Cutting through the Noise: Music Royalties in the Digital Age


Audio Tabs

After Napster and file-sharing blew the doors off the Internet in 1999, the music industry changed. There’s been an ongoing debate ever since about piracy and fair compensation. Almost two decades later, we’re in the middle of yet another musical sea change with the proliferation of streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, and Rhapsody (recently rebranded as, wait for it, Napster). To many consumers, the explosion of music delivery services is a non-issue because we’re so used to getting free content. We want to hear Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" and we want to hear it now! In our car, at home, at work, on the subway. But to the music industry, musicians and labels alike, the digital transformation and the ease with which music is now delivered to listeners is a complicated, sensitive subject because a) there’s a lot of money involved, b) it’s incredibly hard to contain, and c) there are so many stakeholders.

Arguments abound about data and the proprietary nature of said data in an ever-growing struggle over licensing master rights (the sound recording), publishing rights (the composition), and the impossibly complex plan to offer the history of recorded music to listeners via an app on their smartphone. How should a musician be compensated for a piece of music they either wrote, performed, or both? This question opens up a Pandora’s box (no pun intended—okay, maybe a little) of questions and gray areas. There’s no uniformity when it comes time to pay-out and oftentimes musicians aren’t getting what they deserve for making the music. This begs the most important question of all: What is the actual value of a piece of music?

We talked with musician and activist Rosanne Cash and Kevin Erickson, national organizing director at the Future of Music Coalition (a nonprofit musician advocacy group), about some of these issues to try and understand how musicians can be fairly compensated in this brave new technological world.