July 18, 2015
Balancing the Stream
The sounds of music are changing
We’ve seen this story before. Technology ushers in massive change, and the leaders of established industry resist. As our once-analog world has shifted more and more to digital, the way we consume entertainment has morphed into something that once seemed like science fiction. The Polish writer Stanisław Lem talked of electronic books in his 1961 novel Return from the Stars, and Arthur C. Clarke included digital newspapers read on an iPad-like device in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Science-fiction writers are visionaries; music executives are not. Having been caught off-guard and steamrolled by the iPod and iTunes, they seem determined to maintain control of the ones and zeros that have replaced physical albums. As consumption moves to all-you-can-listen streaming services, the labels try to force licensing and royalty models designed for the analog age onto the digital one.
This month, Apple launched Apple Music, ending a year of speculation about what they would do with Beats, the Dr. Dre-Jimmy Iovine headphones/streaming music outfit they dropped a cool $3 billion for in May 2014. The new service enters a market already crowded with similar offerings, like Spotify, Pandora, and Rdio.
That’s if you live outside of Japan. Here, the powers-that-be have managed to keep streaming mostly at bay. Spotify has been promising it is “coming soon” for several years; Rdio the same. KKBOX putters along while Line is trying out a new service. And Sony? It shut down its own Music Unlimited service in March. (Interestingly, it did this to replace MU with Spotify on PlayStation—except in Japan.) iTunes Radio, which Apple launched in June 2013, never made it here at all.
So you can imagine my shock when it was revealed that Apple Music would be available in 100-plus countries—including Japan. At first I thought this signaled a change in how the music industry is approaching digital distribution. There’s even a three-month free trial. Then the likes of Adele and The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe, who called Apple “a satanic corporation,” rebelled. Taylor Swift didn’t slap the pentagram on Cupertino, but the company did become the subject of a lover’s tirade, the kind that has made her a superstar.
Taylor was right—and wrong. She was right in saying that artists should be paid for their work, even during the free trial period. She was wrong in ignoring the fact that it’s the labels who made the deal and dictate the terms. The music executives are the ones who continue to screw over artists. And that’s my problem with the recent media reaction, and with Taylor’s decisions involving her work and streaming.
What seems to get lost in the hype is the fact that, historically, artists don’t get paid for their work. When you stream a song, a tiny bit of money—$0.006 to $0.0084, in the case of Spotify—goes to the label. Depending on the deal the artist has cut with their label, some of this goes to them.
But in the radio world, the one in which most existing artists built their careers (including Taylor), a play sends money not to the labels or the artist, but to the songwriter and ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers). So, overall, singers have a more accessible route to money as a result of us hearing their song today than they did in the world of radio, even if the amounts are small.
The point is, times are changing and those running the industry have to change with it. Taylor went after Apple when it’s really the labels that hold the keys. Streaming is a powerful medium for artists that allows them to get their music in front of people who would otherwise never hear it—and that can lead to sales.
I love streaming not because I want all of the world’s music essentially for free, but because I can sample work that I wouldn’t pay ¥2,600 for just to see if I like it. When I find an artist I do like, I buy the album. You have to support the creators you love, otherwise they can’t continue to make new music. So I’m excited to see Apple Music coming to Japan, and I’m glad that those with a powerful voice are taking a stand. I’m doubly glad that Apple agreed to pay artists even during the trial period. But I’m also disappointed that the industry itself remains so resistant to change. Music executives, we’re moving on—with or without you. Are you coming along for the ride?