Culture

Free Music: Supporting or Strangling our Local Music Community?

Story by Joey Frendo, The Saint Reporter
Photo courtesy of Joey Frendo

The ability to stream your favorite band’s newest album for free is a music enthusiast’s heaven. Having the ability to play any artist, any album, at any place or any time is what streaming services such as Pandora, iHeartRadio, and a multitude of others allow their users to do, giving users a world of endless music at their fingertips.

However, when taking into account what it means for local musicians, it appears it might be too good to be true. Popular acts from Father John Misty​to Taylor Swift​have made much to do about streaming services not adequately compensating the plays that their songs are receiving via streaming music apps, most notably Spotify. Some, namely Swift, have removed their music from the site altogether in protest of the cent­per­play pay structure employed by Spotify.

How does this affect our local bands, though? For acts breaking out on the local scene and trying to make noise regionally, every song play counts. It’s those bands, the up­and­coming bands that scrounge around for loose dollars in couch cushions and van seats just to pay gas for gigs and recording time, that seem like they have the most to lose. In asking local bands about how streaming services affect their ability to make a living, many answered in way that equated streaming services to a necessary evil. “Streaming music as a consumer is incredibly convenient, and it’s helped me discover a ton of new music,” said Bigfoot Buffalo​member Kyle Brown, who is frontman for the Grand Rapids bluegrass/folk fusion band who released their self­titled debut LP to a hearty Founder’s crowd earlier this fall.

“However, as an artist it’s a joke. It’s better than pirating, but not by much.” Not minutes into our conversation, after checking his band’s Spotify stats and their subsequent payouts, Brown interjected that Bigfoot Buffalo​plays (despite being respectably in the low hundreds, a pretty good number for a local band who just released their album) they had resulted in them being been paid a whopping ten cents. “But the use of Spotify has definitely increased my knowledge of music and who/what I listen to, and in turn that’s helped me as an artist,” said Brown, quick to add “I feel like the more I know and the more I listen to, the better writer I become. So it’s so hard to demonize something that’s helped me discover so much.”

There was a prickled nature to Brown’s reply that no doubt showed mixed feelings on the role of service in the music industry, citing that while the ability to stream their record was certainly helpful in adding new fans while helping hone his own craft by allowing him to consume loads of music himself, it was still unfair to those who need it most.

Other artists seemed less torn by the merits of the streaming services, point to their potential access to fans. “For a band like mine it’s a great way to get our music to places we’d never be able to get it without a big distribution deal,” said Devin Weber, lead for Grand Rapids’ rock outfit Devin and the Dead Frets​. From a band who helped headline Founder’s Fest 2015, as well as recently being handpicked to open for local rock legends Wayland​at The Intersection, those are heavy words.

Spotify has become an important vehicle for local bands to reach fans, new and old, and get them out to shows, and it does so by utilizing a tool they are already using to listen to their favorite bands. Weber went on the add the importance of playing live shows, noting that at the climate in the music industry today demands bands put fans in venues in order to make money, and that if streaming services help make new fans that will ulimately come out to a show and support the band that he’s just “happy that someone wants to listen.”

Perhaps, though, Brother Adams’ Jairmi Driesenga said it best: “I think streaming services face a lot of snobbery from the artistic communities, but they’re here to stay and it’s because they’re practical, so I think it’s important to focus on the strengths and benefits.”

Ultimately, it seems as though like it or not, streaming services have value in many areas and are here to stay. Sure, they could pay artists better, but the bad doesn’t seem to outweigh the ngood for these local bands, especially if listening on Spotify gets you hooked on the music and gets you out to see them at their next show.

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