Wednesday, April 27, 2016

How Beyonce, Tidal, and Prince Can Save The Music Industry

Written by Don Saas — I've been the Managing Editor of Baeble Music for one year, one month, and just over one week, and if there's one lesson that I've learned in that time, it's that the music industry is being knocked around like they're Joe Frazier in the fourteenth round against a murderous Muhammad Ali during the Thrilla in Manilla. And while it's easy (and not inaccurate) to blame piracy for the problems facing not just the music industry but the entire media world, there are bigger problems to bear, and it begins with record labels devaluing and exploiting their artists.

When Prince passed away on Thursday, a significant amount of attention was given to Prince's music...and rightfully so. Pop genius is a word that is bandied around too liberally some days, but alongside Brian Wilson, David Bowie, and Paul McCartney, he's one of the unequivocal geniuses to work within and transcend the realm of pop music. And a lot of attention was given to his visual aesthetic...and rightfully so. He reshaped notions of masculine presentation in contemporary society.

But aside from rare mentions here and there (our own memorial piece included), one of the most important part of Prince's legacy was elided over. Prince was a staunch defender of an artist's right to see the fruit of their musical labors in an age where the studio system has systematically exploited performers for decades. He became the artist formerly known as Prince and adopted the love symbol to protest being shackled by the weight of Warner Bros. who he felt weren't properly compensating him for his work and weren't releasing the work he did have to his satisfaction. And in an age where recorded music is devalued to the point of almost always being free, Prince's music was only available to those who were willing to pay for it.

That's a revolutionary act in 2016, and one that only a few artists can get away with...Adele, Taylor Swift, and now Beyonce. As someone who's worked in a record store both at the beginning of the streaming craze and then again when it reached peak market saturation, I can tell you the affect it had on sales firsthand (and that's with no frame of reference for the halcyon days that existed before Napster and piracy beyond the remembrances of better times from my old boss). Young people, myself included, don't buy music anymore (unless it's on vinyl), and considering the subatomic royalties that streaming sites like Spotify pay to performers (while the studios pocket the vast majority of the profit), it has become virtually impossible for a musician to make a living on their records alone.

And that brings us to Saturday. On Saturday, Beyonce released her sixth studio LP, Lemonade, as a "visual album" on the HBO network. While the album (and accompanying video) are available for purchase on iTunes, it is streaming exclusively on Tidal. Rihanna's ANTI streamed exclusively on Tidal. (For a while anyways) Kanye West's The Life of Pablo streamed exclusively on Tidal. And Tidal was the only place where you could stream the library of Prince.

So what does it mean that an artist like Beyonce is making her music exclusively available only to those that are willing to purchase the entire record through iTunes or to those who are subscribed to her husband's music streaming service? It means that Beyonce (and the other artists who are working with Tidal) are taking back the value of their work from an industry that's told them it isn't worth all that much, and, at the end of the day, that is better for everyone.

If that doesn't make sense, look at film as an example. The major Hollywood studios use their big blockbuster releases as a way to help finance smaller pictures that might represent too much of a risk to finance on their own. When something like Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is pirated 46 million times (that's a number that is so big that it's hard to soak in at once so look at it this way; 46 million is eight million more people than live in California), that means money that could be used to finance smaller, independent features doesn't exist which means those films don't get made. It's the same in music. When music is pirated or streamed for free, the artists that make hundreds of millions of dollars touring and with licensing deals aren't suffering a ton, but it means that riskier bands aren't being financed by the major label system which means it's your fault when you complain that the major labels don't take risks anymore or that even the indie labels are becoming too transparently commercial because they no longer have the capitol to take those sort of chances.

When Tidal was first announced, it was mocked for the hubris of its manifesto and public introduction, and while those initial sentiments still ring true, we find it much harder to harbor that sort of ill-will to the enterprise a year later. The days of millions of physical (or digital) album sales are done unless you're named Adele, but Tidal represents a possible panacea to the "music should be free" epidemic in contemporary media consumption. By forcing any user to pay for the service, they ensure artists are actually getting paid for the music that fans consume. And...I'm sorry. But if you aren't willing to pay $10 a month (which is what I pay for Spotify) for essentially the entirety of modern music, you're cheap and you don't actually value the labor involved in the art you love.

If major artists like Beyonce and Kanye and Rihanna and Taylor Swift continue to exclusively post their music behind actual sales/streaming sites with mandatory paywalls, it won't be long before Spotify follows suit and guts its own free tier. And, honestly, that should have happened ages ago. Streaming isn't some distant future. It's our inexorable present. And while I sympathize with kids who can't afford the music they want cause you're a kid and you don't have money (though I suspect family account tiers for streaming services are on the cusp of being the next big thing), nobody is entitled to the labour of someone else's art for free, and we salute Beyonce and Prince and Tidal for reminding the world of that fact.

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