June 19th, 2012
A few years ago, I wrote a post comparing the Internet to the gyrating hips of Elvis Presley. Go ahead and read it — it has to do with how the web has impacted music in the sense of its community rather than the typical discussion about record sales. The ‘net promotes individuality and anarchy among artists, and I love it. With the age of the bedroom record producer who never even has to play a live show if he doesn’t want to, it’s become an indispensable tool in the camaraderie between musicians and fans.
Not long ago I felt incredibly frustrated as a music fan. The web was giving me the chance to hear tons of new music that I never would have been exposed to before, but there were some real obstacles to overcome. First, while it was great that anyone could get original music to instant international distribution, it was (and still is, and always will be) hard to sift through the crap. Reading a hundred blogs and checking the charts to try and find good new stuff to listen to was cumbersome at best. Most music sites would only allow me to sample a tiny clip of one or two songs, and I’d be forced to seek out a band’s dreaded Myspace page (which I still have to do sometimes, incidentally, and it makes me want to throw a brick through a window) to listen to at most four full tracks. Too many sources, too few ways to listen, not enough actual material to hear and judge if it was right for me, no easy way to keep track of it all. I was pulling my hair out.
As technology progressed, things started moving in the right direction. I’d read sites like Hypebot to learn about new music technology and Billboard to hear about new artists, but too much of the content seemed to preach the doom and gloom of a dying industry. I liked a site called Lala.com — and then it got shut down. Then I used Grooveshark — pretty cool, but it was hard to find and organize the music you wanted, there was some mislabeling, and the legality seemed super sketchy. (Side note: I found Shaimus music on Grooveshark. When I emailed them about how we might see income from this, since their site clearly stated that they compensated indie artists, my query was met with the decidedly loud chirping of crickets.)
A quick footnote on legality: I admit that over a certain time I did my fair share of downloading mp3s from peer-to-peer sites. In the interest of exonerating myself from hypocrisy, I have always said that while I’d prefer people bought my music, it was better for them to download it illegally and enjoy listening to it than not have it at all. But I could never assume all artists would share my mindset, so I never felt good about my downloading no matter how rich or famous the musician might have been.
So now I come down to what I genuinely consider the best thing that’s happened to music fans since at least the invention of the mp3, if not the CD: Spotify. Here’s my take on it as both an artist and a listener.
The music industry is changing, and has been for a while, for better or for worse. The mistake made by organizations like the RIAA has been to fight an inevitable evolution, a change that happens to every industry as technology itself evolves. Rather than trying to fight it, they would have been much better off today had they embraced it from the beginning. Now they’re way behind, they’ve lost a ton of money and they’re trying to make up for lost time that could have been salvaged by seeing through eyes of opportunity rather than panic. Many small music companies got creative to find continued success, but for some of the major industry players it may be too late to save themselves from the fate of going under. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: So it goes.
One of the shining examples of embracing the change of the business can be seen in Spotify. First point: Spotify is legal. We can all feel good about that. But let’s not fool ourselves into the blissful illusion that it actually makes a reasonable amount of money for the artist. It doesn’t. We’re talking fractions of pennies here. Nobody is going to make a living from their Spotify income (nobody who isn’t massively popular, anyway). In the monetary sense from an artist’s perspective, Spotify isn’t the most awesome thing ever and probably won’t make them as much money as selling a bunch of records. But it will make some money by replacing the old norm of stealing. People want instant gratification, they want digital music, they don’t want to pay for music very much anymore. Spotify has recognized this, embraced it, and turned it from a total thieving shit show into an actual venue for artist income. But that’s not the end of the story.
Spotify is also great for exposure. You can listen to an entire song, an entire album of a band you’re curious about (way easier to convince me that I actually like them and want to see them live). You can find them through recommendations based on other artists you like. You can easily share your favorite tracks with your friends. If a blog or magazine (or status update) mentions your band, the easiest thing for a fan to do is pop open Spotify and take a listen. It’s also good for sound quality and proper labeling. Unlike what often happens on peer-to-peer download sites, you don’t get awful, grating, nails-on-a-chalkboard lo-fi mp3s on Spotify that take a track that an artist spent two weeks painstakingly and masterfully crafting in a million dollar recording studio and make it sound like it’s being played on clock radio that’s been swallowed by a rhinoceros with an intestinal tract infection. And while some of the tracks are, in fact, mislabeled, for the most part you’re not going to have a song in your library that says Bob Dylan sings “Stuck In The Middle With You.” (That’s Stealers Wheel, people.)
So those are a few reasons it’s great for us artists. As a listener, I love, love, love Spotify. I can add songs to playlists that stream and coexist seamlessly with the song files on my computer. I can listen to songs that I have only a casual interest in that I never would have bought and still feel good about the legality of it. I can browse a few trusted music blogs, find new artist names and instantly discover if I like them or not. Many reputable music sites are adding direct Spotify links for listening. For a small (very reasonable) fee, I can eliminate ads and take all these tracks anywhere on my mobile device and have zero limitations on how many times I listen to a song (and the artist keeps getting paid). I can subscribe to public playlists, listen to artist “radio” stations, browse weekly new releases, and see what my friends are listening to, even collaborate with them on playlists. It’s amazing. All of my music discovery and listening habits are consolidated and organized in one place, side by side with my library. I’m hearing bands I never would have listened to which are becoming new favorites, and I’m buying more concerts tickets than I have in ten years, especially thanks to innovative plugins like Songkick, which notifies me of when my favorite artists play in LA. Bottom line, Spotify is the best vehicle for the buzz right now than anything, and that’s equally good for artists and fans. There are certainly still a few kinks to be worked out with the software, but Spotify is still relatively new and it’s run by a staff that is constantly working to improve it.
Look: the music industry has been totally screwed for a while now in a number of ways. Artists aren’t making much money from record sales and are having to grind it out through live shows, licensing and merchandising. Spotify is not making most artists significantly more money than before to my knowledge. But Spotify isn’t the reason why the music industry is messed up — it’s simply the best, most legitimate tool anyone’s made that embraces the current reality of the business in a legal, convenient, fair, and awesome way. We should all — artists and listeners alike — embrace it and enjoy its perks and convenience. Spotify is a refreshing venue for accessing an evolving — but not dying — industry.