Stream of Conscience: A Guide to Guilt-Free Binge Listening
Streaming has renewed and widened my enjoyment of music – a feat that crates of scratched CDs or a hard drive of legal and pirated mp3s could never do. It has expanded my listening repertoire to include songs I don’t like enough to necessarily buy…but feel like listening to at a given moment. I find myself cobbling together thematic playlists like, say…mariachi versions of 80’s metal songs for taco Tuesday or a collection of rightfully under-celebrated records I’ve been credited on over the past 25 years. Neither scenario would be worth spending money on or sleuthing outside the confines of a good search engine to pull together. Life’s soundtrack just got way easier to curate. But there are those out there whose reaction to streaming will be the sound of them pissing on my parade. This usually occurs in defence of the “helpless” independent artist who receive less than a half a penny per play from one of the numerous streaming services. Truth be told, until recently, I was one of these people condemning streaming. I mean, my livelihood in the music business depends on bands and artists prospering enough to be able to hire me – if artists suffer, so do I. How could something so incredible for the music fan be so debilitating for the artist? Unless, of course, it’s not debilitating. Hear me out…
I suspect that no amount of techsplaining is going to convince certain people that a half a penny per stream is a good deal, but here goes…
Drowning in the Stream
If you break anything down and throw it under the microscope, it can be harder to gain any meaningful perspective on what you’re looking at. Would you even know what an equitable royalty rate for a single stream is? It’s easy to be triggered by a fractional number which streaming services are offering, but what should it cost for a person to stream a song? The subscription “all-you-can-eat” model does skew everyone’s sense of music’s value, but at least there is a monetized infrastructure that is open to all artists – indie and label signed alike. Levelling the playing field like this is more likely to antagonize those independent artists who have grown accustomed to making more money from fewer people. Smarter, evolved artists are viewing this an opportunity.
Look at it this way. Artists are essentially renting out their songs to the streaming company who’s paying them per play at a “price-to-rent ratio” that is well within any industry standard for such an arrangement. You’d rent a $30,000 car for $100 a day…why not, as an artist “rent” out your $0.99 song for $.005? I’d think it’s easier for an artist to convince a dozen people to stream a song at no added cost to them than it is to talk one person into buying a download of the song. An important consideration is that, unlike a one-time purchase, the artist gets paid every time the song is streamed – even for repeated listens from the same person. This a more sustainable and scalable business model than what we’re used to, but it requires a pivot in thinking. For a lot of artists, volume is what their neighbors keep telling them to turn down after 10pm and not so much the marketing strategy that will ultimately make them successful.
The reality is that streaming service providers are assuming a lot more risk than the artists. They’ve built and maintain the infrastructure to be very effortless for both the artist and the listener. Most of these companies have been operating at a loss for years. It’s hard to vilify them as taking advantage of artists when, so far, no one appears to be getting rich quite yet. Unsigned artists can opt out of having their songs available for streaming, but I think most of them want to be there amongst their more successful musical peers and heroes. For a lot of them, it’s just unfortunate that their relatively small fanbase cannot generate enough profit within the current streaming model for this to be viable as a primary source of income.
Control the Flow
So why not have the best of both worlds? Why isn't it standard to have a tiered system that delays the release to streaming services until after a period when the songs are only available for purchase. This way hardcore fans are incentivized to buy the physical product or digital download prior to opening the streaming floodgates for all those “free-loader” listeners out there.
It's a free market, self-regulating system where largely the listening audience determines the fate of an artist's career - not the record label anymore. So does this mean we can all stream music guilt-free? Well, let your conscience be your guide, knowing that true artists are resilient and that with your support you can keep your favorite indie artists making more of the music that you love. ...so, I say buy their stuff and stream them like crazy.
Frank Gryner is a multi-platinum recording engineer, a musician and cinematographer. He has mixed/engineered or performed on recordings for Rob Zombie as well as Tommy Lee, A Perfect Circle, BT, The Crystal Method among many others. Growing up in Forest, Ontario, Canada, Gryner graduated from Fanshawe College’s Music Industry Arts program and went on to be a part of a “Canadian Invasion” of audio professionals who infiltrated the Los Angeles studio scene in the early 90s. Gryner also writes articles relative to the music industry which are featured in periodicals and online sites such as Premier Guitar and Recording Magazine. As a cinematographer, Gryner has produced videos for Def Leppard, Emm Gryner, Stever, Trent Severn and Trapper.