Grooveshark, Free Music, and the Future of the Music Industry

That title may be a bit much. More specifically, the title may sound like it is speaking to a lot of things, but I think it may actually all be one thing. With the recent lawsuits against Grooveshark by all of the major music labels, the folks over at Gizmodo sat down with the CEO of the little company, and came up with Six Reasons Why Recorded Music Should Be Free. And, actually, I think they may be right.

In the past, I’ve been a firm supporter of purchasing music. Honestly, I still am. My views on the future of the industry do not change my present actions, though this comes from my view of the Christian’s duty to follow the law of the land. At this time, pirating music is illegal, and I don’t support it. If you want free music in a legal way, Spotify is a great way to do this, as are other streaming services that pay royalties to the labels. I wanted to get that disclaimer out of the way, because what follows may sound like an argument for piracy, when the argument I want to make is directed at labels, and not at individuals.

The six reasons offered by the CEO of Grooveshark for free music are these:

  1. Record labels want too much money.
  2. Musicians already get paid more by touring anyway.
  3. The music business is too slow and partially broken.
  4. Grooveshark is modeled on early YouTube (the one that got sued).
  5. Grooveshark complies with takedown noticies.
  6. Grooveshark’s ad platform can boost an unknown band to 500k views in three weeks.

The last three points are anecdotal, though the last functions as proof that this is at least one way for an unknown band to succeed. The last point fails to guarantee the model, though, because there is no way to know whether or not the band would have succeeded without Grooveshark. It proves that the model offered by Grooveshark may be profitable, but not that it is more effective than the current model used by the major labels.

As far as the first three reasons, I actually think that the first point is only effective when “too much” is explained carefully. The labels want to make as much money as possible, of course, but many people do. This isn’t a very compelling argument to the labels about why they should change their ways: regardless of whether or not they care about the music itself, they certainly do care about the money. This shouldn’t be viewed as a negative, though: musicians tend to care about the money too, even if they seek to keep it from becoming a first priority. Everyone needs to eat, after all, and most people want to be rich.

But when you discuss “too much money” in terms of market collapse, I think you’ll catch their attention. The point being made here should not be “record companies want money and are therefore evil,” but should be “record companies will self-destruct if they continue down this road.” This seems true, to me. The model that needs to be constructed will be tricky to work out: paying money upfront for music that will be given away for free, only to hope to make it back by concerts and other merchandise (t-shirts, perhaps physical discs with artwork and liner notes, etc), will be difficult to stomach for many investors. But if you combine all of these previously separate functions into one “360 degree deal,” as the article suggests, then you suddenly have corporations that will be responsible for, and reap the benefits of, recording music, promoting an artist, and making sure that concerts sell lots of tickets.

I suspect that if you could convince a few labels to try this, it could very much succeed. The real problem here is that smaller investors don’t have the money to spare for purchasing recording time or for paying producers and sound engineers to craft tracks that would sell, given a pay model, and would still sell concert tickets. If this model is to succeed, we need someone huge to try it first. Either an established artist who can take a new artist under their wing, or an established label to try this with a brand new artist. Grooveshark can’t prove it alone.

My biggest reservation with this model is actually the same problem we face right now: sustainability in context of a large market. After all, it is easy for Grooveshark to promote one video up to 500,000 views in three weeks primarily because they have a ton of users and were only promoting one band. If this model takes off, though, they may find themselves promoting any number of bands, and labels would suddenly be competing for giving away free music. It might be really easy to get lost in the sea of suddenly free music. I felt that way when I became a music reviewer, even, as I suddenly had access to a ton of music I may or may not have bought otherwise; I found I really only valued my old favorite artists for any given time, with few exceptions.

The second point, that musicians get paid more to tour, is already true. Purchasing music tends to put money primarily in the pockets of either the distributor or the label, with only some of the money reaching the artist. While the new model seems to leave out the distributor (iTunes or Amazon, for instance, who could easily be paid for hosting content), if music was free, it wouldn’t even matter if there happened to be a single store for purchasing content; you could organize your music on your computer in whatever was was most efficient, rather than using the store that had the most convenient shopping method. This seems good for just about everyone; Apple loses out, but the industry can continue on.

The third point is key, and does not need explaining here. Read the source article, since it is put together much better than I could rephrase it, and is compelling in and of itself.

All that said: I’d support this sort of a shift, but I’m not sure how it could or would happen. I think it would be good for the industry as a whole, while also benefiting more people than it would harm. I hesitate when people demand free music, because it usually smacks of a sense of entitlement or a hatred of all things corporate (both qualities that I don’t find appealing), but there is a good argument for free music here.


Image via Flickr.

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Jheim24

    Great review. Well said.

  • Jheim24

    Great review. Well said.