The Internet has made it incredibly easy to listen to almost unlimited recorded music … for free, or next to nothing. Yes, I am referring to the tech giants: Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, YouTube, and in the music world, Spotify. The unlimited streaming services they and others provide may be good deals for music listeners. But these services are also potentially grave dangers to the livelihoods of musicians, particularly during the circumstances created by the Covid-19 pandemic. The more I have seen of the implications of streaming for musicians, the more I have felt that we should not think of ourselves as “consumers of the arts” but rather as “micro-patrons of the arts”.

Let’s start with the basic economics of music. Each professional musical event that you enjoy has cost an absolute minimum of a few thousand pounds to produce, and probably much more.

For a standard classical music concert, there are the costs of hall hire, publicity and other practical arrangements such as transport, spaces for rehearsals, and stage management during the performance. Then there are musicians’ fees. Professional musicians have spent years mastering their craft and, apart from singers, have to maintain an expensive instrument to pursue their profession. They have spent an absolute minimum of a full day’s work (let’s say 8 hours – but typically it’s much longer than that) practicing for and performing in a two-hour concert.

Or, let’s take a recording session for commercial release. There are studio hire and the fees of the engineers, who again have very expensive equipment to maintain. Post-recording there are editing, product design (CD cover etc.), marketing and distribution. Again, these costs all accrue before consideration of musicians’ fees. And on the assumption that every person involved in the process deserves not just minimum wage but a respectful professional wage, the cost quickly spirals up to thousands of pounds (those interested can see here what the UK Musicians’ Union considers to be minimum rates of pay).

The problem for music management (and managers need to be paid, too!), therefore, becomes how to recoup costs. Concerts are relatively straightforward: ticket sales, grants, and sponsorship incomes must exceed expenditures. Recordings, however, are a little more complicated. In the “pre-copying” days, the calculation was similar to concerts. How many records have to be sold and/or how much airtime on television and radio does there have to be to recoup costs? The first major challenge to this model came in the 1980s, when recordable cassette tapes became widely available. Then, the Internet took the issue of music copying to a whole different level. While file-sharing sites such as Napster were forced to change their business models or to shut down entirely following legal action by the music industry, the fundamental problem now is that digital files can be shared easily by anyone. In particular, the small size of mp3 files means that the moment an mp3 file gets online, it can potentially destroy the ability of musicians to recoup recording costs. Once uploaded, it can circulate online effectively for free.

The problem now is not so much what individuals file-sharers are doing, but what the tech giants are doing. If you have a subscription to Amazon Unlimited, Apple Music, YouTube Premium, or Spotify, you are really paying the tech giants for their platform, not the musicians for their music. Musicians receive royalties income via streaming, but the money that actually reaches them is a tiny fraction of a penny per stream. There are plenty of articles in the media by big name performers complaining about their paltry slice of the streaming pie. Politicians are now getting involved and considering new ways of reallocating streaming revenues. For classical musicians, most of whom count the number of plays in the thousands or tens of thousands, making recordings available on streaming platforms is little more than giving away music for free.

There is, of course, an argument that people encounter music online via streaming or file sharing, and then later on pay to go to a concert or purchase an album. The UK band Arctic Monkeys is often given as an example of how musicians can strike it big after they have given away their early recordings at concerts or on the Internet. Thought of in this way, from the musicians’ perspective streaming is basically advertising. This does not resolve the problem, however, of where revenues come from down the line once a reputation is established. It still comes back to selling concert tickets and albums.

And this is where the active choices of music listeners become important. The ultimate market outcome if CD/recordings sales all but disappear and if recorded music is mostly streamed under current royalties structures is that studio recordings will not be commercially viable for the majority of musicians. The system favours the platforms and biggest record labels. Many independent musicians will continue to record, of course, because the desire to produce music is irrepressible. But, recording will be a loss-leading venture in the hope of making profits elsewhere, primarily concerts and other merchandise sales.

To prevent the monopolization of streamed music by a few massive commercial enterprises, their chosen stars, and their catalogues of past recordings, listeners need to change their mindset from “how can I listen to as much music as possible for as little money as possible” to “how can I best support the new musicians whose music I want to listen to”. In other words, we need to be micro-patrons, and not just consumers hunting a bargain. Music is expensive to produce at the professional level, and if we value music as part of our lives then we should be prepared to pay for it.

There are three things we can do to help new or independent music flourish in the Internet age.

