Thought Machine: Free music for all. Right?

RockmusicRaider - Free Music Picture

Succeeding and – indeed – thriving in the music industry is hard. Real hard. Many bands out there try to eke out a living from the music they create, but very few make a decent amount of cash off their efforts. 

And we are usually not talking bad quality music neither, mind you. Often this is really good stuff coming my way from little known bands. Amazingly good.

The same goes – by the way – with reviewers and other providers of added services. So here many of them often find themselves between a rock and a hard place as far as paying the bills is concerned.

First: Break down this wall!

Getting discovered is one of the hardest obstacles bands have to overcome. And this, of course, comes before reaping any decent reward. Once they managed to get noticed and set up some remuneration, the rule is relatively simple: Size matters. The more you sell, the more you will be able to cash in, even if the sales channels by themselves do not pay much.

To get there, bands have several options and choices. Sign a record deal with labels, for instance. Or hook up to streaming services, use distributors as sales channels, get a PR, have your stuff reviewed, and so on. These choices will get them a return that is more or less juicy, depending on the deal they go for.

Now, there is a smattering of real rock stars out there that make friggin’ heaps of money, able to sustain massive marketing machines. But compared to the mean masses of bands and musicians in the world, these money-printing machines are relatively few and far between. Not everyone is Nickelback or called Iron Maiden with Ed Force One and their very own band pilot to boot. Even if evil tongues say that Bruce Dickinson is no 747 captain. 

Panem et Circenses: Music for the people, right?

To top it all, large parts of the populace still believe that music is free, should be free, even must be free. Just think back to the Napster disaster in the early ’00s. Decidedly intelligent folks created the service that based itself on free distribution of MP3s.

But those folks were strangely confused in their somewhat communist belief that all should be free and for the people. Never mind the fact that musicians need to eat too, buy equipment, or do marketing. And by doing so, they forgot that spitting into the face of any copyright rule that ever existed may not lead them to nirvana. 

After this legal bomb blew up straight in their face, new streaming services saw the light of day. Spotify and their ilk started to offer legal services that should guarantee royalties back to the artists.

But is that really so?

Most may argue otherwise, but those services pay musicians absolute peanuts. Some of them offer reviewers an affiliate program. But the majority don’t, because a) why would they and b) they just invented the ultimate driver for internet traffic. Which will in turn lead to exposure1) and get you those elusive riches that are always just beyond your reach.

This attitude is not really helpful, of course. If you reduce the good work of the musicians to some sort of a commodity, distributed by the whim of the mean masses and governed by an algorithm, then this will kill that vibrancy necessary to open music creation.

Instead, this industry risks to streamline everything down to a bland sound mix until everything sounds like friggin’ Katy Perry on a Nile steamboat. A frightening, even Orwellian thought, forsooth.

Now, streaming services are not free, nor should they be.

Some of them indeed offer a free service with commercials. But they will allow you to hook your family up to an all-you-can-listen deal for a few greenbacks a month. A little bit like those all-you-can-eat buffets. And this – let’s face it – is a great deal for consumers. You literally get free music, 24/7 – never mind those few cents a day.

As a musician, however, receiving a fraction of a cent per play ain’t gonna make you happy. Unless you have the output necessary to generate a few bucks from your hard work.

What you still buy music, as in physical records?

That is a question I get quite often. And the reply? Fuck, yeah! Music is emotions and emotions don’t limit themselves to your ears. It is the artwork, the concerts, smells – apart from the sounds. Savoring the sounds of the record, and looking at the album cover at the same time. And the risk that you potentially buy something that may suddenly not quite be to your liking. 

Now, with the new world order that establishes itself more and more, I fear that this emotional side to music is on its way out. And music will become a commodity, inevitably priced at commodity rates. Not a product, where innovation is king, and the music gets an acceptable return. Just watch the charts and the garbage those contain. 

Okay, I know this is called business, laws of the market and what have you. So, let’s just stop pretending that there is anything for free, because there isn’t. Not even the freebies from the streaming services are free. And as these guys will only improve their tools once you pay them a fee, but don’t get a lot of cash back to the artists. 

So, what can we do against the thought of free music?

Clearly, the fans need to support services and record labels that guarantee enough cash into the accounts of the artists themselves. There are indeed laudable efforts by states to ensure some sort of acceptable return for their hard work. But most of the musicians I know are very short on cash. So, at least for now, we are not there yet.

This idea that the hard work of musicians should be free (or next to it…) is not a sustainable thought – at all. The talented bands will – in the end – fall by the wayside. And that development will push things into a direction, where music is like McDonald’s hamburgers. Exactly identical in taste and texture – wherever you are in the world. And it will open all doors to the emergence of AI that slowly raises its ugly head. An unforgiving intelligence, that massages Google’s data brain and establishes a gazillion of tunes in one go. Made by machines for the mean masses.

Now, there is comfort in that for sure. But would you not want steak or some Japanese food for a change? Italian or Asian food from time to time? Variety and emotion will take you to the next level, not blandness and a grey mass of same, same, but different. And THIS variety only humans can bring to the table. Yet for that to happen, all of us need to pay a fair price for what we get. And it is here that we are still not winning.

And that’s sad.

*****

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