Who pays for free music?

Posted April 19

Would you be impressed if I told you I was a professional musician?

It's true. Over the course of my career, my hit song "I Am a Cow" has streamed precisely six times on Spotify, netting me a cool $.06 before taxes. Of course, I had to pay $50 to get my album on iTunes so that services such as Spotify would notice, so I haven't exactly come out ahead, financially speaking.

And given that the service costs me $50 every year to keep that song available for purchase, I decided that a $49.94 annual loss wasn't the wisest of business decisions. So if you want to hear "I Am a Cow," you'll have to find a bootleg version somewhere. Or maybe just invite me over and I'll sing it for you in person. If you'd be willing to pay me a dime, you'd be doubling my total income as a professional musician overnight.

Clearly, I can't afford to quit my day job. But the sad thing is that neither can anyone else.

I realize that doesn't seem sad. When you realize how the business model for recorded music has collapsed to the point where nobody expects to pay for music, you think of all the big stars who might have to tighten their belts. (Oh, boohoo. How is Justin Bieber going to pay for his private jet?) But the reality is that the big names can still charge hundreds of dollars for every concert ticket, and if they can fill stadiums, they won't have to skimp on jet fuel. It's the small names — the Jim Bennetts of the world — who now have no real way to become big names.

Actually, that's not a problem for me, as the six-cent height of professional musicianship I have heretofore attained is more than enough for me. But this makes it difficult for anyone to get any degree of traction in penetrating the public consciousness.

In the old analog days, up-and-coming acts could break through if they could get the cool radio station to put their song into its rotation. That led to some small-scale gigs and record sales back when records were actually a thing. But not only are records no longer a thing, neither is radio, at least not in the way it used to be. Services such as Spotify allow consumers to create their own infinitely customizable radio stations, which means there's no vehicle for new artists to get in front of large groups. If they're going to be discovered, the process happens one listener at a time — which means if they have the same deal I had with "I Am a Cow," they also get paid one penny at a time.

Of course, these Internet-related dilemmas are not limited solely to the music industry. There used to be a time when if you wanted to read a newspaper column like this, you had to buy a newspaper, where this text would be printed in an actual column. A lot of you may be reading this digitally without having to pay even a penny to do so. Online ads pick up some of the slack, but every newspaper is still faced with the challenge of providing content to a public that has become culturally acclimated to the idea of getting it for free. TV channels still sell commercials, but nobody watches them. All content is essentially free, except someone still has to pay to produce it. So how is that going to work going forward?

This isn't really a complaint. It's simply a recognition of a new reality that brings as many promises as pitfalls. And it's just that I think "I Am a Cow" is worth at least a quarter, if it's worth anything at all.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.


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