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Streaming may well be the death of music

There’s no such thing as “free.” Someone always pays. Major music media organizations, of both the online and print variety, have a responsibility to both music consumers and musicians. You can’t have one without the other, at least so far. One would assume that any serious member of the music-related media would express at least a cursory interest in the symbiotic relationship between consumers and creators that is necessary for a healthy music industry.

That’s why an article published by the online journal Gizmodo in early July beneath the headline “How to Get Free Music for the rest of the Summer” is so offensive.

In this piece, writer Adam Clark Estes rather gleefully describes in detail a scheme that would allow consumers to avoid paying for music for the remaining summer months by exploiting the freshly launched Apple Music streaming service’s introductory offer of three months free listening.

Estes is basically advocating signing up for Apple Music, canceling your existing streaming services, and clicking off the “auto-renew” box, so that you will be charged nothing once your free trial expires. At the end of your free music spree, said Estes, you can then simply opt for whatever streaming service you feel most comfortable with.

Talk about a meaningless summer fling.

“Apple Music is finally here!” the Estes column begins. “You know what that means? That means it’s time to cancel your other premium streaming services and coast through the rest of the summer on Apple’s dime. Here’s how.”

The sheer giddiness expressed by the writer over the prospect of swindling a summer’s worth of free music belies the fact that, initially, Apple Music planned to pay no artist royalties during the three-month consumer trial period. This would have meant that the dime in question wouldn’t belong to Apple, which has many a dime to count. It would belong to the artists and musicians who have been losing the battle for fair royalty rates ever since streaming became the norm.

I’ve never considered Taylor Swift the heroic type – her largely disposable music seems to be a direct off-shoot of the consumer belief that music should be free because it sits in a cloud, and hey, it’s really not worth anything anyway – but it was Swift who turned Apple Music’s opinion around on this matter.

After Swift tweeted her belief that Apple Music’s decision not to pay artist royalties during the trial period was “shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company,” Apple caved and reversed its decision. Apple Senior Vice President Eddy Cue took to Twitter, attempting to come across as a benevolent big brother type, but really only underscoring the fact that artists existing sans Swift-size clout no longer hold any power in the industry. “Apple will make sure that artists are paid,” Cue tweeted. “Apple Music will pay artists for streaming even during customers’ free trial period. We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists. Love, Apple.”

Aww. How sweet.

Indie labels, despite Cue’s claims to the contrary, are not likely to feel Apple’s “love,” however. For these labels and the musicians who record for them and, often, have a hand in running them, making Swift-level cash is not on the horizon. For an artist like Swift, royalties paid by streaming services are a small part of the pie chart. High-priced stadium and arena tours, product endorsements, merchandising, ancillary “tie-in products” like perfume and clothing – these make her far more money than streaming royalties possibly could. (This makes her speaking out against Apple’s “no royalties during trial period” policy incredibly kind or incredibly greedy, depending on who you ask.) Your average independent artist, by contrast, counts on the sale of their music to consumers for a healthy portion of their income.

One such independent musician, composer and label owner Markus Reuter, told music journalist Anil Prasad last month that the false image of the privileged musician has something to do with the sort of “Grab it, it’s free!” mentality espoused by the Estes article. “A major problem is the warped image the public has of musicians as celebrities,” Reuter told Prasad in an article published by “The public is unaware of the facts. When artists actually speak out, they’re being seen as whiny or greedy. The image of the happy-go-lucky musician who leads an enviable life is a lie that has been told by the mass media for many decades. It’s the breeding ground for the absurd corporate streaming business models Big Music is now selling to people.”

Swift is a celebrity. Most musicians, however, are not. They’re working people who deserve to be paid for their work. Free trial periods aside, the royalty rates paid by streaming services do not add up to a living wage for most artists. Maybe Estes and others espousing similar viewpoints think this all is funny. The joke will soon be on the rest of us, however. We are already seeing more and more musicians forced to choose between giving their music away for free and living lives of constant touring in order to scrape by, or going along with the Big Music streaming plan – in which case, they can still tour constantly in order to scrape by. If making independent music is truly a lose-lose proposition, we can expect more and more meaningless and generic musical products to be filling our clouds, as more and more potentially groundbreaking and worthwhile musical endeavors are either abandoned or ignored. And every consumer who felt entitled to free music will be partly to blame.

Here’s a worthwhile rule of thumb to consider: The only free music you’re entitled to is the music you make yourself.


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