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Music as a Free Commodity

Music Note Bokeh
(Photo by allthatimprobableblue)

A question was brought to my attention after a chat with a friend, and I’m not sure I have an answer…  So of course, I’ll turn to you.  It went something like this:

Friend: Spotify and Rdio both seem to either limit your amount of free music or play ads. I guess I’ll have to switch back and forth between them.

Me: Or you could just pay for one?

Friend:  We pay after we know it’s good. We listen for free. Isn’t that the new standard?

Now, granted, my urging to pay for a subscription service does little to nothing to aid in providing the artist or writer with a living [ref. chart here], but it’s still a flag I carry.  I think it reminds people that streaming or downloading music gives you an emotional experience that took the creator time, money, and energy to create… and has monetary value.

I try to correlate this to something I know and enjoy quite often: Food.  As my friend pointed out later in our conversation, you can walk into many stores and sample their food before you decide to purchase as well.  I agree, and think that’s a great idea and pretty much good cheap advertising.  

The difference between the restaurant industry and the music industry:  Domino’s isn’t sending you on-demand free slices of pizza to your computer for you to consume wherever you are, whenever you want it.  [But if they did we might just solve world hunger]

However, Spotify, Rdio, and MOG now are [songs, not pizza, but you get it].  

Now, full disclosure, I absolutely do allow Spotify and MOG to play my music and basically think of it as a necessary outlet, just like Facebook or iTunes, to reach new fans.  I also have a paid subscription to Rdio and buy records on iTunes.  While I don’t want to get into the technicalities of legislation or royalties here, artists and writers are getting compensated from a fraction of the ad revenue on these services [again, reference this humorous chart], but in essence, this trend is training the general public to think of recorded music as a Free Commodity.

So, my question to you: As recorded music becomes closer to a Free Commodity, is it up to the ethical duty of the patron to decide how to compensate the creator [Buy tickets to a show? Kickstarter support? Merchandise?] allowing the artist to incentivize listeners through their recordings?  Or should those who profit from the Commodity [Streaming Services? On Demand Radio?] be more closely regulated by legislation?


Michael Shoup is a Singer/Songwriter from Nashville, TN and a web marketing consultant for Independent Artists and Major Labels alike.  

You can keep up with him via his BlogTwitter, or Facebook.

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Reader Comments (21)

Even i have been thinking in those lines for sometime and searching for an answer ....i have a question ..We say listening to music is a right which evry human njoy .But is it actually true ?people living below the poverty line are not able to .I think its high time we should come up wid a model which would alow evryone to listen to song if one desires plus the artiste should be able to earn decently for their work put in and also the industry if they r part of it ........

October 25 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Paul

I post my music on Spotify, and all the artists I promote.

There is no ethical responsibility to make sure artists get paid for making music. There is, also, no legitimate right for artists to get paid when someone hears their music. As the listening model of people around the world changes, business people need to adapt and find new ways to make money, if that is what they want to do. Artists will continue to listen to their muse and create regardless.

The real question is, are you a business man or an artist? Where is your priority? Follow that priority. Iit might mean doing something besides music to make money, if you can't continue to make money via traditional venues such as radio plays or album sales.

October 25 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

If a Spotify customer chooses to listen to your music, think of it as free advertising. After listening to your advertisement, a customer has no ethical obligation to you whatsoever. On the contrary, you as an artist have an obligation to make an advertisement that doesn't suck.

If you manage to do that, the customer may just choose to buy what you're selling -- merch, tickets, etc. -- but by no means are they obligated ethically or morally to do so just because they enjoyed your advertisement.

October 25 | Unregistered CommenterAaron B

I completely agree with everything Michael is saying here. The analogy of taste testing food to testing must before you buy it is right on target, at least for me. As a paying subscriber to Spotify, I listen to it on a regular basis and when a certain artist catches my ear I immediately go to their website to see what music, merch, and information is out there about that artist. Often times, I will buy an album on iTunes after listening to it a few times and I always feel great about my purchase once I have listened and know it is worth spending my money on.

