A really weird proposal to solve a problem that probably doesn't exist.
The Week’s Ryan Cooper lays out “The case for music.gov.” Perhaps not surprisingly, I don’t find it particularly persuasive.
As I write this article, I am listening to the band TesseracT on Spotify. The service is quite a bargain for me — I can listen to virtually any record ever made, for just $9.99 a month. But it’s not such a great deal for TesseracT, which gets just $0.00348 for each song of theirs I play. If I listened to their album “Sonder” on continuous repeat 24 hours a day for the next year straight, they would receive just $355.90.
At first, that sounds like TesseracT is getting royally screwed. Until I realize that, in the olden days, Cooper would have bought the album for considerably less than $355.90. It turns out that Tower Records has it for $13.92 (plus shipping at a rate that I have to fill out a bunch of forms to determine) and Amazon has it for $14.98 with free two-day shipping for Prime members like myself. And TesseracT gets substantially less than all of that.
Streaming services like Spotify have wreaked havoc on the livelihood of musicians around the world. In time they may even destroy the artistic ecosystem on which they depend. There is one obvious solution: full communism for music.
So, again, Cooper has yet to establish the creation of havoc. Nor why I should care if it had. There’s already more music out there than I can possibly listen to and, as far as I can tell, people are continuing to make more of it under the current model.
This is followed by several paragraphs about natural monopolies, consolidation, and the like. Which leads to this:
YouTube, Spotify, and the French company Deezer totally dominate the streaming market, and numerous competitors have already been bought out or gone out of business. Worse, a private music streaming monopoly is plainly already tending towards an artistic monoculture, where a few big names take home most of the money and everyone else gets scraps.
So . . . I’m skeptical. I pay for YouTube Premium and extra for Amazon Music Unlimited. My wife has a Spotify account. For ease of math, let’s call that $30 a month, although it’s likely more. That’s roughly the price of two TesseracT albums. At this stage in our life, I don’t think we’d be buying two albums a month. (Although, granted, our kids are also using those accounts and maybe they’d be buying albums if that were still a thing.)
While I pay some attention to the industry, I’m hardly an expert. But wasn’t it always the case that the superstars were making most of the money? And, maybe I’m wrong here, but it would seem that digital and the lack of need to distribute physical LPs and CDs makes it easier, rather than harder, for bands to make music available commercially.
For a natural monopoly, there are two classic policy solutions: regulation or nationalization. Power utilities around the country, for instance, are almost universally either owned by various levels of government, or are heavily regulated by government oversight boards. Regulation could work, but would require a lot of complicated oversight of private owners, who will always be attempting to squirm out from under the rules or capture the board to boost their profits.
Either option would require competent governance. But it would be cleaner and simpler for the U.S. government to simply buy Spotify outright and convert it into a public service. Its whole market capitalization is just $50 billion — a pittance in a $4-trillion budget — and has just a few thousand employees. If the American state can run the vast complex of dams and power plants in the Tennessee Valley Authority, surely it can run one moderately large web service.
So, let’s just handwave the notion that the Federal government could run Spotify as competently as the people who created it out of nothing and turned it into a “natural” monopoly. And let’s concede that, absurd as it sounds on its face, $50 billion is indeed a pittance in the scheme of a bloated Federal budget and that “a few thousand” employees could be absorbed. Again, to what end?
Now, one could set up music.gov in many ways. But let me suggest a sketch of a business structure. First, all U.S. copyright holders will be required to license their content for a reasonable fee. Second, YouTube (and any other American company that streams music) will be required to set up copyright claim systems that actually work, instead of the current system that allows for rampant copyright infringement, constantly dings people for legal “fair use,” and is also easily abused. This would likely drive the company out of streaming altogether.
So, we’re going to simultaneously own the streaming platform at considerable taxpayer expense to enact “communism” for musicians while also have competing platforms? Why the hell would we do that?
Third, artists would be paid progressive streaming rates: (let’s say) a penny per play for the first million streams per month, $0.0075 for the next 500,000, $0.005 for the next 500,000, and gradually decreasing from there. These numbers are just a rough guess, but the point is to redirect the flow of streaming income more towards middling artists, thus pushing against the winner-take-all dynamic that prevails on Spotify. The only people who make real money from streaming at present are superstars like Taylor Swift who get billions of plays — and even for them it’s a small share of what they get from concerts, endorsement deals, merchandise, album sales, and so on.
Again, I don’t understand the business model. The taxpayer now owns the streaming service. But we’re also going to pay artists more than they’re being paid now? And, somehow, this is going to direct more money to artists few people are listening to at the expense of Britney Spears because, well, fuck her for making music people like? And where is that money coming from? Our competitor, YouTube?
Fourth, there will be no recommendation algorithm. Listeners will have to search out their own music, and create their own playlists (which they will be able to share). This will push back against the commodification of music, which is degrading the art form. Spotify’s algorithmic recommendations tend to turn music into an aural wallpaper that one barely listens to — I’m sure I’m not the only one with long Spotify playlists full of artists I barely recognize. And once more there will be an important role for music journalists and critics to find and raise up new artists.
So . . . let me get this straight. We’re going to buy out Spotify for a cool $50 billion and then take away the feature that made Spotify a natural monopoly to begin with? Because Cooper doesn’t like the fact that too many people are listening to artists who are popular and not enough are listening to . . . TesseracT, I guess?
And, hell, if we’re going all communist and making a Spotify that doesn’t Spotify, why not just outlaw Spotify and other competing services and just throw the music up on a server somewhere? Absent the recommendation algorithms, what is even the point? To make me read music journalists for recommendations that I get automatically right now? What in the actual fuck?
Fifth, only artists will receive particular data about their listeners — music.gov will not collect any personal information itself. This is the reverse of current practice, in which artists get nothing and Spotify is keeping tabs on every song you listen to. That is both invasive for listeners and a huge headache for artists, who lose out on valuable information on their fans that could be used for sales and planning concerts.
Well, okay. But why do I care about any of this?
Finally, listeners would still need to pay up — but not much. Currently Spotify’s headline subscription rate is $9.99 per month, though it has various discounts for students and families. The entire global recorded music industry took in about $21.6 billion in 2020, of which Spotify took in about a third. Given historic and projected industry growth rates, probably all that would need to be done to make the service pay for itself over the medium term would be to nudge up the price a bit, and let subscriptions continue to roll in. Or we might choose to subsidize it with a few billion dollars in public funds.
So, a few billion dollars in public funds to solve a set of problems that essentially nobody in the general public cares about? That will go over really well with the public.
I’m sure to many readers this proposal sounds rather extreme (and we might haggle over details). No doubt Republicans would have a conniption fit over the prospect of Cardi B earning millions through a public service. But if we want music to remain a thriving part of American culture, something must be done
So, first off, Cooper isn’t describing a public service. Somehow, we’re going to spend $50 billion for an existing service, spend billions more to pay its employees, subsidize if for several billion more, and raise prices over what an ostensible monopoly is already charging. And take away the feature that made the monopoly a monopoly in the first place. That really is communism.
I am actually persuadable that having “music to remain a thriving part of American culture” would be worth a substantial government subsidy if there was the actually a threat to that reality. But, even as a middle-aged guy who spends more time listening to podcasts than music, I still find plenty of new and new-to-me music to listen to on a regular basis. There are oodles of new artists making it every year, just as there always have been.
For that matter, to the extent consolidation of the industry is actually a threat to the ability of artists to make a living, wouldn’t the more natural government response be to break up said integration?