Music has been a part of being human for almost as long as there have been humans. Music is part of what makes us human, guiding and shaping cultures, bringing us together, and transcending language barriers. Music has the power to end war, to topple governments, to give hope and power to the underserved.
Music is so fundamental to our humanity that other forms of popular art rely on music as a means of emotional expression. What is theater without music? What is cinema without a score? Yet as important as music has been to our very development as a species, its value today, in a world of online streaming services and pop superstars is questionable.
So how much is music worth? Popular music became a thing in the late 18th century, when songs were distributed via sheet music. By the early 19th century it was common practice for touring musicians to sell sheet music at concerts for people to take home. Long before Spotify, the fastest way to hear your favorite song again was to play it yourself. This meant that, speaking broadly – the value of music was cleanly divided into composition and performance. The songs were written and popularized by a composer, and the job of the performer waste bring the composition to life.
Musicians were valued as essential entertainers; both the composer and the performer got paid for their work. Music was an inherently social experience, because in order consume the music you needed to be in the presence of musicians.
Then came the player piano which, while not exactly a musical instrument, makes perfect sense as an early method of recording and playing back music. Skilled performers could capture their rendition of a piano song, and that performance could be heard by people anywhere. While the performer still played a crucial role, the time and distance between the performer and the audience created for the first time in history, a difference in the value of the music and the value of the musician.
This difference would grow in the late 1930s with the popularization of vinyl records, but in the meantime, performing musicians found an interesting ally: film. When silent films came along, they didn’t include recorded, synchronized soundtracks. Instead, musicians would start the show and play along to the images as they played on-screen.
At first a lot of the music was improvised, but as the films became more complex it became common to hire someone to write the score. At the height of the silent film era, movies were the largest source of income for performing musicians. As talkies became the norm and broadcast radio made it possible to hear popular songs at home, we began to see the monetary value of music shift from performance to recording, and a lot of performers found themselves struggling to make ends meet.
In the 1950s Television made it possible not just to listen but watch broadcast and recorded performances. Audiences began to treat music as fashion, with youth culture attaching to artists based as much on their look as their sound.
The ’60s gave us multi-track recording, which led to the Beatles and George Martin inventing most of what we now consider common practice in studio recording. And as the Beatles became, as John Lennon said, “bigger than Jesus”, they also stopped touring to focus on their recording careers. Just as it was in the earliest days of popular music, once again we saw a difference between composer and performance.
The compositions were more complex, aided and enabled by the technology of the time, but once captured, the songs were performed by machines. The world’s biggest rock band could only be heard via records and radio waves. In 1979 Sony unveiled the Walkman portable cassette player. Transistor radios had been around since the 1950s but the playlist had always been chosen by someone at the radio station. The Walkman fundamentally changed music consumption because the audience could now listen to any artist they wanted, any time, anywhere.
The barriers of time and space and opportunity were crumbling. Music became more personal. The popularization of cassette tapes also had an interesting side-effect. Unlike vinyl records, which could only be pressed once and were fairly fragile, cassettes used magnetic tape, which protected the fragile parts with a plastic shell, and could be erased and rewritten at any time. Tascam’s Porta studio, also released in 1979 was the first four-track recorder built around cassette tapes, and it was just cheap enough to make home recording accessible.
A band could cut a record in their garage and release it on cassettes that would playing any Walkman. Up until the cassette, records were released by record companies. A band would get discovered, sign a record contract, and make records that could be played on the radio and sold in stores. Tapes helped to make independent music financially viable beyond concert tickets and t-shirt sales, and made it possible for fully independent musicians to be heard outside the walls of rock clubs and concert halls. Tapes also made it possible for music to be easily duplicated, and it became popular for people to make mix tapes for one another, or to make copies of entire records to share or sell.
This leads to copy protection, and a war between the music industry and consumers that would last for over 30 years. Various methods have been employed and a ton of money spent in an attempt to prevent music fans from copying and sharing music. But you can’t copy-protect sound waves, and consumers always find a way around these technical limitations. Ds were better for consumers in many ways: audio quality was dramatically better, songs were divided into tracks so that you could skip to your favorites without guessing and checking with the fast-forward and rewind buttons. And for the record labels, CDs seemed like a return to a model they understood and could control: flat, fragile disks that could only be written to once.
Of course, this control could only last for so long, because personal computers came along and ruined everything. As music took each technological leap, from paper to wax cylinder to vinyl to tape to digital, audiences embraced the changes because each change created improvements tithe two basic components of music: composition and performance. The record companies understood these components, and viewed the records themselves to be part of composition. This makes sense if you’re looking for a comparison that favors the records themselves as the valuable product. What they missed is that the records are, and always have been, performance.
Interestingly, one of the most commonly-cited reason for the Beatles giving up touring was that they couldn’t hear themselves play over the screaming fans. But why? Sure, we could say that sound system technology in the 1960s just wasn’t advanced enough to overpower the combined sound of thousands of voices. But why, when they realized they couldn’t hear the very band they just paid to see, didn’t the fans quiet down and listen? Easy. Because they could hear the performance at home any time they wanted.
