T Bone Burnett and Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian don’t have a lot in common. One has a full head of hair, likes a clean shave and produces Grammy Award-winning Americana music. The other likes the cue-ball look, sports the shweetest goatee since Dimebag Darrell and is one of metal’s most trusted ambassadors. But as working professionals in the music business, they share similar concerns about one monumental problem: how are working class artists supposed to make a living in the age of it’s-free-if-you-want-it streaming?
Both opinionated gents spoke out this week about the devaluation of music among consumers, with Burnett penning an op-ed in the Washington Post and Ian speaking with From Hero to Zero, an online show about the music business. “In the digital marketplace,” Burnett writes, “everyone seems to have found a way to make a living off of music except the creators who actually record the songs.”
It’s a common concern, one that has picked up in volume this year with the help of Taylor Swift’s brief standoff with Apple Music and has resulted in Spotify’s reported inching towards allowing artists to set aside certain works for paid subscribers only. Trying to address these issues between artists and digital services in tightly controlled strokes is a challenge, given that there’s no way of knowing what’s inside each recording contract, not to mention each streaming service (whether interactive or not) has a different business model (and likely differing payment levels).
How bad is the problem? Take it away T Bone and Scott:
Burnett: “Consider this: In 2014, sales from vinyl records made more than all of the ad-supported on-demand streams on services such as YouTube. I’m not running down vinyl — it is still the best-sounding, most durable medium we have for listening to music, by far. But why should a technology most people consider outdated generate more revenue than an Internet service with more than 100 million American users? That’s just wrong.”
Ian: “Albums couldn’t be cheaper. You could buy a brand new album, let’s say on iTunes, you could buy a brand new CD for ten dollars. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago where you had to go to, let’s say, Virgin Megastore, which used to be everywhere. Albums back then in the States, a brand new CD would cost you at least seventeen dollars. That’s not even including the gas to get there in your car, paying for parking sometimes. Now you could just sit at home and pay ten dollars. It’s never been cheaper, and people still have a problem with that, apparently, because they’d rather steal it or stream it.”
On streaming and the devaluation of music:
Burnett: “Just two decades ago, a music superstar was born when her record went gold, selling 500,000 units. Today, experts say it takes 100 million streams to match that kind of success. Even the most relentless year-round touring schedule or advertising licensing deals can’t match the income that a hit record once produced.”
Ian: “Bands are getting ripped off by these streaming services. If Spotify would pay more money to the bands for the art they’re creating, I think just in general people would have a better view of music and think it was worth more. Music should be worth something. It is worth something. We’re creating art, and these businesses have completely devalued what we do, and obviously I think that’s bullshit.”
Not to mention…
Burnett: Creators are pressured to accept a Hobson’s choice between licensing their music at desperately low royalty rates or wading into the legal quicksand and sending thousands or millions of “takedown” notices under a broken and antiquated law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act… Fortunately, creators have begun to band together and speak out.
Ian: “I think the streaming model is definitely cool. I just hope it could get sorted out for bands where bands are getting more than their share that they’re getting now, let’s put it that way — more of a fair share of the cut, anyway. Because I think streaming is a good model; it just… the business end of it, I think, needs to be worked out.”
What does the future like like?
Burnett: “Music is an important part of who we are, an indelible record of what we care about and how we live. And if we let that slip away — whether through legal gridlock, cultural apathy or technological drift — we will have lost something irreplaceable and fundamental to our lives.”
Ian: “I can’t wait for when you’re just gonna get a little chip implanted somewhere in your head and that’ll be your phone, it’ll be your ‘iChip’ and Apple will just implant something in your head and you’ll have all your music and you’ll just be able to think about who you wanna call and you’ll be able to call them. It’s like that TV show ‘Black Mirror’, if you’ve seen it or not. I think that’s probably the way of the future at some point. The shit’s just gonna be inside us.”