"Who got all your promo copies while you were out on medical leave?"
This, one of many responses to a recent Facebook post of mine, nearly knocked me off my chair, I was laughing so hard. Promo copies? "Dude, that's so 2014" was my response. Haven’t your heard? Music's free now. And record labels are certainly not servicing journalists with review copies of discs. Very few of them, anyway.
This sounds like a first-world problem because, well, it is one, and feeling sorry for journalists who are finding it more and more difficult to get their hands on the materials they need to do their jobs is not something a wise person should be doing right now. In defense of the record labels, perhaps they realize that so many publications aren’t running disc reviews any longer, deeming them unworthy of the time and space. Why waste money sending promo copies of recordings that aren’t going to get reviewed?
There's an underlying disturbing reality at work here, though. Because, even though the music business as we once knew it is a ship that sailed without even granting us the dignity of a tearful goodbye, someone is still making money off of it. Lots of money. And this someone is not exactly eager to share their spoils with the creators of the music that is the very ware their business pedals.
In an editorial published on Billboard.com on Oct. 20, musician Melvin Gibbs – who is now president of the non-profit Content Creators Coalition – offered us a snapshot of how the sausage is made in the digital content distribution age.
"Earlier this summer, the Internet Association trade group that represents the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley wrote the U.S. Trade Representative - who is currently renegotiating NAFTA, the venue where artist's protections in international law will be decided - and claimed to be 'the new faces of the American content industry'. These are companies that earn billions strip-mining artists' work, paying us below market royalties, turning a blind eye to the piracy of our work on their networks, telling the U.S. government they speak for us. It's like butchers claiming to represent the cattle."
Gibbs goes on to state what should by now be obvious – the music business has been supplanted by the data-aggregation business. Platforms like Spotify, Google, Facebook and YouTube are in the business of selling ads. For them, content is content, none of it sacred, all of it replaceable, and preferably yesterday, please.
If you're not a musician, perhaps this is something you'll file under the "Not my problem" heading. But if you're a consumer of music – particularly live music – you're indeed among the affected. Here's Gibbs again: "We've had to find new ways to reach our fans, get on top of social media and learn to squeeze a living from a hodgepodge of sources -cobbling together digital royalties, live performances and merch into a basic wage that hopefully recaptures what was lost when albums went away."
We know that digital royalties pay even mega-established artists very little, and struggling artists next to nothing. That leaves live performances and merchandise sales. Merch has a huge mark-up, as you'll know if you ogle, say, a band name-emblazoned hoodie and consider dropping the $75 to $100 for the privilege of wearing it.
Live music – that's where artists are attempting to recoup the bulk of the money they used to make when people actually paid for their recordings, rather than streaming them for free. That means higher ticket prices for concerts, VIP packages, meet-and-greet deals, and other undignified behavior, all of it meant to squeeze money out of consumers. Add the fact that Ticketmaster, for example, now takes a cut of secondary market ticket sales, and we have a form of legalized scalping further muddying the waters.
(An example: I love Robert Plant's new album, and even though I knew I'd missed the pre-sale on his performance at Massey Hall in Toronto, I thought I'd see if I could find a single ticket at a fair price. Through Ticketmaster, I had the opportunity to buy a good seat, through their legal secondary sales arm, for $845. Plus fees. Yes, this is an intimate space in a major market. But how is that OK? Tickets for Marilyn Manson's February show at the Rapids Theatre, which sold out in minutes, are going for a more reasonable $150 average, but they're likely to go up.
So, you might not be spending money on artist's new album any longer, but you're paying, one way or another. "Free music" is a myth. Following the money trail doesn’t lead to some rich rock star's villa in the South of France any longer. It leads to Silicon Valley. And it's likely lobbying in Washington as you read this.