1999 brought us Napster, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service where users could download MP3s of any song they could find, while simultaneously uploading their own collection. This sparked the rise of digital music, eventually giving us the iPod, the iTunes music store, and now Apple Music and Spotify. Twenty years ago, albums cost between ten and twenty dollars each.
Today we can listen to every song in the world without commercials for about ten bucks a month. Or for free, if we don’t mind the commercials. How did that happen so quickly? Why did music lose its value? Well, music has no value because the music industry accidentally convinced us that it has no value. Radio taught us to listen to commercials to hear songs for free, so Napster and file-sharing seemed like a logical extension of that free-newsstand now listening to a commercial every thirty minutes on Spotify feels like a totally normal and natural thing to do.
Early peer-to-peer file-sharing systems had all kinds of problems that the record companies could have solved with a paid service. They could have added value and quality, and reconditioned listeners to start paying again. But they were too busy suing their customers. It was Apple, not the record companies, who put things back on track with the iTunes Music store, which gradually became the number one record store in the world by leveraging the popularity of their iPod music player. Meanwhile, musicians have done themselves no favors by chasing a rock star fantasy from the ‘70s and ‘80s where they’d sign to a record label and get launched to super-stardom. Instead of scrutinizing deals, eager musicians looking for fame and fortune were willing to sign any contract put in front of them. A record deal used to work like this:
A label would provide the money and resources to create and market a high-production-value record of the band’s songs. The band would get a cut of the record sales and whatever money they made by touring and selling merchandise. Gradually, the record companies started taking a bigger and bigger cut when it became clear that there were far more musicians than there were record contracts. The supply of would-be rock stars far outpaced the demand. As record sales have declined over the last few decades, concert ticket revenue has gone up.
So the record companies got smart. Now the labels offer what they call a “360” deal, which, as the name implies, includes everything. Concert ticket sales, t-shirts and other merch, record sales, streaming, even YouTube ad revenue. In short, they own everything, and the artists should consider themselves lucky just to be involved. This obviously isn’t sustainable. Music is now regarded as more of a hobby than a serious career, and the barrier to entry for creating quality records will only get lower. It’s harder than ever to transition to creating music professionally. And we can’t rely on a broken system to curate the best new content or find the next great artists.
But there is hope. While the rapid pace of technology has created systems that threaten to displace the concept of “professional musician”, it has also created systems that make it easier to discover new music. The barrier to entry for creative people to make and distribute music has never been lower.
There is also service like Patreon that allow artists to connect directly with their audience and get financial support from the people who care the most about their work. The problem, of course, is finding people to care about the work.
The musical landscape is competitive and densely populated, so even with the best of algorithms and recommendation systems, artists are mostly relying on luck to get noticed. The solution may well be a different kind of patronage. Right now streaming music services pay very, very little to the artists, meaning that the cost of composition and production of the performance is entirely on the artist, with the streaming service taking the vast majority of the money. This is broken.
While record companies were taking little old ladies to court for downloading a song, the film and TV industries had the advantage of the content being more difficult to compress, which meant larger file sizes and longer download times. TV in particular, whether by design or sheer dumb luck fared the best of all entertainment industries, putting their content on iTunes and making it just convenient enough to pay for TV shows instead of downloading them illegally.
Now we are seeing a television renaissance, spurred by streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime. These services actively seek out content creators and work with them to produce new things. Meanwhile, audiences have all but abandoned the purchased-record model for music, treating Spotify and Apple music like Netflix: all-you-can-binge content, always at your fingertips. But like movies and TV shows, maybe the best way to make sure artists continue to get paid is for the streaming services to start generating new content.
Imagine: A streaming service signs a band and covers the cost of producing a record and music video content in exchange for being the exclusive distributor for that content. They market the record because it’s in their best interests to do so, and because there are several layers of record label middle-men cut out of the equation, the artist can actually make enough money to continue creating. As we’ve seen with the streaming video services, the competition to provide the best exclusive content can lead to creatively and artistically valuable work.
Amazon and Netflix and Hulu are no longer competing for who has the most shows, they compete for who has the best shows. Instead of farming the job out to record labels, streaming services could work with bands directly, sharing data on what audiences are excited about, providing access to production resources, and helping the artists to develop creatively.
Better, more diverse, more interesting, and higher-production value music could be born out of Spotify simply wanting to make a better exclusive record than Apple Music. Everyone wins. Throughout the history of popular music, we’ve seen that the composition of music, including the production of a record – is the most valuable step. Performance, even the playback of the record itself is seen as ephemeral and visceral, and while it is the part most likely to win the hearts of audiences, it’s the part that is hardest to make financially lucrative, because music as an experience wants to be shared.
So maybe the best path forward is to leave that part to the services that make a living piping music into people’s ears, and instead focus on convincing them to compete with each other for access to the artists. Like publishing houses supporting composers to create new sheet music over two hundred years ago, streaming services could be what record labels should have been: a system that ensures that “musician” is a job, and not just a hobby.