Raw Syntax

The stuff programs are made of

Purchasing Electronic Media




Recently I read Derek Webber's post about Spotify, in which he says:

I am paid $0.00029 per stream of a song on Spotify, and even this amount depends on whether the song is being streamed by a paid user or someone using the service for free. This means it will take upwards of 3,500 streams of a single song on Spotify to earn $1.00 versus that same revenue for one iTunes song purchase

His article made me think of a time years ago when I wanted to be in the music business.

When I was about 12 or 13 I started playing bass guitar. From then on I was enamored with music. Playing it, listening to it, thinking about playing it etc... Then when I was in 11th grade I had the opportunity to take an AP computer science course. I took it, 5'ed the AP test, and promptly stopped programming at all. By the time I was in 12th grade I was convinced I'd go to college as a music business major. Play music and get paid? Sounds like a party right? Why not?

Getting Paid (for Music) is Complicated

My first semester in college we had a silly 0 credit hour course for 3 hours each week where the professors basically talked about the music business. They related anecdotal stuff about copyright, various record label / venue contract issues, and all kinds of other issues. This class was a big red flag for me. They went over how you get paid royalties in various situations and how little you get paid for them (even if you got a good deal).

The gist of the class as I understood it was that most of the money is in publishing, and if you're not at the top already it's basically a roll of the dice as far as making a comfortable living at it.

I Didn't go to College to Roll the Dice

If being there wasn't helping my chances of getting a good paying gig after graduating, then why was I there at all? Furthermore, I apparently had already taken in highschool all the required math for my major. I found that to be ridiculous because math is useful, and I'm a nerd at heart. It's just that some how programming has become cool, or at least that's what I tell myself.

While the music business classes were fun and pretty easy (admittedly these were only first year first semester courses), I got an eerie feeling that I would have a hard time getting paid after college because of all these issues that were outlined in that 0 credit hour class.

Oops, I skipped a part. I had a summer job at Kroger bagging groceries when I was 15. It was then that I realized that bagging groceries doesn't pay enough, and that if I didn't do something about it I could be bagging groceries for the rest of my life. There's nothing wrong with that except for the fact that minimum wage isn't a living wage (for me).

Ahh.. Back to Math!

As the semester drew to a close, I realized that what I most wanted to do was play with all the computer stuff in the recording studio. Namely, that G4 Macintosh running all the software. The choice became obvious to me. I changed my major to computer science and added a minor in math.

I felt like that was a pretty good bet for getting a job after college, and I knew I was reasonably good at it. Mostly importantly I felt like that was something worth spending 4 years at college doing. Now on to the topic of this post.

About Media

Enough about me, Back to Derek Webber's article. He concludes his article by telling his fans to buy or download his music for free, but he spends most of the words in his article demonizing Spotify.

He's mostly angry about how they pay him so little per streamed track, and how they don't pay him the same as artists on big name labels. It seems to me, if you don't like Spotify's deal, don't take it. His criticisms of Spotify seem to be at odds with his proclamation that record production costs are at an all time low (meaning the artist can produce and sell his/her own content independently).

Spotify is about adding another tool to the musicians toolbox. Yet another way to make money off your music, if you so choose. This is a huge difference from back in the day when musicians had to take the record label's deal or not get any CDs pressed at all. If anything, these bad deals that Spotify is able to negotiate are evidence of musicians making bad deals. It's in Spotify's best interest to pay as little money as possible for music.

Anything Spotify says about being good for the music business or any other feel good talk is simply marketing speak. That is, it is their marketing department's job to write up this kind of stuff.

The Problem Buying Media Legally

Now I'm not a Spotify fan even though it seems like I'm building them up. Spotify is part of the problem in a few ways. Ever since digital distribution of media started, piracy and DRM have had a symbiotic relationship. If there were no piracy, there'd be no need for DRM, and the presence of DRM punishes customers who try to do the right thing by not pirating media.

Customers think they are buying media, and publishers think they are
selling a license to use that media under certain conditions.

That is the core of the problem. When I buy an ebook I expect to be able to read it anywhere I want (like a printed book). When I buy music I expect to be able to listen to it under any conditions. If I want to record it to a cassette I should be able to.

Arguments about piracy are pretty pointless. On the one hand you have companies claiming that every act of piracy counts as a lost sale, when we know that's not the case. A lot of pirates don't buy anything, and then some pirates do make a purchase after trying it out for free (via a pirated copy).

It's Not All Bad

There are a number of publishing companies that are doing this right. They give you an unencumbered copy of the media, and ask you to do the right thing and not share it. Pragmatic Programmers is one such company that is doing the right thing. That is a message I can relate to, and I have purchased a couple books from them.

Back to How Musicians Are Getting Screwed

I agree that generally musicians are getting a bad deal. It's one of the reasons I decided not to do that for a living. I don't agree with the idea that musicians deserve a better deal. The way the economy has been for the past few years is evidence that nobody is guaranteed a good deal. We are all taking our chances.