It used to be you couldn’t own music.
The first recordings of the human voice were not made until 1857, when Parisian inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented the phonautograph. And it wasn’t until 50 or so years after Martinville’s invention that a mass market for music in the form of records arrived on the scene and forever changed the way music reached human ears. This is something we all know, but the full implications are hard to grasp in 2016. Yes, music couldn’t be carried around in your pocket (as our parents like to say), or played in your home (as their parent’s parent’s parents presumably also liked to say). But more than that, it simply wasn’t something you could own. Rather, it was something people did together.
Which is all touchy-feely and great. Music is social and for most of human history was exclusively so. But how did musicians make money? How can you monetize something you do together? Usually—in an era before superstars and massive tours and merch and ticket sales and all that—it involved patronage. The king would take you under his wing, pay you a living wage, and you’d pump out a few sonatas for him every month. Folk music traditions—those not eligible to be royally subsidized—adopted a tradition of “passing the hat,” relying on the gratitude of the audience to fund the music, and pay a wage to the players.
A Century-Long Bubble
Stories of a collapsing music industry are commonplace today—CDs aren’t selling, Spotify is on the rise, and artists aren’t getting paid. Record labels don’t know how to make ends meet, and they’re folding.
But looking back on human history holistically, we’re not really looking at the collapse of an industry. We’re looking at a century-long bubble. Major labels might as well have been selling tulips in Amsterdam. A new product creates a market for itself, and just as soon as it entered, it’s deemed worthless.
The only difference between recorded music and tulips is that recorded music is actually worth something. The price might have dropped to zero, but not because people don’t want it. In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another product with a greater dissonance between how highly people value it in general terms (on a scale of 1 to 10, say), and in financial terms (how much they’re willing to pay). Movies maybe.
This is disheartening for the music industry, but not surprising. If you can have it for free, why pay?
Attempts to “close the barn door” on digital music abound. And in rare cases, it seems to be working: Taylor Swift can pull her music from Spotify, and try to regain monetary control over the distribution of her recordings. That’s good for her. But most of us don’t have fan bases as huge or as loyal as hers, and pulling from Spotify and other streaming services would be unwise. Advertising is advertising, and truth be told, in real dollars and cents, Spotify has certainly helped the Intrinsics more than it’s hurt us.
Passing the Hat
What the music industry needs now is not to find a way to close the barn door on digital music, but to replace the way audiences think about recorded music, and the price-tag we place on it. We need to return to patronage. We need to start “passing the hat” again.
All too often, I hear musicians claim that “fans don’t think my music has value.” But that’s not really the problem. Rather, we are returning to the way music has been for most of human history—supported by the few and passionate, and enjoyed by many. But the problem is that the market has created a situation in which it is much easier to not purchase music—how much simpler is it to just search through Spotify than to download mp3s, and move them to your phone and computer? Simultaneously, the market has done a remarkably bad job at opening up new avenues for fans’ support (most musicians do not actually want to be in the business of selling T-Shirts).
It’s time we changed the conversation about record sales. “Selling music” in 2016 might actually be a misnomer. When bands sell their music online, they are not selling the actual recordings. They are selling the opportunity to support them. And in the era of the Internet, supporting bands directly has never been easier. You don’t have to buy a CD to see huge margins go to a a major label you don’t care about, and pay the salaries of executives who act as gatekeepers for the industry. Your dollars go exactly where you want them: helping artists get by and continue to make the music you value.
As far as the Intrinsics are concerned, a purchase of our record allows the Intrinsics to pursue artistically fulfilling gigs—those open to the public, where we can perform original music for our fans—while still making ends meet on equipment repairs, gasoline, and recording costs.
In 2016, with music available on Spotify—yes our album will likely be up there soon, too—the price of music ownership is essentially zero. But the value of music is as high as its ever been. Now, with all the music in the world at our fingertips, it’s up to fans to drop a few dollars in the hat.