How streaming music is killing the American dream.

I apologize for the delay in posting this paper as promised, I was having issues with my site. Enjoy.

There is undeniable evolution happening in the music industry that has been apparent since the early 1980s. The late twentieth century introduced the ability to create music electronically with computers and other forms of technology. In turn, the twenty-first century delivered streaming music on a technological device as the dominant form of listening to music. As the world has morphed from the vinyl and cassette player to the single hit digital upload, musicians have had to find new creative ways to make a living. Large companies like Spotify are paying musicians less than a penny for a single stream and it is immoral and unethical. Streaming music promotes stealing and it makes people less likely to listen to music together and see bands live. Streaming music online has contributed to the downfall of record sales in America, creating a generation accustomed to free and stolen music. All of these things affect the way a musician is paid for their work, leaving them with no other choice but to raise the prices of concert tickets and merchandise.

Since 2003 when iTunes negotiated with major record labels to sell music, the music sales in America have dropped over five billion dollars. With the hustling that then CEO Steve Jobs orchestrated, Apple was able to offer entire digital albums for only $10 and a single song off of any album for only 99 cents. This simple new way to purchase music quickly changed not only the way that people listen to music now-a-days, but also the financial empire that the music industry once was. Since the music industry has suffered an incredible financial loss, they are thinking of new ways to recuperate that money. Therefore, all concert ticket prices were inflated, the price of vinyl almost tripled, and a simple t-shirt at a concert will cost a fan three times its previous price. If music was not accessible to stream, especially illegally, the music industry could re-coop some of that financial loss and in turn lower tickets to shows allowing more fans to see their favorite artists do what they do best live.

The world of digital streaming is most likely not going anywhere any time soon. Spotify, a digital app that allows people to listen to over 20,000,000 songs, only supplies the musician with $0.004 per stream (Swanson, 2013). Though digital apps such as Spotify allow for consumers to listen to artists’ music, it takes a lot more work for the artist to recoup the costs accumulated with creating an album. When a CD sells for $10 the musician can make $1.20 to $1.40. If a band consists of four members, that amount equates to about $.30 per person. However, “in 2009, only 2.1 percent of the albums released sold even 5,000 copies” (Swanson, 2013). A record company would need an album to hit gold status, which means it has sold 500,000 copies, in order for them to break even on the cost of production. At this rate, a little over ninety-seven percent of artists would not even see a penny from their record sales, as all royalties would go directly to the label to replenish their investment (Swanson, 2013). If a CD sells for around $16.00, an artist can collect $0.50 on each one. If an artist sells 500,000 copies, they could earn around $47,000.00 off of that album after royalties, record labels, and producers are paid their cuts. That leaves each artist with a little over $11,000 each. This means that artists are essentially working for free and record labels are losing money on every album they produce. Musicians are relying on their tours and the sales of merchandise to pay their bills but have to pay their record labels a certain percentage of that money as well. Most of the money that musicians are making is now dependent on digital streaming and how many times a song is either played or downloaded (Swanson, 2013).

Sure, streaming music is easy, and for those who pay for the service, it is cheap. Even with all of the deductions listed above; the amount of money that an artist will receive when a song is played on a streaming site at $0.004 is a far cry from the revenue of a CD. With the addition of touring and selling merchandise, a musician can make a pathetic living doing what they love. Local Denver musician and songwriter Lehi Petersen suggests that “music lessons and session work is a couple of ways that musicians can create revenue in addition to selling tickets to shows and playing for a house band. Bands are cutting out the middle man and starting to market, distribute and produce their own albums in order to pocket most of the revenue from albums and shows sold. It is the only possible way to make any money off of the music we make because we can do all of that stuff ourselves.”

Regardless of the other avenues of money received, the song is the center of a musician’s income. Without it, they have nothing. The dedication, heart, and passion that I put into a piece of music is priceless. If it is done properly, that sentiment can change lives. Writing music is not easy; at best it is an emotional roller coaster that at times can leave me susceptible to feeling over joyed or completely depressed. I know that talking about these songs validates my art and allows me to feel understood and heard. Having a conversation about how musicians master their craft is not something that has become taboo with the isolation of music listening. People have just become lazy and entitled when it comes to listening to music, and that includes paying for it. It leaves an artist feeling over worked and unappreciated.

The drummer of the heavy metal rock band Metallica put it perfectly when he said that “it is sickening to know that [Metallica’s] art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art it is”. Metallica was one of a few bands, in addition to recording companies, that sued the popular MP3 file sharing site Napster for copyright infringement, and accused the site of encouraging piracy. So many musicians are left feeling robbed when they hear a song they have not even released yet out on the radio. In Metallica’s case, the band was in the process of writing music for an album, and some of that music would be used on an upcoming movie. At the time, the music had not been released to the public but was heard by band members on the radio none-the-less. The law suit left a significant fracture in Napster’s financial skeleton and a year later the business filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy. Companies like Napster, iTunes, and Spotify created the expectation that music would be readily accessible at the touch of a button for free.

