We welcome to the blog today a guest post by David Gilbert, author of The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace. In 1912 James Reese Europe made history by conducting his 125–member Clef Club Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The first concert by an African American ensemble at the esteemed venue was more than just a concert—it was a political act of desegregation, a defiant challenge to the status quo in American music. In this book, Gilbert explores how Europe and other African American performers, at the height of Jim Crow, transformed their racial difference into the mass-market commodity known as “black music.” Gilbert shows how Europe and others used the rhythmic sounds of ragtime, blues, and jazz to construct new representations of black identity, challenging many of the nation’s preconceived ideas about race, culture, and modernity and setting off a musical craze in the process.
In today’s post, Gilbert compares the difficulties of today’s modern music industry with the “Manhattan Musical Marketplace” of the twentieth century, flagging the often disincentivizing disparity between music consumption and artist compensation.
In recent years, growing numbers of established, professional musicians have begun to rethink their relationship to music streaming services like Spotify, Amazon Prime, Beats, and YouTube, which allow customers to listen to a nearly universal selection of music for a small monthly fee (and, in many cases, for free). Once heralded as the undisputed future of music recording, these services are running into backlash from some of the industry’s most popular performers. Taylor Swift recently made news by taking all of her music off Spotify; bands like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Radiohead have refused to stream their albums from the get-go.
In late March of this year, over a dozen of the best-selling artists of the decade (Beyoncé, Madonna, Alicia Keys, Arcade Fire) joined Jay Z to inaugurate his new streaming company, Tidal, which claims to be “the first artist-owned global music and entertainment platform.” In an interview, Jay Z explained why he was getting into the business, citing the need for better quality music (“lossless”) files for the masses, and a better deal for musicians. He suggested that, due to the growing “free” Internet economy and the swell of streaming services, music consumers “are not respecting the music, and [are] devaluing it and devaluing what it really means. People really feel like music is free, but will pay $6 for water.” The concern that streaming services are effectively cutting out the artists who create the content that record labels sell and streaming services circulate is not limited to today’s pop stars. Indeed, increasing numbers of today’s “working” musicians at all levels of the industry are starting to call attention to the paltry incomes their recordings—and in many cases, a career’s worth of recordings—are earning.
Many musicians have begun to publish thoughtful criticisms of both the streaming services and the wider changes in the music industry. Country singer Roseanne Cash, a life-long performer and Grammy winner, recently testified before Congress to demonstrate that for her 600,000 song streams last year, she earned only $104. Most of the money that streaming services are paying for the rights to stream her music are going to her record labels, not to her. In a separate interview, Cash noted, “It’s the fact that everyone gets paid except the music creators. . . . We are creating a culture where content creators are a new servant class, and paid as such.” Yet even with this in mind, she says she doesn’t “want to make the streaming services go away. We [musicians] are not Luddites. We just want to be paid fairly.”
Marc Ribot, the avant-garde jazz guitarist who’s played a sonically large role in Tom Waits’s and Elvis Costello’s recording output as well as Alison Krauss’s and Robert Plant’s 2009 Grammy-winning album Raising Sand, sees even more drastic concerns for the future. After making $87 for 68,000 streams of his album Your Turn (which, he notes, cost $15,000 to make), he argued in the New York Times that unless streaming companies begin to negotiate contracts with recordings artists, rather than record companies, “you can kiss most jazz, classical, folk, experimental, and a whole lot of indie bands goodbye.” To the New Yorker, Ribot said: “Here’s the simple fact that no one wants to talk about. Spotify says it pays out seventy percent of its revenues to rights holders. Well, that’s very nice, that’s lovely. But if I’m making a shoe, and it costs me a hundred dollars to make it, and the retailer is selling that shoe for ten dollars, then I don’t care if he gives me seventy percent, I don’t care if he gives me one hundred percent—I’m going out of business. Dead is dead.” (Ribot makes his most heartfelt case, using the life and death of his Haitian mentor, Frantz Casseus, here.) In a series of thoughtful essays and interviews, former Talking Heads lead man and pop experimentalist David Byrne has been making the case for re-evaluations of the current system, asking without hyperbole: “Do you really think people are going to keep putting time and effort into this, if no one is making any money?”
It is certainly an interesting time for the creation, selling, and distribution of popular music (not to mention less-popular music, like jazz and classical, which encounter even more drastic dilemmas, as recently pointed out at Salon.com). Many of the artists taking a stand against the new status quo in recorded music allude to the history of music making in the United States, often referring back to earlier eras wherein musicians received unfair deals from recording companies and large majorities of performers struggled to make a living, even as a “top 1%” of musicians dominated sales and marketing. This look back to history makes sense.
The marketplace for American music is a relatively recent invention. Continue reading ‘David Gilbert: The Streaming Music Debate: Some Historical Context’ »