Taylor Swift, Steve Albini, Spotify, and the Fruitless Quest for a Music Industry Savior

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If you ever need a reminder that all those rose-tinted remembrances of the pre-internet music industry do not account for the full story, look no further than Steve Albini’s seminal 1993 essay for The Baffler. It’s called, simply, “The Problem With Music.” In it, Albini details the flaws of the major-label music system in actual numbers and simple math — something that’s not done often enough in trade and consumer publications alike when it comes to how musicians actually make their money.

The industry has changed dramatically since Albini wrote his essay, of course. The arrival of widespread internet access led to dramatic and well-documented shifts in the way that people acquire music, and the value they place on it. For the last 15 years or so, anyone and everyone associated with the business side of music has been trying to work out how to return to the days when CDs sold for $25 and record companies made money hand over fist. The sense is that there’s some panacea out there waiting to be discovered, a magic trick that will fix things for everyone. But there isn’t. There’s an infinite number of different solutions, and no singular idea works for everyone.

Part of the problem is that it’s never been entirely clear to consumers how the business side of music works, and it still isn’t. When concrete numbers are revealed, it’s rare that music fans understand what they mean, because they’re usually in some nebulous cloud of multiple millions not unlike celebrity real estate: Justin Timberlake may be listing his SoHo penthouse for either $5 million or $7.5 million; Spotify claims Taylor Swift would have earned $6 million from streaming payouts had she not pulled her discography from the service, though she’s earned only $2 million from Spotify in the last 12 months. (In any case, her Red Tour grossed $150 million, who cares about a measly $4 million?!)

These kinds of One-Percenter discrepancies in price are not exactly relatable for the kind of people who think $9.99/month is a fair trade for something they could obtain for free with just a little more effort and a little less conscience. Swift can’t exactly conjure sympathy for Spotify’s grand injustice towards her precious art when 1989 sales could end up accounting for close to one-fourth of all album sales in 2014, but you know what helps her even less? Numbers that average music fans don’t understand. Numbers that are even more confusing, when considered by listeners who know in an abstract sense that there are such things as royalty points and label advances behind every album.

Take, for example, Swift’s recent TIME cover story. In a supplemental piece focused exclusively on her recent stand against Spotify, TIME claims that Swift/her label Big Machine have received about $500,000 from U.S.-only Spotify payouts in the last 12 months, according to Big Machine head Scott Borchetta. What isn’t clear is if Swift herself took home that amount, or if that’s the total payment for all personnel — producers, songwriters, label — involved. And what about Taylor’s international Spotify revenue? This is where that $2 million figure comes in, but again, who’s included in this payout? Does an average music fan even care?

The other problem is that there are two issues here: what’s right, and what makes commercial sense. In an ideal world, the two are one and the same: what makes sense commercially is something that carries a moral imperative. But in a world where music is still just as likely to be downloaded illegally and distributed for free, it’s more likely that some compromises need to be made. Maybe your average music fan doesn’t care about Swift’s position beyond its philosophical implications about free art in a capitalist society, which she described simplistically in her Wall Street Journal op-ed as: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

She’s right in principle, but “valuing her art” happens to be the business decision that makes the most sense for her, as an artist who can sell nearly 1.3 million copies of her new album in one week. The problem is that Swift and other successful musicians are making their own personal approaches seem like universal imperatives across the music industry. Swift’s model is not going to work for a struggling band that a) absolutely feels the difference between $500 and $2,000, let alone $500,000 and $2 million, b) just wants to get people to listen to their music and ultimately, come to their shows.

Clearly, the “right” thing to do is for people to pay for music — to compensate the artist who produced that music for their time and effort. You can argue that taking out a Spotify subscription constitutes doing so, but there have been many examples of how measly the sums involved are. “Consider the fact that it takes roughly one million spins on Pandora for a songwriter to earn just $90,” wrote singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc in a recent Wired op-ed. “Avicii’s release ‘Wake Me Up!’ that I co-wrote and sing, for example, was the most streamed song in Spotify history and the 13th most played song on Pandora since its release in 2013, with more than 168 million streams in the US. And yet, that yielded only $12,359 in Pandora domestic royalties — which were then split among three songwriters and our publishers. In return for co-writing a major hit song, I’ve earned less than $4,000 domestically from the largest digital music service.”

But what’s the alternative? Pull music from Spotify and rely on record sales? That works if you’re Taylor Swift, but this tactic is probably not going to work for anyone but Swift herself and a rarefied few at the top of the music industry, or those who take specific moral stands against giving away their music anyway. It’s important, however, not to get the two confused: there are smart business decisions, and then there are moral debates about streaming music culture. They’re completely separate ideas, and the latter are often ignored by artists at all levels of success in pursuit of the former.