There is an entire generation of individuals who were raised on free music. With the integration of music streaming, fans started ripping music off of sites like YouTube or downloading music from unauthorized sites. In 2015, the “total music industry revenue was about $15 billion worldwide, well below the 1999 peak of $38 billion”. This incredible drop is a direct response to the piracy craze that erupted in the twenty-first century. Following in the footsteps of sites like Napster and LimeWire, which was shut down in 2010, Grooveshark was recently forced to close its virtual doors in 2015. Grooveshark had “tens of millions of visitors and got its music from user uploads, rather than from the label”. As part of their settlement with the record companies, Grooveshark agreed to pay $736 million in damages for not securing licenses from rights holders for the majority of the music on their service.

However, it still is not enough. Record stores all over the country are going out of business because of the massive loss in sales. In 2009, “91 percent of all new music was downloaded illegally over the internet instead of purchased”. Due to file sharing, people were getting ahold of albums months before they were even completed and ready for release. One site posted an album prior to release that reported over 18,000 illegal downloads resulting in a profit of over $180,000.00. None of that money went to the artist who owned the songs rights. The lengths that music pirates will go to get their music for free are quite risky. If caught, the Recording Industry Association of America can sue a thief for up to $150,000.00 per song downloaded illegally.

Online piracy affects more than just the artist creating the music. There are over seventy-one thousand jobs lost in the United States every year due to piracy. These jobs range from record producer to janitor and everything in between. One of the most legendary recording studios in America, Sound City Studios in California, was forced to close down their studio in early 2011 due to financial issues. People who have given their entire lives to the music industry as accountants, songwriters, publishers, and secretaries were all left to find work in other industries where they lack experience. In 2001, I was left with the option of being a starving artist for the rest of my life or getting a steady job at a bank that paid the bills. The reality of leaving the music industry was heartbreaking and sobering for me, as I know it has been for many others.

In addition to job loss, the music industry suffers an economic loss of $12.5 billion dollars each year. Even knowing these numbers, over 70% of online users find absolutely nothing wrong with online piracy. In 2010 alone, an ordinary iPod contained an average of $800.00 in pirated music. Millions of users are stealing that amount of money or more every year and they are completely fine with it. Surprisingly, the United States is not in the top ten countries ranked for online piracy, but sixty-seven percent of the digital piracy that takes place in the world is hosted in North America and Western Europe. Spotify offers a subscription to its users that can cost as low as $10 a month for unlimited streaming without commercial or other interruptions. However, the accessibility people have to free music trumps a paid subscription and allows for justification to pirating acts. An individual will rip music from a host and listen to the music alone as opposed to buying an album and listening to the album with their friends and family. Streaming music has led to pirating music, which in turn has created the seclusion of listening to music.

In the early nineteen-hundreds, family and friends would gather at a home for a dinner or cocktail party and put on a big horn Victrola that they would have to wind up with a lever on the side of the box, in order for the turn table to move. They would listen to Mozart or Boccherini or put on the newest jazz album recorded.  People are still listening to music today, but the way that they are listening to music has changed drastically. Creating a social event on a weekly calendar to meet with friends and family and put on the newest recorded vinyl is a pastime. Gone are the days of listening to an entire long playing record from start to finish. The twenty-first century consists of secluded listeners and number one single hit collectors using Spotify and other streaming devices to download music for free without regard to the work that went into creating that song.

Most of society is walking around with headphones or ear buds in their ears listening to whatever they have streaming on their phones or tablets. The people who are plugged in contribute to the “67% of music fans [who] tap into the growing pipeline of streaming music to get their feet moving or just tune out the rest of the world”. Americans are not interested in sharing what they are listening to. They do not want to talk about the new hot single that was just released or the amazing new album that was dropped by an up and coming artist. Furthermore, having a lengthy discussion with others on what a specific song or album is about and what inspired the writing is the furthest thing from a listener’s mind. Just recently Beyoncé released her latest album Lemonade and with that release she put out a video explaining the music and what her songs meant. I watched people discuss the turmoil that her marriage was in, but no one discussed the work that went into the songs she crafted. When I would talk to co-workers about the video and the new album, the conversation always turned back to her family life and the gossip related to it. I wanted to discuss the chord progressions and the lyrics that she arranged, but everyone else just wanted to download a song, listen to it, and move on. Spotify has yet to receive access to Beyoncé’s new album Lemonade, so if my co-workers have not purchased the album or pirated the music, then it makes sense why they had no interest in discussing what they have not yet heard.

The truth of it all is that consumer’s attentions spans are too small. Concerts are buzzing with attractions other than just the music. Fans go to a concert to eat, drink, and walk around the venue and shop, but “back in the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras audiences thought nothing of settling in for several hours of live music”. Crowds are too busy “checking email, Facebook and Twitter every couple of minutes” at a concert. They are yelling out requests, pushing their way to the front, and recording the show on their phone to later to sites like Living in the moment and enjoying the show has clearly become a demand that many are not willing to comply with. I recently attended a show at the Fillmore Auditorium in May to see a country singer who has stepped away from the lyric sheets and onto the stage. I have known this artist for years as a songwriter but not as a headliner, so I had to see him perform live. The music was incredible, but the audience was a nightmare. People were pushing their way to the front of the stage, starting fights, talking incredibly loud over the music, and shouting the songs that they knew. Any time a song came on that the audience did not know, they would leave their designated areas to get another drink, talk to their friends, or take a smoke break. In comparison, I attended the show of an eighty-three-year-old musician the prior month and experienced none of this behavior from the much older crowd that accompanied me. This crowd was respectful and reasonably quiet while the musicians were performing. It really opened my eyes to the generational differences that exist in music, and how quickly the new streaming generation has become the predominate front runner in how music is listened to today.

