“There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear”
For What It’s Worth — written by Stephen Stills
I was in the ninth grade in the spring of 1967, living in Jacksonville, TX, when I first heard Buffalo Springfield and this Stephen Stills penned single; “For What It’s Worth.” The intro with its two alternating quivering tremolo notes caught my attention instantly. The music was riveting and the lyrics were dark and foreboding. As a teenage fan of dystopian science fiction, I was hooked immediately. I remember going to the music store, located conveniently across the street from my junior high, to get the record. Unfortunately, the title doesn’t appear in the lyrics of the song, so consequently I couldn’t get the single or the sheet music. The music store employees were of no help because they were all old “squares” and had no idea about the song or what I was talking about when I asked for “There’s Something Happening Here” and honestly didn’t seem to care about my $1 for the single or sheet music.
It is very interesting that this song has stood the test of time and is still heard regularly in movies, television and used to make a point about the times we live in. After 55 years it remains relevant. That is really quite an amazing achievement as not many songs can do that.
I read recently that 60,000 (yes, you read that right – sixty thousand) new songs are added to Spotify every day. That number is utterly mind boggling to me. How could this have happened?
Once upon a time record companies and DJs had total control over which artists entered into the world of the music business. They were the ultimate gatekeepers. Recording, manufacturing records, distribution and marketing was a complex, technical and expensive endeavor. Only the record companies had the clout, financial resources and know how to get music on the radio and available for sale. Though the record companies are still around in some form, with the digitization of music, the rise of streaming services and the proliferation of home studios the landscape has been totally altered. While those gatekeepers kept watch at the gate, the rest of us tore down the fences and stormed the castle. In some ways that is a good thing, but in other ways it is not so great.
Some folks will tell you not to worry because the cream always rises to the top. While I can agree in principle, I totally disagree in reality, simply because no person or even group of people can possibly wade through 60,000 songs a day to find the cream. Much great and important music is lost in the tsunami of me-too releases. That is why every musician is desperately posting to social media, buying ads, making videos, creating TikToks, building websites and trying desperately to come up with some new way to get potential fans attention.
For a very short time historically, actually not much more than a hundred years, has recorded music been available. Before that it was only available in live performance or as sheet music (hence music publishing). But it was only after WWII and the rock and roll phenomenon that it became immensely profitable to the artists and songwriters, launching Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles and many others into the rarified world of superstardom. They became household names and also fantastically wealthy. That world lasted until the large scale invention of the digitization of music in the 1990s. Then came free digital downloads with Napster in June of 1999 which was in my opinion, theft pure and simple. The internet was new and most lower tier artists like myself were unaffected by the downloads.
As recently as 10 years ago, most of us happily sold CDs for $15 each, single digital songs for 99 cents and digital albums for $9.99. We were loving this new digital music world where CDs were relatively cheap to record and produce and companies like The Orchard and CDBaby made distribution a breeze.
With audio digitalization came Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) which allowed anyone to record at home or open a studio for a fraction of what it had cost before digital. Now anyone with a computer in a back bedroom could create music, create CDs and put their music up for sale on the internet. Little did we realize that world would be short lived.
As smart phones and high speed internet became prevalent, streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify and the like, took over with a typical monthly cost of around $10 giving unlimited access to the whole history of recorded music anywhere and anytime. Some like Spotify even have a free tier requiring you to listen to a minute or so of commercials every 30 minutes to listen to 30 minutes of any music you desire.
