Ever since, Taylor Swift decided to give Spotify the boot, under the auspices of helping songwriters, there has been a conversation suggesting that there was somehow a golden age for songwriters when they controlled their own destiny –and the Internet killed all that. I’m here to tell you that there was never any such time and if anything, the Internet was the best thing that ever happened to musicians.
Here’s a simple truth: The Internet is the best distribution channel ever created and it’s up to musicians and record companies to figure out how to exploit it. And here’s a hint: It’s not the old way of selling records.
Let’s look back at the reality of the music business for a minute, shall we? The business is littered with stories of exploitation. In the 1950s, black blues musicians and early rockers often never saw a penny for their work, even when they were covered by white rock musicians a decade later.
You gotta get an album out, You owe it to the people. We’re so happy we can hardly count.
~Pink Floyd, Have a Cigar
Bruce Springsteen didn’t record an album for over two years in the 1970s while he fought to get out from under an exploitive contract he signed before he understood the music business. The Beatles lost control of their publishing catalog when Michael Jackson bought it in the 1980s. Billy Joel’s accountant (who was his brother-in-law) allegedly ripped him off to the tune of millions of dollars. Sting’s accountant did something similar.
I’m an insider, I been burned by the fire
And I’ve had to live with some hard promises
I’ve crawled through the briars
~Tom Petty, Hard Promises
There are countless tales of contracts signed outside nightclubs on the trunks of cars in the dark of night, which gave all the rights to the manager and of managers and accountants running amok and cooking the books, so to suggest there was some sort of golden age for singer-songwriters is a bit disingenuous.
As Bono said recently in an interview with David Carr on stage at Web Summit, “The music business has historically involved itself in quite considerable deceit.”
Now that we’ve burst that myth, let’s look at what the music industry was like in the late 1990s. The record companies had been living the high life for years (mostly on the backs of musicians) and the gravy train was coming to a fast halt as the digitization of music made distributing it on the Internet easy-peasy. Then a couple of college kids created Napster and figured out a way to share music without paying for it. There would be no turning back.
The response was predictable as record companies circled the wagons and tried to sue their way out of the problem, but what they failed to realize is they had lost control of the distribution. It was all hunky-dory for them when musicians came begging at the door because they controlled the means of production, the recording facilities and they controlled distribution through the record stores and radio stations. It was a great deal for the record companies, they raked in millions and gave a small percentage back to the musicians (so much for golden ages).
Then it’s time to go down town
Where the agent men won’t let you down
Sell your soul to the company
Who are waiting there to sell plastic ware
~Byrds, So you wanna be a rock and roll star
The Internet took that control away from the record companies and where did it put it? It put it in the hands of the musicians themselves. They no longer had to beg at the door because they had their own distribution channel and they could get their music out through social media and YouTube and other huge mostly free platforms without the record company help.
Sure, there are still record companies and musicians as popular as Taylor Swift who can afford to play the system and thumb their noses at the likes of Spotify, but when Spotify’s owners suggested they had helped stem piracy and gave people a legal way to listen to music, they weren’t wrong. The same goes for iTunes before that. Both of these systems provided a legal way to distribute music and make money.
In the same interview at Web Summit Bono continued to flog the record companies saying Spotify was not the enemy here. “When people pick on Spotify: Spotify are giving up 70% of all their revenues to rights owners. It’s just that people don’t know where the money is because the record labels haven’t been transparent,” he said.
It’s worth noting that when Bono was asked about his recent deal with Apple to distribute U2’s latest album on iTunes for free, he made it clear he doesn’t work for free and he negotiated a big pay day for the band in exchange for allowing Apple to do that, but he also said it enabled them to reach 30 million people in 3 weeks, a number it took 30 years and relentless touring to do with The Joshua Tree.
One other point Bono made is that there is a trade-off when it comes to artists. Of course you want to be paid, but you also want to be heard (or read), and the idea that nobody would ever hear your songs is, in his words, “terrifying.” These channels let you be heard and he gets that (but of course like Swift, his band is wildly popular and he can afford to look at this intellectually).
I’m not suggesting these new channels didn’t come with their own set of problems, but they provided a way for musicians to distribute their music and get paid something, rather than having no hope of getting paid when people went the way of Napster and other illegal download sites. But, it’s also important to remember that the Internet also changed the notion of the song itself.
It wasn’t any longer about getting paid for every play. It was about getting the word out about your music and using those channels like YouTube to whet the appetites of your fans. Not everyone is going to be as big as Taylor Swift and in fact very few people are, so they have to use the system and get their constituencies excited about their music, so they show up at concerts and buy merchandise and give them different ways of making money.
The Internet changed everything, but not the way that Swift would have you believe. In fact, she manipulated it to perfection. When she removed her music from Spotify, she (or her handlers) knew that it would spark a conversation and get people talking about the new album and were they ever right. We are still talking about it several weeks later.
And if you look at the core of that strategy, it’s taking advantage of social media and the Internet while trashing that same channel as exploitative. Oh the beauty of irony and the Internet. It worked perfectly.
Swift is one smart cookie who understands the power of the Internet and used it to drive more sales of her album and sell more tickets to her concerts. And unlike Miley Cyrus she didn’t even have to twerk on national TV to get us talking. She just went after a streaming music service. Both strategies were brilliant, worked to a “T” and took advantage of the Internet to get us talking.
Seems this Internet thing actually does pretty well for musicians when they can figure out how to take advantage of it.