So can we couch this conversation about what is universally right and what is universally wrong within digital music culture? We are long past the time for absolutes. The conversation needs to be refocused with one simple idea in mind: there is never going to be one “solution” that saves the music industry, because there isn’t a single entity that can be referred to as “the music industry” anymore. And, in fact, there never was — even before the post-piracy Big Crash of the early 2000s, there wasn’t one unified music industry, as Albini has continued to point out.

This weekend, 21 years after he first wrote “The Problem With Music,” Albini raised a number of excellent points about the need to dismantle the following statement: “We need to figure out how to make internet distribution work for everyone.” In a keynote address at Melbourne’s Face the Music Conference, Albini summed up his remarks about how the internet has solved all of music’s big problems by pointing out that system was unnecessarily complex and highly exclusive before piracy popped the bubble.

“Inside that trite sentence, ‘We need to figure out how to make this work for everyone,’ hides the skeleton of a monster,” Albini said. His point is simple: everything about being an independent band has been made easier by the internet; everything about being a big-time middleman in music has been complicated by the internet. If you want to get into the morality of Albini’s pro-internet stance, I’ll just put it this way: I tend to trust a guy who made moral decisions he believed in at the cost of millions of dollars (i.e. Albini took a producer’s fee, instead of royalty points, on Nirvana’s In Utero, in addition to the hundreds of other albums he’s produced).

Just in the last few weeks, the music industry has offered up new alternatives within a streaming music subscription marketplace dominated by Spotify, which claims a quarter of its 50 million users are paying customers. YouTube reportedly made nice with indie labels (like XL Recordings) distributed via the Merlin rights agency — a good look for the video streaming giant as its long-awaited subscription music service, YouTube Music Key, launches in beta today (November 18). The paid streaming service, which includes offline and ad-free listening of YouTube’s unparalleled music collection, will launch to the public in early 2015 at a price point of $9.99 a month (and includes a subscription to Google Play Music, though no one asked for it). Just within the debates around this service, you see how splintered the music industry is: the major labels received different terms from YouTube and signed their new contracts, while indie labels negotiated new terms with a very public fight for six months.

On the DIY end of the spectrum, Bandcamp announced last week at the SF MusicTech Summit that it has developed a subscription service tool for its artist-centric platform, which was built on a pay-what-you-want model back in 2008. Bandcamp’s subscription model allows artists to set the price point (just like Swift suggested in her WSJ op-ed), and to decide how much and how frequently they provided their paying fans with new music. That level of customization on the business side is exactly what the music industry needs. Imagine how someone like Taylor Swift would use the Bandcamp model; then imagine how Steve Albini’s band, Shellac, would. What about some bedroom four-tracker just encountering his or her initial wave of fans?

The problem is not the revenue tools — it’s that they’ve been framed as potential solutions to return the music industry to a former, albeit exclusive, glory that’s never coming back. They’re exactly that — tools — to be used in various combinations that work for each individual artist (and it’s important to figure in touring and merch, which typically yield more profits now than they did even 10 years ago). Yes, it’s completely unfair that internet culture disrespects creators’ copyrights, but bemoaning something that has been a reality for 15+ years does not seem like a terribly productive way to “make it work” in the business sense.

Maybe Swift drank the Kool-Aid when it comes to the myth of the music industry’s pre-millennium utopia, but it’s enlightening to see the age myth disproved now. Free music is not something millennial artists automatically love, nor is it something immediately discredited by Gen X and Baby Boomer music stars. “I want people to hear our music. I don’t care if you pay $1 or fucking $20 for it,” Dave Grohl recently said. Longtime iTunes and streaming service holdouts Led Zeppelin arrived on Spotify late last year. Radiohead remain the posterboys for the pay-what-you-want digital download, and Thom Yorke remains one of the biggest experimenters when it comes to various digital distribution models. (Hey, BitTorrent seems to work for him and Moby — no hate.) And U2? No one needs to be reminded of the album they secretly foisted onto half a billion people in pursuit of “the desire to get our music to as many people as possible” (plus millions of dollars from iTunes).

In explaining her reasons for leaving Spotify, Swift continues to use the word “experiment.” As in, she didn’t want to participate in the Spotify’s “grand experiment.” When you’re as popular as Swift is, why should you be expected to take part in other people’s tinkering? Even after publicly leaving the country world, Swift outsold all her past albums with 1989. If leaving Spotify gave her that extra oomph sales-wise, we will never definitively know. The most that can be said is that it worked for her, both business-wise and philosophically, and perhaps the strategy would work for a handful of other A-list superstars. It’s not going to “save the music industry” because at this point, no singular tool can. More than a decade after record industry collapsed, why can’t we see that?