The Listener’s Dilemma: Can You Use Spotify and Give Bands a Fair Shake, Too?
In 2015, the way you choose to listen to music isn't simply based on monthly budgets, nor is it completely based on whether you like to own physical copies of music. It's also an ethical decision. It's well known that streaming sources like Spotify don't pay artists nearly as much as they receive when you purchase a physical copy. Some artists, like Taylor Swift, go further, and claim you devalue their art when you listen to it on a streaming service, because of its lower payouts. If you choose Spotify, you're making a selfish decision that harms the artist and devalues their art.
On the flip side, when you buy a vinyl record, you can feel proud -- you've made a more significant contribution to the artist, and instead of insulting their art, you're worshipping it. A vinyl record is a physical object you can build a shrine to, and that you can ritualize, every time you listen to it. And, hey -- you can even buy a copy of '1989' on vinyl at your neighborhood Urban Outfitters.
I want artists to get paid fairly, more than anything.
I want artists to get paid fairly, more than anything. I mean, I don't particularly care whether Taylor Swift makes $2 million more, but I do care that an up and coming indie band that posts their music on Spotify for the exposure also gets paid enough to keep making music. Luckily, you can make sure these bands get their fair shake and still listen to Spotify, even if it does pay them less than what buying a vinyl record would.
I listen to music via Spotify every day, and I only feel a little bit guilty about it. Unlike many listeners, I have no real attachment to physical media, or even owning digital copies of songs. The $10 a month subscription model fits nicely into my budget, gives me access to 30 million songs, and saves me from having to listen to commercials -- which I hate to an almost absurd degree.
I know that at least some of this $10 goes to artists. More than if I was streaming on YouTube, or Bandcamp, or torrenting the files, but not enough for any artists except the big ones to break even. Part of the reason is because streaming pays so little relative to other formats (like vinyl or MP3 downloads) -- though the streaming services insist that will change as they continue to grow.
I know musicians make a lot more money from iTunes than they do from Spotify, but the math just doesn't work for me as a consumer to close my Spotify account and stick to iTunes. I'm paying $10 for 10 songs there, when I'm already paying $10 for 30 million songs at Spotify. I want musicians to make enough money so it's worth it to them to continue to create, but I also don't want to deprive myself of music I couldn't afford to listen to or discover otherwise. (Thank goodness the radio is still free.)
That's why I support the bands I love by giving them my money in other ways. I go to at least two concerts every week, and I know that bands depend on every body that comes through the door to make money on tour. If it's a band I really love -- maybe one of the shows I go to in a given week -- I'll buy something at the merch table, maybe a record or a t-shirt. Most of that money goes to the band, after they've paid the venue to set up the merch table, and the t-shirt company. Bands these days don't make much money on tour either, sadly, but at least you can go to a show and know you're chipping in.
I also buy their records at my local record store. I only really have enough money to buy a few full-priced vinyl records a month, so I have to be choosy. When I do spend money on vinyl, I spend it on local acts and small labels -- the people who I assume really need the money -- and stuff that's out of print, meaning I wouldn't be able to find it on Spotify anyway. (Some people buy vinyl records because they have beautiful packaging, or colored vinyl, or expanded liner notes, and some labels and bands are smart and strategic about taking advantage of that. I really only care about the sounds -- but I get it.)
I know it's hard or damn near impossible for mid-level musicians to support themselves.
I'm not trying to be self-righteous -- I know it's hard or damn near impossible for mid-level musicians to support themselves. I don't think anything about this is perfect. But what we have right now in the music industry is a misalignment of the consumer's interest (paying as little as possible for as much music as possible) and the producer's interest (bringing in enough money for making music to actually be worth it, from a financial perspective). Who knows when or if those two interests will ever align nicely again? Until then, when I make the choice every day of how I'm going to listen to music, I'm going to look out for my interest as a consumer while going out of my way to make sure my favorite musicians get my money directly.
And I can only hope none of them feel that I'm devaluing their art in the process.