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Free Streaming - A Musician's Saving Grace

The topic of free music on the internet has been a point of discussion since the late 90’s, and with how much the industry and culture as a whole has evolved with technological progress, the conversation has changed a reasonable amount. In 2015, we have somewhat of a mediary with streaming services that don’t allow downloads, but let the music be listened to for free. While the debate can go back and forth between the opinion that artists shouldn’t care to the claim that streaming does nothing for an artist financially, I’m here to defend the thought that maybe it actually does. 

Related: Easy Ways to Save Money on Entertainment

The Backstory

As we all know, the vast majority of musicians that tour for a living are “starving artists.” Things like Rock For Health (which is now defunct) came into existence due to the need for viable healthcare for touring recording artists. I recall a video of a band talking about making around $3/day on tour while being signed to Epitaph (I believe it was in a punk rock documentary. If anybody knows where I can find this, send me a link via Twitter please!). On the Bad Christian Podcast, Emery members Matt Carter and Toby Morrell have spoken about getting an advance from Tooth & Nail Records after recording their record, but never getting any profit from the sales.

This of course was made worse even further by Napster and the other file sharing websites that followed it, and artists were paid even less from record sales due to their music being free to anyone who wanted it.

The internet brought another aspect to the music industry: Social Media. Not only was music available at the hands of anyone who made it, but anybody could get their music to anyone they wanted for free with the help of sites like Myspace,, and purevolume. Eventually this translated to Facebook and the other sites went basically defunct (purevolume is still holding up somehow, and good for them!).

While social media is a great way to share music and connect with listeners at the price of FREE, it created an oversaturation of artists, to where people don’t need to go see a new artist in their hometown because their attention is held less easily by all of the other emerging artists they’ve just heard. 

Related: The All American Music Map 

A Solution… or?

Streaming was a solution to downloads in a way. Sites like Grooveshark, which was a site where people could upload audio files, but not download them, emerged as a solution to the downloading crisis - so people could listen to music for free but not face the risks of legal penalty for downloading them. However, there was still the problem of artists/labels/rights owners getting paid for people hearing their music at a free price.

And thus, Spotify emerged on the scene, allowing you to stream full albums at your demand - the only catch was the occasional ad, and originally a limit on how much you could listen to per month. The ads were supposed to make it possible for Spotify to pay artists in their database per play, but some fans and artists lashed out saying it wasn’t enough to justify free streaming. Taylor Swift, country-pop star extraordinaire, led the charge against Spotify.

Oddly enough, in the single month of October 2014, Swift made somewhere from $280-390,000 on her Spotify streams for “Shake It Off”. While Spotify claimed Swift earned $2 million dollars in 2014 from its streaming system, Swift’s label claimed they made under $500,000. Regardless of who is correct, the bottom line is that the Swift party (Taylor, her label, managers, etc.) seems to think that they will make more money not having music available for free stream - that they will sell more records.

Even if Swift thinks she can make more money or that $280 K from free streaming is not enough, other independent artists would argue that it helps put food on their tables more so than not. Again in Bad Christian, Matt at one point relates that a significant amount of Emery’s money is made from Spotify. Boise EDM DJ Zac “Jakzon” has also stated he, as an independent artist, gets the most money from Spotify as opposed to Itunes, Pandora, or other online music systems. And in a third example, Been Berry, writing for Wired, defended Spotify and claimed that his little independent band Moke Hill made around $900 from the service. While the numbers listed by Berry and the Swift Party per stream are very different, it at least appears to me that Spotify does not hurt artists as much as people would like to think. (See below for how Spotify pays their artists).

What’s possible is that artists like Taylor Swift - multi millionaire pop stars - fail to acknowledge when they attack streaming services for taking away from them is that these streaming services don’t exist to stop people from buying their albums, they exist to stop people from pirating their albums, and it looks like they might be working. For smaller, independent artists, this eliminates the huge problem of their music getting stolen and they make money off listeners who are too cheap to pay for their records (to put it bluntly).


Related: Spotify Royalties In Detail

The Case for Physical Sales in Vinyl

In this current resurgence of Vinyl record collection, physical sales have stayed somewhat relevant for music fanatics. People, in fact, do stream and download records online and, if they like them, go and spend money on physical copies - especially vinyl. So sure, maybe if there was no such thing as free streaming, people would be more inclined to buy vinyl. But if pirating still exists, it seems more likely that people would simply pirate their music and artists would be paid less. This is mostly due to the fact that Spotify and competing streaming services like Apple Music are open to paying artists, as well as free. People are willing to sit through a few ads to listen to something legally and free because it’s very possible that they feel less guilty about it and have less risk getting a corrupted sound file as well.

Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming services help artists more than they hurt them, especially smaller artists with less fans - who although they listen to independent music, are still cheap. It’s a solution to a problem that is not going away, albeit not a perfect solution. 

Agree? Disagree? Take huge issue with something I said? Let me on know Twitter.

Related: Apple Music Vs. Spotify: Who Will Win?


Free Streaming: A Musician's Saving Grace

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