall where they may when it came to the artists’ compensation. Who do you think came out on top? Before you answer, read this article on What Streaming Music Services Pay (Updated for 2019).

The highest royalty rate per single stream of a single song comes from Pandora, at $0.01682 per play. Do you remember the last time you went to the store and purchased something for $0.01682?

Neither do the artists who created the music.

And remember, that’s the top going rate. You’ll see how other streaming services rank in the article. Be prepared for a shock, even worse than what you’ve already seen here.

Despite the crass and heartless trend of “wealth redistribution” artists have seen in the age of Streaming, it has become widely embraced by the general public. Just think! For $12 per month, you have access to millions of songs in your own intangible “Music Library!” WOW! The artists get screwed, but…wow.

This is where my Website, “There Once Was A Note,” comes into play. Years ago, a good friend and business associate, who is a Realtor, told me “I personally don’t like Facebook, but it’s where my family, friends, and clients are, and I need to be where they are.”

Got it?

All of the unfairness I’ve laid out doesn’t change the fact that many people who listen to music head to YouTube or a Streaming service where they hear it “for free” (or a monthly fee that’s somewhere around the price of a single CD).

There is one single objective of this Website…I want to expose you to as many brilliant artists as possible, and once you enjoy their music, I want you to purchase their music, so they can continue to make new music.

I need to be where they are, and if “they” are on Spotify, I’ll use that as means to encourage “them” to purchase the music they like.

To answer the question that begins this piece. who wins and who loses? If you, as a consumer, get the majority of your music from a streaming service, the answer isn’t “the artist.” It’s the streaming service, and they are pocketing profits that should rightly go to the artist.

Remember the advice of my mom, and probably all moms…”All things in moderation.” I’m not inciting you to overthrow the streaming services. I’m not advocating them, either. If you use them to discover new music, that’s great. Then support the musicians who made it and purchase their music.

I’m not sure how many people share my opinion, but if what I’ve written angers or offends you, all I can say is you’ve come to the wrong Website. I’m here for the artists. I want you to enjoy them, but never at the expense of what is right and what is fair. Thanks for listening, and keep supporting music in whatever way you can.