how we pay for music

A few days ago I was poking around in the message board hosted on musician Jay Farrar‘s website, and I came across a reference to Jim Boquist, bassist for Farrar’s on-hiatus band Son Volt, working as a guitar tech for Paul Westerberg. Being a guitar tech is not a bad job, I suppose — sort of a senior roadie. But I thought, “Man, that kind of sucks. Going from being a working musician in an active band with a major label record deal to being someone else’s guitar tech?”

That got me thinking about how musicians make a living, and how contemporary technology proposals designed to keep consumers from illegally sharing digital music might, in the end, be used positively to alter the way we pay for music and the way musicians earn a living.

Before there was technology to record performances, musicans made money by performing. Every time a song was played, some money would potentially make its way into the pockets of the musician who played it. But once it became possible to record music, then earnings became a function of how many copies of that recording were sold. This was not a function of how often the music was played, mind you, but how many physical objects containing the recording were purchased. Nowadays, a typical CD costs about $15 or less if you buy it at an independent music store, usually much more at chains. A ridiculously small portion of that price actually gets into the musician’s pocket. And after the initial popularity — measured in sales — of an individual CD, the musician’s income declines, for the most part, even if there is a loyal following of listeners. (Of course, there is still income to be had from back catalogue sales, radio play, and other venues.)

Jumping to my point: what if we paid much less for CDs (say $2), but then paid a small fee every time we listened to a song (say 1 cent)? I listen to Son Volt’s Trace and Wide Swing Tremolo all the time. By contrast, I’ve listened to Emmylou Harris‘s Red Dirt Girl, to cite one example, less than five times (good songs, bad production). But I paid the same amount for each CD. Wouldn’t a payment system that rewards repeated listening be more just than our current one?

Scenario one: you’re a superstar who sells a million copies of a well-promoted mediocre CD, but your audience gets tired of listening to it after ten listens or so and puts it on the shelf, where it sits neglected. Scenario two: you’re a musican on an independent label who sells only 50,000 copies of a brilliant CD, but your relatively small audience loves your work and listens to your CD two hundred times. In both scenarios, the CD is listened to about ten million times, but because the “revenue stream” (ugly term, but apt) is based on sales, not listening, the musican in the second scenario earns significantly less money than the musican in the first.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for each to earn about the same amount of money from their music? I’m not sure that consumers would see that much of a difference in their expenditures because for every CD that they listen to constantly, they are likely to have at least one CD that they listen to only a few times. However, it would completely change the amount of money making its way to musicians.

If I paid $2 for a CD with ten songs, and then listened to it 100 times, paying 10 cents each time, then I would pay $12 total for the CD and the listening. Hmm, not bad. I don’t claim to have a plan for the technology or music-industry restructuring that would enable this plan, mind you; I’m just thinking out loud.

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4 thoughts on “how we pay for music

  1. I’ve been thinking about similar issues b/c of my one-degree-of-separation connection with the lead singer of Guadalcanal Diary. I love their album, 2×4, and if I still had access to a copy (I think they are out of print), I’d listen to it often and imagine that other people might feel the same way. The band *should* be rewarded for that enthusiasm. I’m not quite sure how to implement your idea, either. Maybe music fans could purchase an account of, say, $50, with which they could listen to 500 songs (at ten cents per song). One problem is that “popular” artists *could* lowball their more obscure competitors, selling songs at lower prices in order to encourage interest, something that more obscure artists might not be able to afford.
    Of course, my initial reaction is that artists should quite simply get a much bigger royalty cut. The FCC should recognize Clear Channel for the monopoly it is becoming (fat chance) and encourage more independent ownership of radio stations, with the hope that they’ll promote a broader range of artists.

  2. The CDnow website lists three releases for Guadalcanal Diary still being available: _2X4_ is not among them, but some earlier albums are.
    Yes, clearly more financially secure artists would be able to undercut the prices charged by others in the same way that a national chain drugstore can afford to put a money-losing store next to a locally owned one in the hopes of putting the latter out of business. On the other hand, smaller music labels ought to be able to produce MP3s with less overhead than their major label competitors.
    I’m afraid there is no hope for commercial radio and that listeners are going to have to turn to different venues to hear new music. Which alternative venues are going to succeed, however, obviously remains to be seen.

  3. It depends on how you define “alternative venues.” I am a huge fan of community and college radio stations. WEFT in Champaign, IL, and WRFG in Atlanta, are two terrific community-funded stations, and I do believe that community and college radio will survive no matter what happens with deregulation. Of course, they can only put a small dent in the music industry, but I think with file sharing and with good word-of-mouth, these alternative sources persist. Wow, that’s rather optomistic of me….

  4. Via Slashdot: a BBC story on musicians Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno launching the Magnificent Union of Digitally Downloading Artists. Gabriel is the founder of On Demand Distribution (OD2), which describes its services as allowing “artists and record labels [to] reach audiences easily yet retain control over catalogue, promotion and royalties.”
    Article also found here. (Thanks, L.)

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