I think just about everybody who reads Riverside Green is aware that I majored in Music in school—more specifically, I majored in Jazz Performance. When I was in school, the best textbooks I had were actually compact discs. I scrimped and saved from my part-time job to buy used CDs from “Used Kids Records” on High Street for anywhere from $5-7 apiece—new CDs were out of the question, financially. It was thanks to Used Kids that I learned about off-the-radar saxophonists like Mark Turner, Teodross Avery, Wessell Anderson, and Tim Warfield. I digested their musical vocabulary, transcribed their solos, and regurgitated my learnings through the bell of my horn.
I’ve spent hundreds and thousands of hours practicing the saxophone, writing music, and performing on stages throughout North America and Europe. I’ve been blessed to share stages with some of the biggest names in music. And, for several years, playing the brass bagpipes was how I (barely) paid the bills.
Which is why I’m incredibly conflicted every time that I open up my Spotify app.
For consumers of music, music streaming is the best thing that’s ever happened. I pay $9.99 a month for unlimited streaming of all of Spotify’s catalog, and for five extra bucks I can share it with five members of my family (my son has developed a bizarre affinity for Weird Al Yankovic). That’s insane. I often think about how easy it would be to be a music student today—an entire world of music, easily and readily accessible in the palm of my hand. I studied and memorized the solos from Kenny Garrett’s Songbook for three months—not because I was obsessed with it (which, admittedly, I was), but because that was the only music I could afford. I had to buy it new because nobody was stupid enough to sell it back, so I was especially broke that month.
Now? I can go to Spotify and listen to everything that Kenny Garrett has ever recorded. I can carry it in my pocket and I can listen to it in my headphones, on a portable bluetooth speaker, or in my car. Everybody wins.
Well, everybody except the musician who’s creating it.
In fact, this wild, wonderful world where anybody can create anything and distribute it himself has had a terrible, dark side ever since the advent of Napster. In a world where art is free, why would anybody pay for art? I know that I’m ripping musicians off by using Spotify. I applaud Taylor Swift for removing her music from streaming services. I am genuinely pissed off that UMG gave Spotify the rights to use Prince’s music, in direct opposition to the artist’s wishes (and according to a court order)—but, of course, I started listening to Purple Rain immediately.
The mercurial saxophonist, David Liebman, posted this image of a check he got for a month’s royalties from Spotify on his Facebook page recently. Forty-three cents for a life’s worth of practice, study, sweat, and inspiration. That personally offends me. But not enough to stop using the service. And if I, a former musician who depended on the consumption of my music to pay my bills, can’t be morally offended enough to stop using the service, then what hope do we have that anybody else will be?
It’s incredibly appropriate that one of the most popular sharing services is called Pandora, because I’m pretty sure that this box of virtually free music on demand is one that we’ll never be able to close. And I can’t see how it’s good for anybody who wants to make a living creating new, courageous forms of music. Sure, we can all create an instant audience for our music now, but what good is having an audience if that audience is full of freeloaders?