Earlier this summer, the Internet was lit up-even more than usual-with debate about music in the digital age. The inciting moment was NPR intern Emily White's June 16 blog post, "I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With." White wrote as one of the millennial music fans who represent a lost generation to record labels-she has an 11,000-song iTunes library, yet has bought only 15 CDs in her life and doubts she or her friends will ever buy another. In a widely read post on the Trichordist, musician and college professor David Lowry (formerly of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker) took White to task for not considering the implications of her actions.
Lost in the invective that's followed is the question of how to actually support artists today. Setting aside moral or ethical arguments, buying music remains one of the best ways. The Internet has given virtually every adult music fan the ability to purchase music in digital or physical format. Subscription services are another legal option. With gift cards sold at retailers across the country, even minors and students on a shoestring budget can legally purchase music or subscribe to streaming services like Rdio or Pandora.
As Billboard's numbers show, not all forms of artist support are built the same. Buying a digital album carries little to no marginal cost. Buying a similarly priced CD, which requires packaging and additional costs, will put less in the artist's pocket. Vinyl is even more expensive to manufacture and ship and more problematic in general.
The better forms of support are also the least practical. The highest-margin way to support an artist is to give him or her a $20 bill or a gift card of an equivalent amount. That money won't be shared with a manager, tour manager, booking agent or business manager (or the Internal Revenue Service).
The value of fans can't always be translated by transactional cost. The number of YouTube views or Facebook followers may not have direct value but can lead to revenue somewhere down the line - sponsorship opportunities or synch royalties. But most of a musicians' livelihood comes from direct consumer spending. And the reality is, today's consumer spending isn't adding up to a career for many of today's artists.