David Gilbert: The Streaming Music Debate: Some Historical Context

gilbert_productWe 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. While song publishing was established enough by the 1850s to allow the composer and performer Stephen Foster to sell thousands of copies of “Oh! Susanna” and “Old Folks At Home,” the marketplace did not really work—sheet music publishers often sold his songs without permission and Foster famously died penniless in the 1864. It was not until the mid 1890s that song publishing really gained enough momentum to establish a nationwide marketplace for popular music. And it took the combined forces of Broadway Avenue theaters and Tin Pan Alley song publishing firms, which worked symbiotically together to generate hit songs, to sell single songs to millions of consumers. At the turn of the twentieth century, Broadway musicals and Tin Pan Alley set the contours of what I call the Manhattan Musical Marketplace—the cultural geography of the modern music industry in the United States—and a quick look back at its beginnings can be instructive for those of us trying to make sense of the shifting popular music industries in the Internet Age.

Then as now, musicians and entertainers had to create the conditions for their professionalism. There were few avenues for folks who liked to sing, dance, act, or compose, and most parents and elders would have frowned on their kin trying to make a living as an entertainer. Yet life in the United States was going through so many changes that there were bountiful new opportunities for talented, driven, and savvy young people to invent new outlets for themselves and their crafts. The Industrial Revolution initiated massive rural-to-urban migrations and established new modes of transportation and livelihood, both allowing young people access to communities away from home and spurring on new forms of cultural invention and borrowing across geography, race, and class lines. Advances in industry also created new ways to commodify and circulate cultural expressions: multicolored lithograph printing (for song sheet covers), new print media and advertising, and the advent of sound recording all transformed a revolution in industry into a revolution in cultural innovation. The Industrial Revolution also witnessed a metamorphosis in capitalism, and the ensuing formation of new markets, expressions of finance, and capital itself exploded into a consumer society, one hungry for buying and selling mass entertainment.

The modern American commercial culture marketplace, which I suggest found its first form in New York City, laid the foundation for new forms of artistry and, importantly, a new consumer base. It was the relationship between business interests, artists, and consumers that made American popular music possible. To give just one example, the talented performers Bert Williams and George Walker—two African American vaudeville comedians—dedicated years to their craft as performers in traveling medicine shows, circus tents, and on vaudeville stages before gaining a chance to perform on a Broadway stage. In order for them to arrive on the “Great White Way,” they had to convince theater owners and managers, as well as booking agents and vaudeville-circuit moguls, that their act could garner a ticket-buying audience at elite theaters. The stars aligned for Williams and Walker in their first outing on Broadway in 1902; their hit show In Dahomey made a sensation and toured the country for over a year, introducing ragtime song and dance to mostly white audiences across much of the country. The duo also toured the U.K., where they gave a command performance for British royalty at Buckingham Palace—they taught the royal family how to cakewalk, making the U.S. American slave-era dance a hit among English nobility, just as it was among New York’s wealthiest families.

The Williams and Walker Company was not the only black troupe to find success on Broadway. Their cakewalk dance, ragtime music, and racialized comedy (Williams performed in blackface, Walker dressed as a “dandy” caricature right off the minstrel stage) helped popularize black cultural styles and created both new demands and new opportunities for other types of ragtime culture, as produced by blacks and whites alike. Williams and Walker helped sell ragtime songs along Tin Pan Alley by making syncopated rhythms ubiquitous in Manhattan music markets. Yet ragtime-era consumers also played an important role: rewarding ragtime innovators with their hard-earned consuming dollar and propelling other stage performers and music composers to invent even more novel approaches to rhythmic music, racialized comedy, and social dance.

In order for American music markets to thrive, they need participation at the creation, production, and consuming levels. Clearly, these need not be equitable for the industry to work—corporations in music publishing and recording have never paid artists very fairly, and consumers have held a wide array of positions over the last century: from casual radio listener to self-conscious promoter of the arts one CD (or phonograph, 8-track, or iTunes download) at a time. And within these wide avenues, American music markets have generated unprecedented levels of human creativity—at no other time in human history could we have Duke Ellington, Frank Zappa, Aretha Franklin, and Public Enemy in our ears. The artistic benefits are innumerable and astounding. Which is why David Byrne’s prophetic query is so significant. If we lose the connections between music consumers and creators, both will cease to exist. If artists cannot work on their craft as full-time professionals, they will no longer be able to dedicate the time, energy, and resources that cultural innovation demands. Consumers may think they can access all the music ever made for $10/month or, in many cases, for free. But not only will they miss out on Led Zeppelin and Taylor Swift, they will no longer fuel the marketplace with the capital it needs to thrive, and all of us—creator, corporation, and consumer alike—will only have the past 100 years of music to choose from as we forego the unknown thousands of geniuses dreaming of creating our collective musical future.

David Gilbert is an independent scholar who received a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina. His book, The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, will be published in May.