Should all music be free?

In the world today, our lives are fueled by the internet, and nearly everyone is plugged in. We can scarcely go a day without using a computer or smartphone, especially because we now have internet access essentially everywhere we go. We consume almost all media digitally, and the sales of physical newspapers, magazines, movies, and albums have all dwindled since the dawn of the internet. 

The increase in the popularity of digital media can largely be attributed to its ease of use. Rather than subscribe to a newspaper, people are able to go to websites to get the latest news, often minutes after events happen. Many people have traded in waiting for news to be printed in favor of going online to find it themselves. In the same fashion, people no longer have to go to record stores to purchase their favorite albums. The internet has become the method of choice for many to get their music, and digital downloads are more popular than ever before.

Previously, there were only a few ways that people could consume music. Most listened to music by purchasing long play records or by tuning in to the radio. Before the age of the internet, monetizing music was much simpler, and some still refer to the pre-internet era as music’s heydey. Fans would walk into a music store and purchase a physical copy of an album, go to a concert, or listen to the radio and request songs by their favorite bands. This simplicity made licensing and keeping track of sales much easier for record companies. Most of the money came in through record sales and radio plays, which left little grey area in the market. Music was a commodity, like almost any other physical item that could be purchased or sold.

These days, it is almost impossible for companies to track the true value of an artist’s album release, mostly due to the internet’s existence. While it is simple to count the number of digital downloads purchased by fans, this does not account for all the illegal downloads and file shares of albums. These methods can sometimes even outnumber the amount of legal downloads. Artists can benefit from almost any kind of exposure, even if their popularity is sometimes a byproduct of illegal downloads of their albums. However, the music industry has encountered an enormous problem trying to figure out how to deal with illegal downloading. Even if artists seems to owe their fame to it, illegal downloads cost them a lot of money.

In the earlier days of  the internet, many were arrested, fined, or jailed for their role in illegal sharing and downloading of music. These efforts were largely pursued by record labels because their sales had been cut by file sharing. In one of the largest cases of the late 1990s to early 2000s, the free file-sharing service Napster was shut down because of lawsuits from the music industry over copyright infringement. Record companies congratulated themselves on winning the initial battles against file sharing and illegal downloading. However, in today’s world, if you search any popular album, it is almost as easy to find a likely-illegal third party download as it is to find the official, legal one, directly from the artist or record label. In reality, record companies only won a small victory that helped them hold off the inevitable.   

At this point, the threat of copyright infringement no longer lies in a single company, like it did with Napster. These days, anybody with access to a computer and a slight bit of know-how can share an album. Services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and ShareFile are incredibly popular and legal for sharing original work, but they make sharing illegal files a simple task as well.

These services also provide substantial benefit besides sharing music, and many students use Google applications, for instance, to store and share documents and assignments.

Given the sheer amount of people that use these services, the music industry can no longer wage a war against file sharing itself. There is no way for them to oppose these popular cloud-based storage systems.

As a result, the music industry has been forced to adapt to the digital world. Record labels no longer make their money through physical record sales; rather, they tend to focus more on marketing, merchandising, and endorsements. Give a few examples here.  Due to the fact that physical sales are no longer essential to a musician’s overall success, this has led to many producing and distributing their own music independently, foregoing record labels completely. While a possible detriment to record labels, there is an argument that this benefits the artist themselves. In theory, this could help budding musicians break into the industry because being signed to a label is no longer required to be successful.

In an interview with The USD Vista, Sam Feldt, a successful dance music producer, shared that he believes all music should be free to download. He said that artists make money through merchandise, booking shows, and in other ways than just selling music alone.

In the same vein, Chance the Rapper released his latest album, “Coloring Book,” for free, streaming first exclusively on Apple Music, and then through other sites like Spotify and SoundCloud. “Coloring Book” reached such popularity that petitions and letters were written to the Grammys so that they would amend their rules to include streaming-only albums. Previously, only albums that generated record sales could be included. With this petition, “Coloring Book” managed to persuade the Grammys to change their prehistoric rules. It is arguable that the release of free music can be equally powerful to conventional releases. Plus, nobody is doubting Chance the Rapper’s latest album success despite not having physical record sales.

The music industry is currently in a transitional period, and no one is exactly sure what the next course of action will be. Some believe that the way the world used to be was perfect and are angry that people today are stealing music. Others look to free music as an opportunity to share their sound with more people, especially since many don’t have the ability to pay $12.99 for every new album release. The polarizing fact is that people will continue to download music illegally. Now, it is left up to artists, labels, and consumers to determine where the industry is headed. We’ll have to wait and see if the future of music is in free albums and song releases.

By Walker Chuppe, Arts and Culture Editor