October 25 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Recorded music is already a free commodity and has been since Napster. There are two types of music fans: transactional and engaged.

Historically, the transactional listener had a few options if they wanted to enjoy a hit single on his own time: (1) He could check the radio frequently and record off the radio onto a tape to listen to at his leisue (although, I doubt too many people outside of myself had the patience for this) or (2) he could purchase the full album from a record store.

For those listeners that only ever cared about the single, the music industry was extracting an exorbitant price per 'song' sold, since the industry essentially was only selling one or two songs per album to that listener. The rest of the album didn't matter and the listener would only purchase the next album if it contained another hit single. These are the people that will go to a concert to hear the one hit song.

If the listener was an engaged listener, then the listener bought the album, scoured the liner notes for easter eggs, listened intently to each song, and had an emotional investment in addition to her monetary investment. If the album sucked, then the purchase was a mistake and the next album wasn't purchased. If the album was great, a relationship was formed and the artist could rely on these fans to buy future albums, go to concerts, and buy additional merchandise.

So, today, you see the music industry hurting because the value an artist creates lies in the relationship that is formed with his or her listeners. The industry was great at extracting an oversized purchase from casual listeners and capitalizing on hit singles. The artists that are succeeding now (like Amanda Palmer, Radiohead, of Montreal, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Girl Talk, Pomplamoose) are doing well because, in addition to high quality music output, they engage fans by packaging their products in unique ways, ask for direct support, come up with unique or quirky products, or take on personas that people talk about.

The casual fans can either listen for free or purchase the popular song they like, but there is no chance of turning these fans into engaged listeners now. The engaged listeners have continued to show support over the past decade. It should be every artist's goal to create an engaged fan base because that's where the value is.

The record industry's model is broken because they have to create these fan bases over time and don't realize the cash infusion from transactional, casual listeners just because a song is popular. The industry has shrunk simply because it was right-sized by the internet. The industry can no longer take advantage of transactional listeners. And there is nothing wrong with that.

October 25 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

These are some great comments and ideas, guys, keep them coming!

I think the consensus so far seems to be that streaming for a listen now comes down to advertisement, which, I somewhat agree with.

The "ethical" question I speak of above doesn't really come from someone listening to your "ad" and deciding not to buy anything. It's more a question of "did I get something out of that?". Ads are made to sell product and that's it. Music isn't, it's made to move you, and there really is no defined business that says you'll make a living selling emotion :)

All of that to say, even in that position, it's totally still up to the artist to give the listener incentive to move from Spotify listener to fan. If the song alone didn't do that, then we're back to the drawing board.

October 25 | Registered CommenterMichael Shoup

Subscription services are still paying artists even if the service is "free" to users. Artists are getting a significant portion of ad revenue and/or a per-play rate.

October 25 | Unregistered CommenterMr. Cranky

Rather than looking at streaming services/distributors as revenue sources.. we should first see their value in advertising and promotions for the artists long-term development. The industry is becoming more and more niched and artists are increasingly looking at small numbers of highly engaged fans in the hopes of creating a sustainable career in music. Services like Spotify and Rdio may not pay well in the short term, but undoubtedly help with awareness and long term fandom. Every seed you plant matters.

The introduction of legislation/regulation of royalty payouts of streaming services would only help to reduce the number of available streaming services like Spotify.While there many companies are not paying out royalties that we believe are "fair," there are distributors and companies that allow for streaming that DO give a reasonable portion of ad sales to royalty payments (Gogoyoko is the first that comes to mind) and they do not need legislation to tell them to do so.

October 25 | Unregistered CommenterWesley B

I've debated this with my bass player before. He wrote on his blog "Derek thinks Music" about how I view recorded music as an advertising and marketing media. The music itself is no longer the product, the band is. The image, merchandise, concert tickets are where the majority of smaller bands make their money anyway, why not give it away for free when you can? It's free advertisement for your band, the industry is going to have to find new and inventive ways to make money from other avenues.

