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The Podium

The price of music

As a guitarist and a professor at the Berklee College of Music, I’ve watched in awe as the Internet has reshaped how we create, distribute, and connect with music. In many ways, this has been an incredible boon to artists and fans — putting virtually all music ever recorded at our fingertips (or at least on our smartphones) and connecting music makers with music lovers in a thousand and one new ways. But it’s also created new challenges, particularly as streaming and single song downloads crowd out album sales, where artists have traditionally earned most of their pay. I know I should be overjoyed at the vast new opportunities available to my students, but instead, I am anxious for their future.

It’s not that I expect them all to become “stars.” In fact, I am happy when my students can make a decent living doing what they have trained for years to do, making music. Unfortunately, the very technology that is allowing them to get their music to their fans has also made it more difficult for them to make a living from it.

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I have seen some of the comments online in response to the recent Pandora op-ed by Pink Floyd, many of which amounted to disgust that these rich entertainers are asking for money. Well, I am here to plead on behalf of the working musician, not rich entertainers. Pink Floyd may be able to tough out the recent drought in the music industry, but how will my students, who spend four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars learning their craft, survive in the current climate? And many of my colleagues on the front lines, who are not famous but have managed to carve out a living as musicians over the years, are now suffering as well.

Currently, digital broadcasters like Pandora pay royalties based on a “reasonable fair market standard.” But artists are certainly not rolling in the dough. In fact, 90 percent of the artists with music on these services make less than $5,000 a year from digital airplay. In 2012, if my sources are correct, Pandora was paying $0.0011 per stream. Pandora and others are currently lobbying Congress to cut these rates. The proposed “Internet Radio Fairness Act” would cut musicians’ rates as much as 85 percent by many estimates. Some of Pandora’s supporters have recently been publicly quibbling with that figure, but does it really matter? The bottom line, from my perspective, is that artists are not making much money as it is, and Pandora’s bill would reduce the amount even more. Their product is the music, which would not exist without the artists, and yet they want to pay the artists even less than $0.0011 a stream!

A longstanding but related issue is “terrestrial” or AM/FM broadcast radio. AM/FM does not pay performers any royalties at all, even though music is, once again, the “product” and broadcast is earning billions from advertisers based on its appeal. They were able to win this exemption many years ago by convincing record labels that they provided free promotion for artists. This is, obviously, no longer the case, as artists don’t really need radio to sell their music. Most other western nations pay a performance royalty for radio broadcasts, and it is time the US followed suit. In fact, Americans are currently earning royalties overseas that never get paid because we don’t reciprocate. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, money that could be the foundation of a healthier music economy here at home. Fortunately, there are rumblings that Congress may step up and deal with this problem soon, building on the Performance Rights Act legislation that was considered in 2010.

Finally, there is one last piece of this long-term puzzle: We must keep funding music education. Most of us are probably familiar with research indicating that music instruction can facilitate learning in other subjects as well. And I think we all see signs that the “teach to the test” movement has reached its limits as an educational philosophy – our students need a richer educational environment, one that includes music and art, to thrive. On a personal level, I have found that people who have learned to sing or play an instrument tend to have more appreciation for music, and a knowledgeable fan is often the most important fan.

I hope I can tell my classroom of aspiring young musicians that there’s a viable career waiting on the other side of the hard work they are taking on. And I hope Congress will think of them when legislating on the music business.

Michael Johnson is an associate professor of contemporary writing and production at the Berklee College of Music.
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