September 28, 2015

SCHULMAN | Taylor Swift and the Future of Music

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I don’t like Taylor Swift **queue dramatic background music.** Taylor Swift is stunning, super talented and had made millions of dollars before her 20th birthday. Believe me, I am jealous of Taylor Swift — but that isn’t why I don’t like her. I don’t like Taylor Swift because she has used her clout to oppose free-information — at least in terms of music.

Free-information is the idea that all information should be unrestrictedly distributed at no cost. It is a radically different way to think about content. Some argue that if content is free, people won’t create content. I disagree. Directly paying for content isn’t the only way to incentivize people to create it. It may be challenging, but we can design new incentives for content creators like ads and streaming.

If you think incentives are the issue, you are missing the point. There is no cost to distributing content anymore. The internet has removed most of the obstacles involved with distributing information, including cost. The possibility of free information is the internet’s ultimate legacy. The extent to which we embrace free information will define our relationship with the web.

Those who support the traditional model of paying for albums need a wake up call. The main reason we pay for albums is to support record companies. Artists make 75-90 percent of their income from performing. They pocket pennies from each song they sell on albums. Artists earn about 2 dollars from the price of a 15 dollar album.

Because of the internet, artists don’t need record labels to share their music. Last year’s Slope Day headliner, Chance the Rapper, started his music career by  dropping a free mixtape. In the past, the costs of distributing music were high. Artist needed record companies to recoup those costs. Today, those costs don’t exist. Record labels can add value through producers and agents but not through manufacturing and distributing records.

Record labels are dying. 10 years ago, recorded music was a 15 billion dollar industry; now it is a 7 billion dollar industry.  People aren’t listening to less music — they are  streaming it and down loading it illegally. Just like cars replaced horse and buggy at the turn of the century, records are being replaced by digital music today.

Directly paying for content isn’t the only way to incentivize people to create content. The alternative models for compensating artists aren’t so bad. I would argue artists do better on streaming services. Every time you listen to a song on Spotify, Spotify pays the artists 2 cents. In comparison, an artist receives 10 cents for a 1 dollar song bought on itunes. In other words, if you listen to a song more than 5 times on Spotify, the artist gets more money than if you buy it on itunes.

At some level, free information is better for artists. I am perfectly happy to support musicians. However, I have a limited budget for music, and I think musicians would prefer that I spend it on concert tickets rather than albums. When fans buy concert tickets, artists pocket nearly all of that money. When fans buy albums, they see less than 10 percent of that revenue. For new artists sharing their music is more valuable than the royalties from records.

Taylor Swift wrote an article in the WSJ about how people would pay for albums to support up and coming artists if they love music. Plenty of people love music — myself included. But plenty of people who love music can’t afford it. It seems perverse that music costs nothing to distribute, yet we keep it from people. Moreover, artists just starting out shouldn’t worry about pennies in royalties. They should be getting their music out there and selling tickets.

Taylor Swift opposes free-information because it serves her interests. Taylor Swift is more than an artist — she is a brand. Taylor Swift’s music is part of that brand and downloading her music for free diminishes her brand. This isn’t the only eyebrow raising move Taylor Swift made to protect her brand. She tried patenting the words “Love Love Love” and the year “1989.”

Free information will define our relationship with the web. It affects all content-driven industries. It isn’t clear how to incentivize content creators if individuals aren’t paying for content. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t figure out alternative ways to incentivize content creators. The internet has removed most of the obstacles associated with distributing content. We should should embrace that reality instead of resisting it. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it! Stay tuned alternating Mondays for more.

Eric Schulman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at eschulman@cornellsun.com. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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