October 25 | Unregistered CommenterTito Lopez

There's some stuff relevant to this thread going on over here:

So, the moral and/or ethical question is a subjective one. It's very easy for fans, consumers, customers to feel entitled to someone's work for free, especially when it's been accessible for so long. It's also easy to eat a cheeseburger when you don't have to slaughter a cow. I'm not promoting vegetarianism, but it's very easy to commit what seems to be a victimless crime when the effects aren't personal or immediate, even easier when everyone in the world is doing the same thing, and the industry continues to produce. (an industry that has dipped from 48 billion to 12).

Who wants to pay for something they can get for free? Music isn't water out of your tap...even there, someone is paying for it, it comes out of your taxes. Music doesn't have that luxury, some of the bigger labels have money to tide them over and maintain appearances, but that's crumbling before our eyes (the publishing companies as well).

The industry was functioning for years under a certain set of checks and balances, constants and variables (I'm not saying these were fair to artists or consumers, but they were the laws of the land). What's happening now, is entropy and apathy. The inherent basis of the functioning of the system has changed, but people's expectations haven' fact, people want, and apparently expect more.

What we have been seeing, and will continue to see is what happens when a durable good (or sometimes less than durable), a product becomes disposable, and it's value becomes arbitrary. In my opinion, as the medium of music has become free and disposable, the content has and will continue to follow suit.

Diminishing returns are seen across the board, in every demographic of music, it hits some harder than others. It's very easy to just say that things are changing and you need to keep up or become a dinosaur, but without positing any type of solution you're kidding yourself. Touring constantly is not a sustainable or realistic solution, publishing deals and/or synch is not sustainable either...and a bubble that will potentially burst. Corporate sponsors can work, but what if you aren't interested in representing them, or having your work and likeness appropriated by them? Innovative merch and packaging is nice, but most of the artists mentioned who were involved in that have or had label support and an established career already, and have been able to get a lot of overhead's not an option for everyone.

Is music an advertisement? Should it be by nature? Should art BE commerce? If it were, what would it sound like? Would you want to listen to it, would you have a visceral reaction and an emotional connection to it or would it just sell other things?

It might take longer for some than others, but you can't get blood from a stone, and as passionate as an artists is, in order to following your muse you need to feed it, and yourself for that matter. That's getting harder to do. Tickets will get more expensive, tours will be cancelled, records will take longer to come out, or not come out at all, or be mediocre because not enough time or resources were available to make them.

Chances are, fans will complain about this, but if one can't see the bigger picture, and the "ecosystem" that music, musicians, fans, labels etc are, nothing is going to get better. In my opinion there definitely have to be specific steps made to handle the inflation we're dealing with here, but without a degree of moral and ethical consideration we can't even begin to see the problem clearly.

October 25 | Unregistered Commentergaetano

Argh, posts and discussions like this worry me.

First off, why has no one even bothered to debate the use of the word commodity to describe music? Here's a definition: (from wikipedia )"a class of goods for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market."

Oil qualifies, not sure music does.

Anyway, of course it's the ethical duty of a patron to pay a creator because that's what patrons do. The real question is this: do artists have a legal right to be protected from those who would steal the ideas of an artist? Yes, it's called copyright and just because no one is enforcing it doesn't mean it's wrong or not the law. As for how to enforce it, well, there are simply ways (DRM, but done right is one) but few people seem to want to talk about that.


October 26 | Registered CommenterJeff Shattuck

Pirated online contents are already scattered everywhere, let's not add more insult to the injury. For artists who live by their craft, it's but proper to give them what's due for their hardwork. It's like having no free lunch straight from a farmer's harvest to me.Us getting free music should be upon their discretion, as a matter of courtesy, or a marketing ploy, then we enjoy the freebie.

@gaetano funny you should mention that post. that is my bass player. I agree with what you have said. I'm simply stating that the music itself can be used as a marketing tool. Should all music be free? no, i don't think so. i feel artists that are worthy of compensation for their work. but as you stated, there is a diminished return. we have to start getting creative and think outside the box. create the music you love and others will see the passion, then market that. when we figure what what to market and create to that demand we have taken away our own credibility as an artist.

