The subject of music file sharing is one that has reverberated throughout the music industry for over two decades. Ever since software developers engineered a way for people to share music over the internet, music artists and record executives expressed their displeasure. In Emily White's 2012 article "I Never Owned Any Music, to Begin With," the then young twenty-one-year-old woman bravely admits to partaking in the activity of file sharing. She is a child of the digital age and openly explains that she and her friends will not buy albums; they prefer to pay for convenience. A streaming service like Spotify is better suited to their lifestyle than buying music. Though she may have taken part in file-sharing activities and has this extensive catalog of music in her possession, she feels that the music is not hers. If she loses the music, she can find another way to obtain it. This non-ownership model is the future of music consumption.
David Lowery wrote the extensive article "Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered" as a way of replying to Emily and her generation's way of thinking. He argued that revenue was flowing away from the artists and that these artists could not make it up in other revenue streams such as touring. He thinks this lack of income might be the cause of depression in artists. David wanted to communicate with Emily's generation that the decisions they make in sharing or stealing music have profound consequences. I disagree with this sentiment, but I will explain why later. I do however agree with Lowery that companies are taking advantage of the free culture by selling services and devices to allow Emily's generation to participate in the file-sharing activity. David Lowery argues that this generation is the first to unstick it to the man by valuing the network and hardware that delivers the music over the music itself. That is true, whether it is right or wrong, Emily's generation does seem to put a higher value on their technology.
Jay Frank wrote a third article, titled "Is Stealing Music Really the Problem?" This article was written as a rebuttal to David Lowry's article. Jay's argument made more logical sense to me. He argued that it is not the file-sharing that is declining artists' revenue; it is the amount of competition for a shrinking dollar. Too many releases are diluting the market. People do not know albums are even released. Most people are streaming rather than stealing anyways, and the only ones winning are the major labels who know how to build awareness through marketing. I strongly agree with Jay Frank's take on why revenue has declined for most artists. There is simply too much mediocre music content out in the world. Young people, especially, are not going to clutter up their devices with music they do not enjoy. They sample it first before diving into the full album.
I think there are more music releases today than ever before. To prove this, I created a quick database of albums released every ten years, starting with 1969. I used Wikipedia for the data. I realize Wikipedia is not always the most reliable source, but the website has amassed an extensive list of albums released per year that the Wiki community has helped to curate. In 1969 there were 249 albums released, 1979 saw 296 releases. In 1989 there were 314, in 1999 there were 723, in 2009 there were a staggering 879, and in 2019 there were 774 albums released. Jumping ten years at a time, you can see a pattern. Album releases increased significantly in a fifty-year time. It is a lot easier to create music and release an album these days than it was forty to fifty years ago. Unfortunately, artists have flooded the market in hopes of greatness. What we are getting is an overabundance of content with little to no marketing to back it up. Do you think people have time or patience to purchase all these albums? No, not at all. They stream it if they find out about it. Each year the amount of music created increases. To purchase all the most celebrated albums in the last fifty years would cost a small fortune. Would members of Emily's generation invest in that much music?
Free music is the ideal method of getting exposure. Lower level artists should give their music away. It is not expensive to record and release an album these days if it is done right. An artist is better off building their fan base rather than trying to recoup their costs right away. It is just like starting a new business. Most entrepreneurs understand that for the first few years of their business, they will probably be in the red. However, the payout is there if they just build up their customer base first. The method of trading is what artists should focus their efforts. Give music to get something in return, like information about their fan, an e-mail, zip code, or other demographic data.
The concept of giving away free products or even performances are seen everywhere in the entertainment industries. Circus performers provide free acts in parks and other areas to help promote the circus arts. For example, the Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, MN hosts a circus in the park to expose more people to the circus arts. Sports teams are always giving away free items such as bobbleheads, beer steins, toys, and hats to fill the stadium seats. Museums will often have free ticket promotions. An example of this is the Science Museum of Virginia, giving away tickets for four through a contest to help promote the Giant Insects exhibit. Who would not want to see a giant insect?
Artists need to look at the free model of giving away their music to build a fan base. If the music is good enough and it resonates with their ideal listener, they will support the artist. They will come to the shows and buy the merchandise, and yes, they will even be willing to purchase the artists' newest album. If the artist feels they are established and they see their revenue streams diminishing, there might be another issue and here is why I strongly disagree with David Lowry. Before I go on, did you know that David Lowery is the front man to the band Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven? I only know one song from Camper Van Beethoven and it’s not very good. David and other down-on-their-luck artists should not immediately blame how the latest generation of twenty-something-year-olds consume music. It could simply be that their music no longer resonates with the listener. It might be time to move on.
Brian Lundgren is a marketing professional, musician, and family man living in the Southeast region of Massachusetts.