Hurting the musicians.
If you like music, this is really important. The architecture of online music distribution has been amazing for the consumer. With iTunes or Pandora or eMusic, the savvy listener can get just about whatever she wants whenever she wants it, and for cheap. Of course, the problem of piracy was killing off the record labels, though it must be said that the record labels didn’t make themselves at all sympathetic. Most of us took comfort in the idea that the internet would flatten out the relationship between the musician and the listener. We believed that in the digital era musicians would make it on their own without the labels.
Those of us who believed such things? We were wrong.
There’s an important chart at Information is Beautiful showing how much music a solo artist would have to distribute in order to make minimum wage. One answer: 155 physical CDs on CDBaby. Another answer: 1,229 album downloads on iTunes. One more answer: just under 850,000 plays per month on the Rhapsody music service. Chances of making a decent living? I’d say they’re rather slim. And think about the situation for, say, a five-member band.
Technologist/musician Jaron Lanier has challenged those who are optimistic about digital culture to provide examples of musicians and artists who have used an internet distribution model — basically, giving the art away for cheap or free in order to sell merch and promote concerts — to make a real living. The set of musicians who have thrived in this environment contains only Jonathan Coulton. (I’d give a link, but I read this in Lanier’s book.)
You can certainly make the argument that our musical culture is going to be better off with more part-timers and fewer professional musicians. I’m not sure this is right, but it’s worth talking about. But anyone who will still tell you that there’s a future for middle-class professional musicians (and with whole system of session musicians and recording engineers that supports them) is wrong. We’re getting a lot of cheap and free stuff, but we’re destroying an artistic middle class in the process.
(Credit where credit’s due: my friend Tim tweeted about the Information Is Beautiful chart. Also, a commenter on the chart’s page points out that the chart compares some $0.99 downloads to the $9.99 albums, so you might want to mentally reshuffle the list.)
UPDATE: I really should have clicked through to the post the chart was based on, by the Cynical Musician. It’s worth reading. For example:
…in terms of generating realistic income, the CD is still our best bet. The direct digital replacement – bundled download sales – is comparable. Unbundled track downloads increase the number of necessary transactions by a factor of magnitude and subscription-based downloads by yet another. The supposed future of recordings on the Internet – cloud-based streaming – barely deserves mention. I can’t imagine an independent artist receiving millions of streams a year, much less hundreds of millions.