Selling music

Shortly after I posted my latest piece on streaming, a friend chastised me for taking the stance that piracy is better for musicians than streaming. Citing his “intractable stance” against piracy, he wrote, “I don’t see what I help make [i.e. videogames] as ‘art’ but rather a product.”

But the problem with streaming services is that they don’t treat music as a product: they treat it as a service, one for which any constituent part can be substituted for any other. That’s how streaming devalues music. When I say that some musicians are better off being pirated than legally streamed, I don’t mean that piracy is a better way for the musician to get their music heard. I mean that streaming provides a much stronger disincentive than piracy does to buying music, thus is inherently harmful to music as a product.

Economies tend to be subject to Pareto distribution, typically described as an 80:20 split—80% of the wealth goes to 20% of the population, and vice versa—in a graph that looks like this:

Pareto distribution
From Wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons.


The extent of this distribution varies (and to be honest, its extent in the world economy is pretty worrying at the moment), but the point is that the bulk of wealth tends to go towards those few on the left side of the graph, and the remainder to those on the right, in the so-called “long tail”. I’ve said before that record companies benefit from having musicians distributed throughout all points on that graph, so that there’s always something they own playing. Sure, they’ll make the bulk of their money from the 20% of their artists who get the most plays, but it helps to have supplementary income from the other 80. It’s like getting small royalties from fifteen million radio stations. On streaming services, the big record labels can’t lose. But the musicians can.

On streaming services alone—and a lot of people are predicting that streaming will be the whole future of recorded music—the amount of income from anywhere other than the far left of the graph is paltry. Pareto distribution tends to describe economies, and if your only source of income is streaming, the long tail is a very bad place to be.[1] But it also describes the economy as a whole, and there are a lot of people in the world. If you’re getting a thousand plays a month, and you’ll have made about $0.60, so maybe don’t quit your day job. But sell a thousand albums and you might be ok.[2]

I believe that musicians can and should make a living from selling recordings. As services like Spotify, Pandora, and Beats Music develop, I think we’ll see a lot more musicians abandon both traditional labels and streaming services, and concentrate on selling their music directly to their audiences. This isn’t an impossible ideal. The cost of recording equipment has plummeted in the past fifty years, and it’s easier to use as well as having readily available training. The harder part for musicians might be the business side: music being a typically left-leaning profession, it doesn’t generally attract a lot of market researchers (who presumably have a better idea of how to make money anyway). But anyone who wants to make a living as a musician will sooner or later have to sell their music, and the main component of an independent business isn’t flowcharts and market research, it’s communicating directly and sincerely with your audience.

First diversion on videogames

The videogame community tends to be broken down into two main groups: “casual” gamers, and “hardcore” gamers, and there isn’t a lot of overlap between games designed for each group. It was with casual games that videogaming went mainstream. The Nintendo Wii and DS, rather than try to compete in the incredibly competitive hardcore gaming market (where Nintendo had come in third place on two successive consoles), targeted a new audience: people who had never played games before. Games like Nintendogs and Wii Sports were light entertainment rather than a serious hobby. Serious gamers—those who owned an X-Box or a PlayStation, or who built their own PCs specifically for gaming—scoffed at the relatively lightweight consoles, but the Wii and the DS sold extraordinarily well.

Fast forward to today, though, and Nintendo’s more recent consoles have flopped. The reason? Casual gamers, the market that saved Nintendo, have just as quickly abandoned them. Since the launch of the iPhone in 2007, smartphones have become ubiquitous. To someone who likes games only as passive entertainment, the best computer is the nearest one, not the one with the best specifications. So if a casual gamer can take out his/her phone and play Flappy Bird for five minutes, why would s/he carry around a DS to play Mario? Because it’s better? To a hobbyist, quality is less important than convenience, and carrying one device is more convenient than carrying two. Serious gamers, on the other hand, have kept playing serious games, and the latest incarnations of the X-Box and PlayStation have sold considerably better than a lot of market analysts predicted.

The point here is that casual fans—of games or of anything—aren’t loyal fans. Casual fans are a good bonus to have: there are a lot more of them than more serious fans. But casual fans are the same people who’ll stream a five-hour randomly selected playlist in the background. They’re too unreliable to be a core part of the audience, unless the performer (or developer, or whoever) appeals to millions of them. There are always fewer serious fans, but those fans will always spend a greater proportion of their income on what they enjoy.

It’s devoted fans that musicians need to seek out. If they pick up some casual listeners along the way, that does no harm. Some of them might even become more serious fans, but that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal.

Second diversion on videogames

A few years ago—I don’t remember why—I downloaded and played a game called Braid. It was something like a revelation: the game took traditional gaming elements and turned them on their head in a startlingly original way. I did some research on the game afterwards, and discovered that the bulk of work on it had been done by a single developer.

Braid is not alone. We’re living in a golden age for independent game makers, who in generations past wouldn’t have had the budget to make their games, or to publish them to major platforms. Developers of games like this focus on making a game that appeals to a small audience, and making it very good. Braid did unusually well for an independent game, selling over 450,000 copies (a drop in the ocean compared to sales of blockbuster games), but it takes far fewer sales than that to make a living.

We live in the mobile age, where pretty much any artistic experience we want is a button push away. That’s great news for independent artists of any type: it’s hard work to find an audience, but it’s far easier than it once was to get a record contract. And once you’ve found your audience you’re never far away from it, even though it can be literally anywhere in the world.

  1. I know musicians can still theoretically make a living from live performances, but there are two problems with that: First, it’s far harder, as your audience has to be in your area; Second, not all music is suited to live performance.  ↩
  2. Yes, of course a lot of people will listen to an album over and over, so a thousand sales may be far less than the equivalent of a thousand plays, but streaming services encourage constant “discovery”, steering people away both from album listening and from repeat listening.  ↩