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on the state of the music business today
Article - opinions expressed by Tom Berlin


State Of Play – how music turned to cheeseburgers and ate itself
by Tom Berlin

We've all heard about the new order in the music business, right? How these days, artists have nearly total control over their creative output, are spoilt for choice when choosing music delivery systems to suit their needs, and benefit from a far greater share in profits than back in the dark ages of Leech & Burn Records Ltd. Right?

Wrong. The common myth of musicians making wads of money in their sleep is just that, for the vast majority of us. It's a concept eagerly propagated by Big Corporate so that you, dear consumer, feel less guilty about intrinsically expecting music for free, or as near as makes no difference. Because let's face it, £10 a month for unlimited Spotify spinnage ain't exactly breaking the bank, is it? So it may not surprise you that artists themselves make next to nothing from streamed music while providers like Apple and Google are raking in the cash? No, it doesn't surprise you. Because musicians obviously make their own killing by selling downloads, don't they?

Wrong again. The brief period when downloads ruled as the sole digital delivery system is long gone. In light of Napster and many other free peer-to-peer (P2P) networks "sharing" music, offering a legit download service at $1 a pop always faced an uphill struggle with internet audiences. Shutting down the pirates seemed to help for a while, but actually the damage was already done as the seed of "music for free" continued to germinate in the publics' mind. And anyway, a multitude of unregulated P2P file-sharing networks remain which honest Joe Punter finds very hard to resist.

State Of Play - the big stream
The Big Stream
Big Corporate knew all along they needed a sweeter deal to extract reliable cash from a spoilt-for-choice public. And with music now perceived as a pin-money commodity that few even saw the need to own anymore, streaming was the answer. After all, there's little difference between streaming or performing toothcomb searches on a jam-packed mp3-player. We've been drowning in locally-stored music for years, so thanks, Spotify, for making our lives so much easier! Cough cough...

$0.02117683 – that is exactly what I get paid for the pleasure of streaming you one of my songs. Stream ten and I may splash out on two sticks of chewing gum for the grand total of 21 cents. Stream 100 songs and hey - a large bag of potato crisps could joyously leap into my shopping basket bearing a $2 price tag. And by the way, that's from one of the more generous stream providers. For reasons beyond my ken, Spotify only pays me around half of that, or $0.01046500 per track to be precise. Just for perspective, downloading one of my tracks would roughly pay me between 50 to 90 cents (provider-dependent), ie. up to ninety times more than streaming. But alas, my streaming to download ratio has steadily climbed to around 200:1. So chewing gum it is.

I mention the above specifics not to elicit your pity, but merely to add my share of hard facts to a seemingly unstoppable trend: music is in the process of erasing itself. No longer even a valued commodity, what once were creative dreams to inspire millions has been ground down to a dusting of ear candy that amounts to barely a teaspoonful for the more commercially successful bands, and a microscope slide-full for the rest of us.

State Of Play - music matters when owned
Owning the future
Many interesting articles have been written by those equally sympathetic to saving music from its current free fall. Some propose fairer streaming profits passed on to the artist, others advocate the cessation of audio streams altogether in favour of justly-priced downloads. Whilst I would welcome both, I feel we need to zoom out a little further still. Because when we do, the bigger picture of what we have lost becomes so abundantly clear.

Ownership. That's what's gone missing. Those who still buy their music on read-only media like CD or vinyl know what I mean. Old-fashioned? Think again! Vinyl records in particular are experiencing ever-growing demand from listeners in their teens and twenties, listeners who wish to make their bold mark for all to see in these fully disposable musical wastelands. And if a 'dinosaur' like vinyl can make a comeback, so can CDs. Of course, both formats require a dedicated playback system, ideally with a decent set of loudspeakers. Neither of which cost more than an iPhone or Android pad with high-performance ear buds, which are great for listening on the move yet make us look like robots at home. Yes, that very home we pay a large chunk of salary for each month in return for feeling rooted and reassured in the presence of everything we are, and everything we own.

