Streaming, stealing: what's the difference?


On February 1st last year, a Spotify user streamed a track, Tetrishead, by the California-based cellist and composer Zoë Keating. For this, Spotify paid Keating $0.00185288. This was not a mistake. Keating, who makes arresting music, is not a big star, but she gets a lot of play on official, paid-for streaming sites. In the first half of last year, her tracks were streamed 1.5 million times on the internet radio service Pandora and, over the course of the year, 131,000 times on Spotify.

Keating put all her royalty statements for the first half of last year on her Tumblr blog. They show that she earned $1,652, or €1,232, from Pandora and $547, or €408, from Spotify. There are no missing zeros here: 1.5 million-plus streamings really do earn the artist significantly less than €2,000. According to the New York Times, Spotify pays between 0.5 and 0.7 cents for a play on its paid service and generally around a tenth of that on its free service.

Keating isn’t complaining about the depredations of the internet. On the contrary, she stresses that she couldn’t function as she does – as an independent musician with no record label – without it. She doesn’t want to be a rock star. Online connections with those who appreciate her work mean that she sells music through iTunes and that people pay to see her play live. “It takes a lot of work, but I can support my family on music, take them with me on tour and don’t worry much about money.”

The statements she posted show her earning $82,651 in the same period from download sales through iTunes, Amazon and Bandcamp, so she’s doing okay. And that’s a great thing: the artist can be “successful” without having a private jet.

This, however, does not change a basic fact: a musician is being paid often less than two-tenths of a cent, and no more than seven-tenths of a cent, each time a track is streamed. In any line of work, there’s a word for this: exploitation. Streaming services are businesses, and artists are their suppliers. Those businesses are increasingly lucrative: Pandora has a market capitalisation of $2 billion; Spotify is reportedly valued at $3 billion.

And while all of this looks cool and creative and clean and high tech, this business model looks very dirty and old fashioned. It’s the model of the monopoly employer who could pay starvation wages because the serfs had no real choice but to accept them.

But something even more insidious is at work here. It’s not just the businesses like Spotify and Pandora that are using the work of artists and paying them next to nothing. The real exploitation is being done by the listener. The economics of online consumption of art are brutally simple, and they’re driven by the consumers: the alternative to “next to nothing” is nothing at all. Let us stream your work for a very low price or we’ll just consume it for free.

Leaving aside the questions of morality, this has big implications for the way we see art in the 21st century. It turns a crucial part of the artistic experience – the act of listening or reading or witnessing – into an act of exploitation.

Let’s translate Keating’s story from the virtual into the actual. Imagine she is playing her cello on Grafton Street or Shop Street. You stop and listen to a full number. You applaud. You reach into your pocket and you toss a whole shiny cent into her basket. What could this be except an insult? You wouldn’t do it, because you’d rightly be afraid of where Keating might stick her bow. Admittedly, the analogy is inexact: the online payment is nothing like a whole cent. But the principle is the same, and so is the insult.

Of course, there’s nothing unusual about consumers exploiting workers. We know that if we buy a dress for €20 in Penneys, somebody along the line is being paid buttons. We know that if we can travel to Rome for €99 on Ryanair, it’s largely because Ryanair’s staff pick up a large part of the bill through their wages and conditions. Contemporary consumption is seldom innocent. Cheap stuff always comes at somebody’s expense. Why should art be any different?

Well, precisely because it’s supposed to be different. Even when it tries very hard to be impersonal, it’s always personal. It creates a human relationship: between the one who makes it and the one who encounters it. Art in this sense is a utopian activity: it creates an idealised space in which we can enter (or at least thoroughly imagine that we enter) the mind of someone else. It closes distances.

Exploitation does the opposite. There’s a reason why most people would find it very hard to toss a cent at even a lousy busker in the street after they’ve listened for just a minute. You can pass by, ignore her, not get involved. But once you do get involved, even in the most casual way, there’s some kind of relationship that has to be given its due. Exploitation is a way of shutting off that relationship, of distancing yourself from the other person’s reality. How can you imagine an artist in that way even while you’re engaged with their art?

This is the question that has to be faced as more and more art is consumed through some kind of digital streaming: how do you maintain a respectful relationship between artist and audience if the audience isn’t willing to pay its respects?

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