Opinion: The Case for Collecting and Supporting Musicians Tangibly
The way we listen to and consume music has changed in a thousand different ways over the course of music history. I would argue that some of its most significant evolutions have happened throughout my lifetime, and by that, I mean since the 1990s and, even more, since the turn of the millennium. I’m not here to talk about the invention of such technologies as the phonograph (invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison) or the gramophone and its records (as much as our own dear Nipper might want me to shout out such a listening device). Instead, I’m here to climb up on a high horse and rant. I argue that the shift from physical music ownership has raised challenges, particularly for small artists, and has a call to action for music fans to support them.
If you walk into my living room, you’ll probably notice a few things. You’ll see a large collection of vintage cameras on display, you’ll see a gallery wall of some of my favorite photographs I’ve taken (many of which have been signed), you’ll see the drifting remnants of a scuffle between two or three long-haired cats, and you’ll finally land your eyes on the hundreds of CDs racked on shelves. I think I’m pushing close to 400.
I have always been a collector. Before I was involved in the industry, there was always a firmly held belief in the permanence and tangibility of having real pieces of music in my possession. I have had fun (and still do have fun) poked at me because I insist on picking up physical albums at many different shows I go to. I’ll go to thrift stores, Last Vestige, and record riots and garage sales to pick through the CDs. I’ll call my dad and ask, “Hey, are there any CDs you want me to look out for?” For the longest time, I even refrained from buying songs on iTunes because they weren’t “real.” After all, digital files get corrupted, erased, or simply lost and forgotten about in the thousands upon thousands of folders and devices we’ve had over the course of our lifetimes.
I couldn’t go without mentioning that as a graphic designer by trade with a professional goal of winning a Grammy for album design, one of my favorite things is looking through the artwork and getting inspired and saying, “Wow, look how creative this was!” One of my favorite artists’ Passenger’s albums are pop-up books. You don’t get that user experience with the ½” square in the bottom left-hand of your Spotify window. One of the reasons I started my music graphic design service, Band x Brand, was because of how much I love and how important I think the design of albums is. It improves the listening experience. The album is just that: it’s part of a band’s brand and is integral to the way they make money, and history and data have shown that when album artwork became a standard part of music marketing, sales increased. For example, take a look at The Rolling Stones’ album Sticky Fingers. This album, released in 1971, featured a cover designed by pop artist Andy Warhol. This artwork is so innovative and unique—it includes a real working zipper! I’ve never seen it myself in the proverbial flesh. Still, this iconic album makes my design-loving heart go pitter-patter and certainly contributed to the album’s success and first-pressing price tag on eBay and Etsy.
Pre-iTunes, I was never a Limewire or a Napster user. I think I recall Windows Media Player having some database where I could download music. I have memories of sitting with my friend in front of her computer on a table or tray of some kind in the corner of her dining room. I can feel the carpet under my toes as we sat and perused these files, listening to the likes of Daniel Bedingfield, Savage Garden, Frou Frou, and probably even the colloquially referred-to “Numa Numa” song and other Y2K pop. Right-click. Save as. Import to Musicmatch Jukebox, which was probably my favorite software next to Photoshop Elements and Rollercoaster Tycoon 2. Through college, I would use Audacity to record music from AOLMusic and YouTube for my library. But even then, I was always just doing it until I could buy the physical album.
I have always been a proponent of the CD. Two of my earliest memories are of getting Britney’s debut… Baby One More Time, which was the start of my music collection, and the pride I felt at being able to buy a CD with my very own money for the first time. I can taste the air and remember that feeling of sliding my money across the counter at the Disney store in Crossgates to pick up my own copy of the Kim Possible soundtrack. Both of these are still in that collection of hundreds of albums.
It really was always about just having it on my person. Ever since getting involved in the music industry, however, my beliefs on owning the music have just solidified.
It’s no secret that streaming platforms pay artists next to nothing in royalties for people streaming their music. On average, an artist on Spotify must have a song streamed over 300 times to receive only one dollar in royalties. When you’re an artist like Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, or BTS, this might not be as big of a deal. However, if you’re a local artist and generally smaller, independent artists, this can feel like a huge obstacle because it is. And Spotify just announced that they’re making it harder.
According to Billboard and Music Business Worldwide, things are changing again and will only make it harder for smaller artists to bring in any profit whatsoever from these streaming services we all pay for, either through subscriptions or ad feeds. Spotify’s royalty model is changing, and according to the article, “a new threshold of minimum annual streams that a track must meet before it starts to generate royalties. The threshold, according to MBW, will demonetize tracks that had previously received 0.5% of Spotify’s royalty pool.” I’m not claiming to understand any form of business and payout model here completely, but all I know is that this is bound to benefit the people at the top and line their pockets, all while making it harder and harder for the incredibly talented musicians from all over this amazing world and all over Nippertown to earn a dollar. Capitalism really popped off today, ladies.
So, what is this whole rant really about? It all circles back to Britney Spears and Kim Possible. Buy the music. It should be pretty obvious that I’m not really talking about Disney, Jive, and RCA—they don’t really need more money, but the point is more focused on those small artists you love.
How can you help? Go to iTunes and pick up a digital copy of their album or their single. Click purchase. If you can afford it, go to their website and buy that pin or that t-shirt you’ve been admiring. Attend their shows when you can, artists big and small, and swipe your card for a tour.