On Streaming, Ownership, and Why I Think Taylor Swift is Wrong

Not about the fact that the people who make music deserve to be paid for their creations. I fully agree with her in that aspect. But the part with which I disagree is her insistence that no one should ever provide music for free and it should solely be seen in terms of how much money you are getting.

By now, I’m sure everyone on the planet with Internet access and the ability read English has read Taylor Swift’s letter to Apple she posted over the weekend. My reading of it just happened to coincide with my listening to back episodes of the DIY Musician Podcast which had me in a mood to think a bit more about it. I was way back in the 2008 episodes, so I haven’t yet listened to the episode actually dealing with Apple Music. But the ones I was listening to in the airplane home after reading the letter were mentioning the use of streaming services like Pandora and (then brand-new) Spotify.

While listening to those episodes and thinking of Swift’s hissy-fit (because that’s really the most fitting name for posting something that could have been handled privately in a public forum in an attempt to make someone else look worse), it occurred to me that there might be artists out there thinking this streaming thing is going to end up being all there is. It certainly seems that way from Swift’s letter.

This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field…but will not get paid for a quarter of a year’s worth of plays on his or her songs.

Streaming should never be seen as the sole source of an artist’s success. It should rank right above radio play, because that is essentially what it is. And it will not replace an individual’s personal music collection. Because that is the nature of music, and art in general. It should be made for the love of the craft, not because you need to pay down your debt. Yes, artists should be compensated, but that can’t be your entire reason for writing, performing, or anything else.

Those who become artists should want to do so because they can’t imagine doing anything else. They need to have a story to tell, something compelling to bring people in to the story, and a desire to do so whether or not they “make it big.” The goal can’t be to just rake in the money off digital streams while you churn out cookie-cutter earworms that appeal to five-year-olds (and annoy the rest of us). Streaming should be treated as a form of a preview, or a way to get your music out to people who might not learn of it otherwise. Because, no matter how many streaming services to which one is subscribed, no matter how the technology for listening to music changes, people are always going to want to own the music they love. They are always going to buy the music that resonates with them. Because creating a playlist on a streaming service says, “Yeah, these songs are alright,” but buying a song/album says, “I need this in my life.” And people are always going to have those songs they just need, if they are created with true artistic integrity and not just a greed to increase an artist’s net worth.

So, good job, Taylor, for whining about not being paid enough. We all know you’re the only one who’s going to end up seeing any of those royalties anyway, because that’s just how the royalty system works. Meanwhile, other hard-working artists will just make their living converting one casual streamer into a fan at a time.

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