Time to shuffle the music industry

Spencer Dembner

More stories from Spencer Dembner

Is Spotify killing the music industry? Musicians appear to think so.

Taylor Swift drew the most headlines when she announced that her latest album, “1989,” would not be available via the music streaming service, but she wasn’t alone. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys called the royalties paid to artists by the service “laughable.” David Byrne, the former lead singer of the Talking Heads, matter-of-factly explained in a Guardian op-ed, “The internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.”

In the music industry of yesteryear, record labels curated the content produced by their artists, and people had to buy the music they wanted to listen to in the form of a full album. Yet starting with the release of iTunes in 2001, that model of music production has become increasingly challenged.

Since its debut in 2008, Spotify and its competitors such as Rdio, Rhapsody and Beats Music have turned that formula upside down, allowing people to stream whatever music they want and pay a flat fee, instead of purchasing individual albums and tracks. Users have flocked to the service in droves because of its economic convenience and flexibility.

Undeniably, this method of distribution has benefits — if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be so popular. Not having to buy albums means people can be exposed to a far broader range of styles than they might otherwise encounter and allows people to easily share their musical tastes with each other.

But those benefits come at a significant cost for the control artists have and the quality of music consumption. Instead of listening to an artist’s music the way it was intended, streaming services increasingly commodify individual songs as part of “playlists” that draw from numerous artists and often play songs in a completely random order.

And that’s not how it should be. Artists in the past could develop long, drawn-out and complex musical themes over the course of a 40-minute album, even composing “concept albums” that focus on a single theme between tracks. Those tracks, taken out of context, mean nothing.

What’s more, the streaming model is bad for artists. Without the ability to sell directly to consumers, they’re forced to make do with the comically low payments provided to them by the streaming services, which average one tenth of a cent per song playthrough. Even as streaming overtook CDs to become the largest segment of the music market, the most popular tracks net only a few thousand dollars for their musicians, far below what comparable physical music sales would warrant.

Supporters of streaming counter that it’s better than the alternative: without Spotify, consumers would simply pirate music for free. But that claim has always been overblown, and most of the growth in streaming appears to come from cannibalizing album sales, while piracy remains nearly constant.

The solution, however, is not a return to the previous system. Under the oligopoly that predominated for decades before streaming, highly corporatized music conglomerates took most of the profits from music sales, while leaving the artists with little.

Only the best-paid could afford to bargain for better rates, and the exorbitant costs of pressing an album created a barrier to entry that prevented many aspiring artists from entering the market. That system is dead and gone and good riddance.

Instead of creating more ways to distance artists from their listeners, the new system should emphasize connecting them together in a shared experience.

Under a new system, listeners could pay what they want, musicians could release and distribute their music freely and the middlemen could be eliminated entirely. Listeners would pay less and appreciate more, and artists would get a much larger cut of the profit. Everyone would benefit.

Artists such as the indie rock band Radiohead have already pioneered what this system could look like — Radiohead, after dumping its label, released its 2008 album “In Rainbows” for free on the web, allowing people to pay what they want or download it for free.

Streaming has shaken up the music industry. Considering how commodified and alienating the system was, that’s a good thing. But we can still do better.