Pugwash: Swift takes a stand on music streaming

Credit: Michelle  Wan /Art Editor Credit: Michelle Wan /Art Editor

On Nov. 3, Spotify announced that their 40 million users would be deprived of Taylor Swift’s new, platinum album 1989, and that all her previous music would be removed from their online streaming service. Swift decided to remove her music from free streaming websites with the conviction that these sites do not “fairly compensate the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music.” Swift’s actions spurred this week’s Pugwash discussion on the ethics of piracy and music streaming services.

Spotify admits that on average an artist will see between $0.006 and $0.0084 for every song streamed, and other streaming services are no better. Singer and songwriter Aloe Blacc revealed that he only received $4,000 from Pandora for his major hit with Avicii, “Wake Me Up.” Artists are making five to 10 times less per song on free streaming websites than they are from record sales on iTunes, Amazon, or directly from the artist through their website. Swift has a point — artists are not seeing as much money from free streaming sites.

Although streaming services do not compensate artists per song nearly as much as album purchases, streaming offers many alternative benefits for both users and artists. For example, music streaming is better for artists than piracy. Most music listeners are not willing to pay full price for all of their music, which leads to piracy and illegal streaming, alternatives that do not require paying a dollar every time a person wants to listen to a song. However, artists receive no royalty benefits from listeners if their music is obtained illegally. Although a seemingly insignificant amount, 70 percent of Spotify’s revenue is given back to the record labels.

Free streaming services also offer music to a wider listener base. Some people simply cannot afford to pay for music, whether in the form of a streaming subscription or an album purchase. Free streaming allows everyone to access an artist’s music legally. Free music streaming sites are also conducive to discovery. If songs were only available for purchase, you would have to value the song at a dollar in order to listen to it. That is enough of a barrier for many to not listen to a particular song for the first time. Free streaming allows users to explore genres at no cost. Smaller artists benefit from this service because they may not be discovered otherwise. This publicity can reflect in concert ticket sales.

Some Pugwash members suggested that the upswing in streaming services reflect a change in how listeners value music. Before free music was easily accessible through piracy or online streaming, people had to purchase records to own songs. A person had to value an artist’s work at about $9 to $15 to own it. This option is conducive to a small following of dedicated fans willing to invest in the artist. Now that music is either cheap or free, the listener base has expanded. However, Pugwash wonders whether the fact that we don’t need to pay as much for music suggests that music has lost its value.

Subscription-based services appear to be a compromise. User subscriptions, usually at about $5 to $10 a month, allow the company to give more royalties back to the record labels, and, therefore, to the artists. Plenty of users are willing to adopt this model. For Spotify, the proportion of users who purchase the premium service has steadily increased over the past five years. Subscription services are branching far beyond music. Websites like Scribd, Netflix, and Adobe have adopted subscription services that allow users to access unlimited books, movies, and software for a monthly fee.

Taylor Swift has brought up a good point. It is evident that artists do not make as much from streaming websites. However, free and subscription-based services are a trend that have gathered too much momentum to stop. Artists and record labels cannot contend with the ease and cost of streaming music. Subscriptions services are already a step in the right direction as a compromise between pirated music and full-priced record sales.

People will never stop valuing music; we just need to find a platform that is both acceptable to artists and convenient for listeners.