Digital audio felt like a great thing at first blush but it opened a Pandora’s Box of insanity where recorded music has become virtually worthless and streaming platforms became self-appointed music utilities much like power and water companies. The only difference is that the streaming companies charge a set monthly fee rather than a usage fee and use artist’s music as their product paying them a pittance for their creations. If you pay your monthly fee and only listen to one artist during that month, do they get your fee or even a portion of that fee after the streaming service takes out it’s cut? The simple answer is no. The artist gets paid per play from a high of 0.01196 cents on Amazon Music Unlimited to a low of 0.00087 cents for YouTube with the big boy in the business, Spotify paying 0.00318 cents per stream. Pretty sad don’t you think? But that ain’t all…
What a local band gets for a night of live music in a local bar or restaurant has not gone up since the 70s. Back then in East Texas, where I live, a 4 piece band got $200 or $50 a man with a $50 bar tab for the band as well. I made thousands back in the 70s and 80s playing three nights a week with a four piece band. We certainly didn’t get rich but we got paid and respected. These days, if you can find a place that wants a band, you might get the same if you are lucky. If you aren’t lucky, they will have you play for tips and they’ll make you pay for your meal and drinks. Talk about devaluation of the music!
It is odd, isn’t it? Music is everywhere; in cars, earbuds, TV, movies, houses, businesses and public places and yet somehow it is worth less to the consumers that ever. For many, music is the soundtrack of their lives, helping them exercise, grieve, drive, work, party and even shut out the insanity of the world. Yet in this pervasiveness, music rather than valued, has been totally devalued. How could this have happened?
Digitization of books, images, video and audio, along with distribution via the internet have played a big part by turning all of their respective markets over on their heads and devaluing digitized art in general. The simple fact is that digital art and music in particular, being more easily and cheaply created as well as distributed has contributed to this daily avalanche of new music. While I personally don’t expect to get rich or be a superstar, myself and fellow artists only want to be fairly compensated for the use of our music.
I am certain that we should receive more than a hundredth of a cent per listen to the music we spent years creating, tens of hours creating and thousands of dollars to record. Heck, let’s go crazy and up it to a penny a stream. Is that too much to ask? Or possibly, change the game and make streaming like real utilities: charge a base monthly rate, say $10 for the first 700 listens and pay the artists a penny for each play. That leaves $3 for the streaming platform to cover their costs and make profit. After all, they don’t pay for music creation, they only warehouse and distribute it. In that case if a consumer listened to more than the base 700 songs a month then, as with any utility, they could charged one and half cents for every play over that base amount. Of that amount, a penny would go to the artist and the half cent going to the streaming company. Everybody gets compensated and no one is screwed. Imagine that.
As to live music in a club venue, how hard is it to charge a freaking cover. It worked for decades. But suddenly, many venues don’t seem to believe that works anymore. With a cover charge, artists get paid by their draw: lower attendance, less money and higher attendance, more money. So simple, fair and logical. The venue risks nothing and the artist gets paid. In restaurants, add a music tip to the ticket so listeners can pay with credit or debit cards since many no longer carry cash. I know many artists post their Venmo or Cash App IDs but the receipt tip at least reminds diners to pay for the music. I am aware that a few dining establishments do this but they are few and far between.
There are many more as good and certainly much better ideas to help with the problem of devalued music. Those were just a couple off the top of my head. My point is there are solutions to the problem if we only have the will to fix it. Everyone wants to be paid for their work and artists are no different. The digitization of music and the internet have given more artists access to a much larger market and that is potentially a wonderful thing. But unfortunately, what consumers are paying for the services is not being reflected in compensation to artists. No artist I know wants more than to be paid fairly for the use of their creations. Who out there believes that the current system of music distribution is fair to artists? I certainly don’t and that’s my opinion for what it’s worth.
I would love to see your comments, complaints, corrections and suggestions. As they say, hit me with your best shot. I welcome every single one; positive or negative.
Randy Lewis Brown may be a over-the-hill, baby boomer, curmudgeon but he is also an award-winning Northeast Texas-based singer-songwriter and self-proclaimed “performing philosopher”. Despite his years, he remains stedfast in attempting to decipher the intersection of spirit, faith, science and the human condition. Always trying to maintain a sense of wonder and whimsy in his occasionally clever folk-Americana songs and stories. He spends thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours creating, recording and promoting his music. Yet his last quarterly royalty check wouldn’t buy a box of Cheerios.