Free music and the modern day songwriter

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While Chance The Rapper promotes the idea of giving music away, many artists’ livelihoods are negatively impacted by streaming and the associated regulation laws

By Courtney Meloche, Staff Writer

Musicians such as Chance The Rapper have found tremendous success and notoriety for giving their music away.  But in a world where artists are taking action to try to make enough money to put food on the table, can Chance’s “free music” movement be a positive step?

As far as the music industry goes, the dawn of the Internet changed everything.  The year 1999 saw the peak of record sales in the United States  but also brought us the first major file-sharing website.  Suddenly, people were making music available for free—illegally—through Napster and similar sites.  2004 saw the introduction of music streaming via Pandora, and Spotify launched in the U.S. in 2011.  Record sales (for physical units) have dropped dramatically since 1999, hitting an all-time low in 2015.

The advent of music streaming has created a new challenge for musicians, as there are currently no regulations on how royalties should be paid from streaming.  Despite years of pressure from performing rights organizations ASCAP and BMI to update their policies, the Justice Department not only denied their requests last month, but ordered them to comply with a rule known as “100 percent licensing”, making it even more difficult for writers to get paid.  The rule states that the organizations must own 100% of the rights to the songs in their catalogues or the songs cannot be made available.  So if two people co-wrote a song and one belonged to ASCAP and the other belonged to BMI, neither company would be permitted to collect the royalties for their writer’s share and the writer could not be paid.  On September 13, advocacy group Songwriters of North America filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Justice Department, saying that this ruling violates their Constitutional property rights.  On September 16, a federal judge rejected the Justice Department’s 100 percent licensing ruling as it applies to BMI, though ASCAP is still affected.  The punishment that songwriters got for asking for fair pay has been partially lifted, but no progress has been made on the main issue.

In 2014, Spotify earned a reported $1.3 billion while only paying an abysmal $0.006 in royalties per stream.  In November of that year Taylor Swift made a statement by pulling all of her music from the platform.  According to a TIME Magazine article published at the time, Swift earned only $496,044 from an entire year of Spotify streams of her catalogue in the U.S., despite the fact that her massive hit “Shake It Off” received 46.3 million streams alone just in the month of October 2014.   Taylor Swift may not be an unsigned, independent musician, but with so many people, especially millennials, gravitating towards online platforms, it has become virtually impossible for many songwriters and artists to make a living from the art so many enjoy.

Chance The Rapper’s latest album—or as he calls them, “mixtape”—Coloring Book, was released in May, and has become the first to ever chart on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums list based solely on streaming numbers rather than sales.  He has been nominated for BET Awards and MTV Video Music Awards and keeps company with notables including Kanye West.  Many are calling him one of the most important artists of the “New Music Industry.”  Even The Recording Academy recently changed their rules so that streaming-only albums can be considered for Grammy nominations after receiving a petition started by Chance’s fans asking for “free” music to be considered for the awards from this point forward.

Chance The Rapper is making headlines for personally buying 2,000 tickets to his upcoming Magnificent Coloring Day music festival back from scalpers for $200-plus each (a minimum of $400,000 out of his pocket), and applauding himself for paying off the scalpers that the industry is trying to eliminate (He tweeted on September 8, “I took the tickets back from the scalpers, that sh*t gotta be historic”). He has no problem promoting the idea of giving music away for free, but perhaps he should instead be using his status to remind his young fanbase that someone worked hard to create the music they love.  While he personally may not need the paycheck from sales of his music in order to get by, most artists–especially his peers in the unsigned musician category–need to be paid for their work in order to pay their bills. We wouldn’t walk into Gap and take free jeans.  We don’t walk into restaurants and expect free food.  We should be compensating the artists who create the music that moves us, and—as it currently stands—that cannot happen with a “free music” movement.

 

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