  • Cancelling subscriptions to streaming services is not necessary. Actually, musicians do benefit from being on these platforms because their work reaches a wide audience. But it is important to know that subscribers’ money ends up mainly in the pockets of the tech giants and not musicians. As such, streaming services cannot reward in any significant financial way the production of new music, unless it’s a massive hit with millions of streams.
  • Consequently, listeners need to identify the means by which they can most directly pay their favourite musicians. The two main ones are purchasing concert tickets and purchasing albums (whether online or as CDs). And to ensure that musicians receive maximum revenues, whenever possible purchase albums directly from musicians at concerts.
  • Identify the musicians you want to support and become a micro-patron. This can mean giving to their activities directly via crowdfunding campaigns or websites like Patreon. It can also mean purchasing music downloads when not strictly necessary. For example, you might have access to someone’s music via an Apple Music subscription or YouTube video, but register your appreciation by purchasing the download anyway.

The importance of getting revenues from recordings directly to musicians has been particularly apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, when musicians have lost significant income through cancelled concerts. Many have sought to fill the concert void through live-streaming. I confess to being a live-streaming sceptic because on an artistic level it seems like an unsatisfactory half-way-house between the live concert and studio recording. However, live-streaming has undoubtedly played a vital role in keeping musicians in work. Furthermore, it will continue to do so until vaccinations get us beyond the Covid-19 crisis and we can return to sell-out live concerts as the experience of choice for the music fan.

Yet there is another major challenge facing the music industry: the climate crisis. The August 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report states unequivocally that humans are warming the planet. The music industry is a major carbon emitter and has a part to play in facilitating a carbon-neutral future.

The environmental issue generates another checklist of things we can be doing:

  • Whenever possible, consciously support local musicians rather than touring musicians. Of course, it is nice to hear world-famous performers in one’s neighbourhood from time to time, and touring by musicians should not disappear entirely. But, particularly if there is a choice between a local professional orchestra playing an “old favourite” like a Beethoven symphony and a touring orchestra of 100 or more people flown in from halfway around the world playing the same Beethoven symphony, the environmentally-responsible decision is obvious.
  • In his fascinating book Decomposed, Kyle Devine tracks the environmental impacts of the recording industry since the early 20th century. “Did you know that the CO2 equivalents generated by consumption of recorded music have not declined in the era of music streaming—supposedly an era of music dematerialized, rendered virtual—but instead have as much as doubled?” (from the back cover endorsement by Professor Gary Tomlinson of Yale University). In other words, the tangible environmental impacts of vinyl and CDs (resin and plastic) have been exceeded by the invisible (carbon emissions) impacts of digital music, which requires vast amounts of energy and huge server infrastructure to enable millions of people to download and stream music simultaneously. In this context, downloading a purchased digital album once and then listening offline is the environmentally-friendly alternative to streaming it many times (as well as being the option that gives musicians a better proportion of your money).
  • The physical CD is not necessarily the worst environmental option. It goes without saying, however, that putting it in a plastic box and getting it delivered in a parcel to your door unambiguously makes it a poor environmental option. Overall, the CD in minimal packaging (simple cardboard sleeve) bought at a local concert directly from musicians is a decent environmental choice, as well as the ideal choice for supporting musicians.

At the intersection of these musician-friendly and environment-friendly approaches to music is my own ideal way of doing music. The same principles also extend to music fans of any genre – indeed any fan of whichever creative art.

The driving force behind capitalism is the financial profit motive. In its purest form, consumers simply seek the best return (“utility”) for their payments. But in the music world, as in the broader environmental crisis, this capitalist mindset is leading us towards a crash. The more that listeners settle for the “best value for money” by paying 10 dollars a month for an all-you-can-listen-to streaming package provided by tech giants, the more that up-and-coming musicians will simply be squeezed out of the market for recorded music. And the more that we choose environmentally unsound ways of consuming music (the CD dispatched by post, or listening to the orchestra on tour rather than the local orchestra), the more that music will contribute to the climate crisis. The simultaneous way out of both problems is to embrace “micro-patronage”. Consumption focuses on what we receive; patronage focuses on what we give. Consumption focuses on paying the minimum now; patronage focuses on paying what is required to make it sustainable in the long run. Consumption focuses on driving down musicians’ wages; patronage focuses on paying them a respectful wage. Consumption focuses on personal benefit; patronage focuses on the public good.

Music is a precarious profession that is both fiercely competitive and highly vulnerable to shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic or an economic downturn (when society’s disposable expenditure on “optional extras” like music takes a hit). Even at the best of times the financial rewards for musicians are often well below what is deserved given the extraordinary levels of skill required to be a professional musician. Music has helped sustain many throughout the pandemic. There are many little things we can all do to sustain the musicians who bring so much joy to our lives, and without it being unsustainable for our planet.

14 August 2021