October 27 | Unregistered CommenterTito Lopez

Directly in answer to your question I do not believe policing, legislation or any such method ever works, how many people smoke weed and that has been illegal for years with far more draconian legislation than file sharing will ever get.

Good music and good musicians will always find a market, and get paid, maybe not the mega bucks of the 70's a80's and 90's but certainly they will make money. In a way the problem with spotify and the other streaming services is that it allows for so much music to now be available and there is no real quality control, I have yet to meet a musician who doesn't think their music is amazing and worthy of an audience. Sadly this is not always the case. New technology allows any body with or without talent to make a track and post it.

October 29 | Unregistered CommenterJulian

I feel that music will never be a "free commodity". When something is created such as a song, it has a particular amount of value, be intrinsic or another type. When people see the value, they are more likely to enter into transactions in order to receive that value. This is my reasoning behind why music will never be free. Be it the fan or the artist, as long as value can be found within the commodity provided, some form of exchange will exist and be necessary as a kind of regulator to ensure an equal amount of value is being traded between both parties.

-JJ Engel

October 29 | Unregistered CommenterJJ Engel

I don't really have the knowledge or experience to make a sophisticated argument as some have here, but I can speak from the perspective of a former Limewire user who now buys all their music. I fully understand why people decide to download music for free instead of buying it - if you have the opportunity to get something for free, why not? They don't need your money anyway, they're all filthy rich rock/pop stars with a million pound record deal...

Finding music I could really connect with, combined with the realisation that the majority of musicians really don't make that much from their music (I was in the library a few years back looking for a schoolwork-related book and came across one on the music industry that looked interesting), persuaded me to "invest" in the bands and buy their albums/merchandise. I'm still in full-time education and I don't exactly have a lot of money but I choose to save up and wait until I can buy the album. In the meantime, I'll stream it on Spotify, or if it's not there I'll go to YouTube. From that perspective, having your music on services such as Spotify is better than your fans just going to stream it for free on YouTube. Or having no other choice (well, apart from actually buying it!) but to illegally download it.

October 30 | Unregistered CommenterClare

It really scares me the way these new services are teaching society to see music as a free commodity. Free? Really? It is also really gross to listen to non-musicians try to decide how much a song should cost. And music has become branded. We no longer listen to Coldplay, but rather Pandora or Spotify. The truth is, listening to and obtaining music has become an effortless and mindless activity. Listeners don't need to to have regard for an artist anymore, and this is sad.

November 6 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

music is like light. sometimes it is a commodity. sometimes its a marketing tool. just like how light can be a wave or a particle.

November 6 | Unregistered CommenterTito Lopez

I see music as a service to our emotions. Traditionally, it was packaged more as a product, but things have changed. I do see how general people could view music as advertising, and there are similarities, but it's ultimately different, as advertising is produced to lure in customers to purchase the final product. Here it seems, the properly mixed and mastered music is being referred to as a precursor to the final product, which isn't. Sure some can argue that concert tickets and merch could be considered the end product, but those products themselves have higher cost of entry.

If people are happy with just watching movie trailers and not the movie, that's fine, but we all know that's not how it should work. Then again, movie industry is going through what music went through long time ago. With higher broadband penetration and improved home theater systems, the industry in due for a free fall. But that's another topic of discussion.

My take on music is that songwriters and performers need support. If listeners appreciate the services that they are listening to, I think it would be okay to pay homage to the product by donating appreciation for the creators to improve, refine, and produce more. I think without token of appreciation to the artists, the quality of music in general will depreciate and left with crappy music such as current top 40 hits.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterG

I’m impressed with your site. I had no trouble navigating through all the tabs and information was very easy to access. I found what I wanted in no time at all. Pretty awesome. Would appreciate it if you add forums or something, it would be a perfect way for your clients to interact.

January 26 | Unregistered CommenterPortugal Jazz

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