I recently came across a piece by David Lowery, of Camper Van Beethoven fame. The title summarizes the entire thing, so pull quotes aren’t really necessary: “My Song Got Played On Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make From a Single T-Shirt Sale!” This sort of thing isn’t a new cause for David, he’s on about this before, and though the post on Spotify is new, talk about Spotify’s low payouts to artists is not. It was even discussed on the second episode of Crush On Radio.
This serves an odd counterpoint to the growing emphasis placed on building “content” and making money online. People have access to more media now, than at any point in history. There’s also more media now, than at any point in history, but it’s increasingly easier to get ahold of it, and that’s where things get interesting. It’s a truism that the Internet provided a low cost, low overhead means of content distribution before it provided any good means of paying for said content. Though now we have a payment infrastructure in place, and people are buying music again, file sharing and torrents are still a thing.  We have so much stuff out there, begging for our attention, that we have an oversupply situation on our hands.
Basic economics tells us that the value of something is determined by supply and demand. If there is a limited supply, and a high demand for a good, then the price should be high. Conversely, if there is a huge supply and minimal demand, the price should be lower. This isn’t so much ECON 101 as it is ECON 081. In the case of online media and content, it seems we have the problem of there being constant demand, but an extreme oversupply of content, combined with distribution and revenue models that come from the days when the media a lot of this stuff shipped on was fragile, expensive, and difficult to produce.
In the case of streaming services, a chunk of the blame must be laid at the feet of the recording industry, charging ridiculous licensing fees, insisting on restrictions to prevent users from recording the stream , and keeping a disproportionate share of the pie for themselves by any measure. Also, too, is that the streaming services still have to compete with free. Sure, you can listen to Pandora, or Spotify for free, but you have to put up with advertisements and song limits. Meanwhile, you can queue up a playlist of songs from YouTube—yes, YouTube—and listen to music forever.
With so many musicians out there competing for the attention and cash from a fickle audience who can get the latest release by even the indiest of indie bands for free, no wonder it’s getting harder and harder to make an honest living with your music. But this problem extends far beyond music. If you produce any sort of media that can be reproduced digitally, the music world is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. There’s so much stuff out there, so little time, and audiences so very fickle, that it’s beyond difficult to gain traction, and make any money, let alone a living. It’s certainly possible. Jonathan Coulton made a cool half-million dollars in 2010, but his story is far from typical. Yet, whenever a discussion of paying for media online comes up, and fingers get pointed, a certain group will always pipe up and point to those who “made it” by giving stuff away for free.
The survivorship bias colors our thinking. We don’t hear about the failures much, and when we do, we dismiss their arguments as sour grapes. When someone new to the game tries to emulate what worked for someone successful, fails, and goes “That’s fine for Radiohead! They have a huge fan base,” we so often miss the point. If having 1000 true fans is what you need to succeed, how do you survive long enough to get that number? There’s the safe bet of keeping your work a side project while holding down a day job, but that makes it harder to do the work. Or, you could throw yourself into the work, and risk losing everything. Are the only people left who can become full-time creators going to be those who have a safety net of wealth, and a sinecure waiting with their father’s firm should their artistic endeavors fail?
It’s a question worth asking: how does one make content and make a living in a world where content is devalued? Even if you’re so good they can’t ignore you, they might not even get to you because of the glut. If you, the reader, take anything away from this piece, take away this: there is no simple solution, and anyone who proposes one is either naïve or trying to exploit someone else. Too many free-culture wonks fail to account for how an artist is supposed to feed themselves, and too many industry wonks are either desperate dinosaurs who want to charge $19.99 for a piece of plastic again, or middle-men who see an opportunity to pick a two pockets at once. Whatever the answer is, I don’t have it. We’re all going to have to bang our heads together on this one.
I’ll confess to having an account on REDACTED POPULAR MUSIC TORRENT SITE, but due to simple overload, I’ve stopped torrenting and taken to buying music as a way of reducing my consumption. I now will only torrent music if there is no sane way for me to buy it, such as with out of print releases, or grotesquely overpriced import releases. ↩
Which reminds me of a story from 2002 about music reviewers receiving copies in portable CD players glued shut to prevent piracy. I trust my readers to find the flaw in this brilliant plan. ↩