Ownership engenders care, passion and pride. Exactly those qualities sadly lacking from what some now call 'McMusic'. And I believe only truly tangible media can reward buyers with that sense of ownership. Downloads, for all their presence in name and number on your slice of silicon, are rentals only; they stay with you until your phone drops, your hard drive crashes or a cloud goes poof. How can anything this easily lost – or this easily forgotten – ever belong?

I seriously doubt that in fifty years' time many, if any, original music files downloaded today will have survived on whatever data storage is the flavour of the day then. Quite the opposite will be true for CD and vinyl. Granted, perceived lack of physical space may remain enough of an issue for some to keep kicking their album collection kerbside. But nowhere near as many as ditched their hardware back in the noughties to the dulcet tunes of industry-cranked mp3 hype. Small wonder – selling endless copies of pure digital information from a server seemed – and is! – infinitely more profitable than pressing and retailing records.

Fixing A Hole (in four easy steps)
Here, for what it's worth, is how I would address the rapidly evaporating value of recorded music. Given the radical nature of some recent views projected by industry experts, you may not find mine as shocking as I once thought.
State Of Play - fixing a hole

State Of Play - fix1
1. Make it illegal to charge for streamed music. Streaming is nothing other than interactive radio, and as such should be free. This would stop Big Corporate from making millions for little or no investment in artists.
State Of Play - fix 2
2. Downloaded music auto-expires after 3 months. This enshrines what previously has merely been implied: downloads are a temporary joy before they eventually get misplaced, forgotten, discarded, corrupted or simply lost. Defining downloaded music as time-limited also helps curb constant price hikes which were a big factor in driving listeners towards (paid-for) streamed audio.
State Of Play - fix 3
3. CD and vinyl albums include a free copy of digital media. This could be attached as a dirt-cheap 1GB Micro SD memory card or similar to allow easy transfer to mobile devices. CDs could also be manufactured as mixed-mode media to contain the audio files, ready to copy to hard drives. Either way, albums must include their own portable version to satisfy the needs of a mobile public. But – and it's a big but – read-only media like CD and vinyl would continue to represent the core ownership value to the buyer; the master copy, the fingerprinted musical time capsule, and thus a key possession owners may well see fit to rescue from a flooding home.
State Of Play - fix 4
4. Price-cap CDs and vinyl. This would prevent disgruntled punters from being driven back into the greedy arms of exclusively digital vendors. $10 - $15 seems a fair price to pay for a CD, whilst vinyl can justifiably attract a $5 - $7 surcharge for material costs and additional shipping charges. Let's try and keep it that way.

So where does that leave Big Corporate? We need their financial clout for distribution, funding, advertising etc., don't we? Well, sort of. Their money could be made by driving hardware album sales through their streaming and download services, now that they can't cash in easy on digital delivery.

I'm not so sure Big Corporate would stay the distance, though. Nor that they should. Because now that I and thousands of artists like me have learned how to get our albums manufactured at affordable prices, the primary support we need is distribution, really. Amazon roughly take a 30% bite for selling my album. I can live with that as long as their logistics remain reliable. Smaller distributors are less greedy and hence may be an option down the line. A little self-promotion on social media isn't beyond anyone's grasp these days, so no help needed there. Which leaves advertising. I don't, but other artists may wish to either scrape their pennies to buy a slot in print/on-line media or get creatively chummy with magazines' review editors. Financial or practical help here would be more than welcome. Handy then that, once CD and vinyl are re-established as the primary sales target, their fairer margins would galvanise many currently sidelined artist support businesses back into action.

State Of Play - feel the benefit
Feel The Benefit
Sometimes hindsight is the only way forward. Few could have foreseen music's fall from grace, surely? Well, maybe some. But one thing is certain: as the incentives to create original music diminish so will its quality, and hence its perceived value and longevity. There's a reason why nowadays more youngsters than ever drool over back catalogue re-issues from bygone greats like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen… Nothing wrong with that, of course. And yet it also asks a big question, doesn't it? I don't know about you, but I'd rather live in a world where worthy future classics stand a good chance of being born tomorrow.

© copyright 2015 Tom Berlin / Enthalpy Publishing

Interesting further reading: A Fairer Music Streaming Model Is Possible by Anil Prasad