In reality, music fans are not excited about the idea of socially sharing music. They have become recluse and greedy with the songs that they have cherry picked from their favorite artists. Without them even realizing it, they have diminished their knowledge of music by not sharing favorite songs, and discussing who new artists are. In turn, this has condensed the genres of music that individuals listen to, leaving fans with one or two favorite genres at best. Discussing music and becoming cultured with an eclectic musical infrastructure has become a tedious task at best.  The children of the 1970s and 1980s are a prime example of what a diverse musical foundation looks like. With the introduction of Pro-tools in the early 80s music was in the midst of dramatic change and evolution, and it was being embraced by the younger generation. Rock and Roll was shifting and new sounds were emerging from underground and garage bands alike. Nonetheless, the kids growing up within these decades held on to the roots of the 1950s and 1960s that their parents raised them on. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis were on the record shelves in homes next to Fleetwood Mac, Prince, and Def Leppard. Everyone was talking about the new revolution in music and sharing their emotions about it with each other. The Woodstock Music Festival is a prime example of this. In 1969, my Aunt attended Woodstock in New York and when she explained the event, she commented on how everyone would discuss the music and really get down to the root of what they felt when the music was playing. Numerous musicians would perform on the stage and audience members were purchasing albums and expanding their knowledge of music.

Many would argue that musicians could easily create revenue through other means such as merchandise, concert tickets, playing in a talk show or house band, contracting out to studios if an artist needs an additional musician, and giving lessons. All of these different avenues of making an income could keep the musician paid and keep the cost of streaming music to an absolute minimum for their fans. The Roots, one of the most dedicated bands out there that has been touring non-stop throughout their career, recently “accepted Jimmy Fallon’s offer to join him on his new Late Night show in 2009”. The gig pays well, at an estimate of a little under $17 million, but these jobs are a needle in a hay stack and a musician would “have better luck playing Mega Millions”.  Another substantial income earner is selling merchandise at the show. At a larger show, an artist or band could potentially earn around $225,000.00 per show. With the fans spending around $15 each, that seems pretty clean cut and simple. The bottom line is that most artists do not even come close to that kind of revenue and a local band does not have a shot in the dark to make that amount of money at their show.

Giving lessons is a really great way to earn some money as a musician also. Many musicians will offer their services and post ads on Facebook, Craigslist or the local music stores. Generally, music lessons range from $40.00 to $60.00 an hour depending on the instrument and area of town. If a musician spent four solid hours a day teaching music lessons at these rates, they could earn around $800.00 to $1200.00 a week. That is a potential of around $4800.00 a month which does not sound half bad before having to pay taxes. This would be a really great source of income if it was something that was guaranteed. Yet, music lessons come and go, and a lot of people will cancel last minute, or stop showing up entirely. It certainly is not a steady and consistent income that can be counted on to pay the rent every month. Furthermore, YouTube and other streaming sites offer free downloads of music lessons online, so paying for a music instructor to teach something that can be found online for free is pretty tough competition. All of these different options to earn money as a musician are really great, but it does not leave the artist time to write music, rehearse with their band or perform any shows.

It is clear that the new revolution of music is upon us. Streaming sites like Spotify and iTunes have contracts with artists and are paying them based on their agreed terms. However, the percentage artists receive is laughable at best. Artists deserve to be compensated for the work that they are producing. Music is an outlet; an opportunity to submerge entirely into a world that potentially does not exist, or a world that exists all too clearly. It “plays a role in our social lives-talking about, displaying….and sharing music are all ways through which we express who we are and [how we] interact with others” (O’Hara & Brown, 2006). Hearing a song that fits a relatable situation or life experience is indescribable, and a fans ability to place themselves inside that story is irreplaceable. Talking about these experiences and emotions is what makes all of us human and empathetic. These experiences are worth paying for, and in turn the musicians will provide more music to support the demand of their fans. Disrespecting an artist by stealing their work creates an atmosphere of entitlement that justifies piracy. It is a despicable act that has become second nature within the streaming generations, but it is unethical and wrong. Musicians, record producers, and songwriters among many others deserve to live the life they have always dreamed of living. They deserve to write, compose, and perform music and be compensated fairly for the art that they deliver.


O’Hara, K., & Brown, B. (2006). Composing music together: Social and collaborative aspects of             music consumption technologies. (Volume 35). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Swanson, K. (2013). A case study on Spotify: exploring perceptions of the music              streaming service. Music & Entertainment Industry Educators Association, 13(1), 207-           230.  Retrieved from           p207.pdf


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