In my essay “Digital Subscriptions: The Unending Consumption of Music in the Digital Era,” I explore the way the recording industry changed our consumption habits and increased profits exponentially. What we can’t lose is that the average consumer used to buy about $40 worth of recorded music per year, but with subscriptions, they are paying $120 per year. Think about $870,000,000/month in music consumption on Spotify alone (another $530,000,000 on Apple Music). In the essay, I analyze this further.
Here is the abstract:
When Apple purchased Beats Music in 2014, it signified a major moment in the transformation of the recorded music commodity. This is the second time in the digital era that Apple has catalyzed a transformation of the recorded commodity after first disrupting the recording industry by creating the iTunes store. Now, the recording industry is changing from a business model dependent on the sale of commodities to a model based on subscriptions and streaming. I call this model unending consumption because it traps music listeners in a cycle where they must continually subscribe to have access to music. By giving subscribers unlimited access to music in exchange for $10 per month, the recording industry aims to increase the amount that the average consumer spends per year on music by 200%.
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Musicians must be compensated for their labor. While musicians create music in a number of ways, very few are paid for the time they spend making music, especially those musicians signed to record contracts. Prince, David Byrne and Courtney Love have described how recording contracts trap artists in highly exploitative relationships with their labels. The fact that an artist must recoup their advance before they make any money exploits the vast majority of recording artists because few ever recoup their advance. Alternatively, not signing a record contract and playing small bars/clubs is no way to pay for a mortgage. This means that many musicians are forced to work multiple precarious jobs to make ends meet while most would like to find a way to earn a living from performing, recording, and writing. For instance, a study in Austin, TX found that three-fourths of musicians who earn all of their income from music make less than $25,000 (pre-tax). Enough is enough: musicians deserve a living wage. Continue reading →
On May 2, 2000, Lars Ulrich, drummer for the band Metallica, announced that his group was suing Napster, a free file-sharing service that let fans download music online. During the press conference outside Napster’s headquarters, Ulrich presented the company with a giant stack of papers listing the names of 300,000 Napster users. His assertion: Napster was enabling these people to steal music. Continue reading →
Digital music distribution changed everything, and yet it changed nothing. Stoking the techno-utopian vision of the Internet in the late 1990s, Napster signaled the promise of a decentralized music distribution system that eclipsed the authoritarian stronghold of the major record labels’ distributors. People thought that by exchanging music as bits and bytes, the recording industry oligopoly would be overthrown as musicians gained the capacity to distribute music to fans directly, part of what Tom McCourt and Patrick Burkart term the “internet nirvana theory.” The Internet brought the possibility of a robust music commons where everyone has access to all music; a commons which could be used to create new culture. But the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was signed into law in 1998 restricting the free flow of digital information using Digital Rights Management (DRM) before Napster was even developed. Where major record labels always controlled distribution under physical media regimes, the DMCA, along with repressive surveillance of peer-2-peer (P2P) file sharing networks, has allowed the major labels to reestablish their dominance in the digital era.
While the term Grammy is derived from “gramophone,” the first device to record and playback music, this year’s Grammy Award Show will be largely about profit, not music. Heralded in the past as a moment when recording artists come together and vote for the best music of the year, the choices they are given is highly structured by the Grammy Nominating Committee and major record labels. And while voting members still have ultimate say in nomination and voting, the system propels the biggest pop names to the top the same way that our political process favors big name politicos (read “serious candidates”). Because there are so many voters, with over 20,000 members, the Recording Academy‘s Voting Members, eligible only to musicians who have “commercially” released music, favors widely popular major label music over obscure indie music. Continue reading →
As the US Copyright Office pushes forward with plans for the largest overhaul of copyright in decades, it is important not to fall back to the same patterns that have eviscerated musicians and other creative producers. These copyright rewrites always end-up making powerful copyright interests more powerful. Continue reading →
In 2009, Apple announced that all of its music would be Digital Rights Management (DRM)-free. At that moment, this announcement was huge. The iTunes store, the world’s largest music retail store, always had DRM, which restricts the number of devices a song can be played on and what type of device permitted to play the music. While iTunes may be “DRM-free,” DRM is still included on most digital music available on the Internet – they just call it something else. Continue reading →
As more data is released from 2014, we can see that major record labels celebrated a year of indisputable growth. Yet, they continue to include language that makes it sound as if the industry shrank.
“While the U.S. music industry suffered through its worst sales year since the advent of SoundScan (now Nielsen Music) in 1991, streaming was so strong last year that the industry nevertheless saw growth — yes, growth — in 2014, when new metrics to measure music revenue are taken into consideration.” Continue reading →