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Music Costs Money

I’m not sure what’s so hard to understand about this.

Soraya Roberts, for Defector:

I just want to go to a concert. One concert. I just want to see First Aid Kit. I just want this one thing. […] But I am sorry, I am not willing to pay $97.58 for general admission at History, a Toronto club co-owned by Drake.

So that’s $73.04 USD for a relatively intimate experience (a 2,500 capacity venue in a major city) with a band that has nearly 3 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone. It… doesn’t sound outrageous to me?

Roberts goes on, pining for the days of yore:

And I don’t want to get all I-remember-a-time, but as a broke student in the early 2000s and as a broke writer in the mid-to-late 2000s, I was somehow able to see a band usually for $20 or less: Arcade Fire, Weezer, Sloan, The Kooks, Royal Trux, Weeping Tile …

Setting aside the fact that a) that was 20 years ago, and b) back then few of those bands were as popular as First Aid Kit is now, do you know what else people did in the 2000s? They bought records. Not as much as they did before Napster, of course, but certainly a lot more than they have since streaming services took over the world. And as much as music gratifies the soul, it’s not a charity. If artists can’t get paid for their records, they need to get paid another way. Roberts understands this:

You need a song to get hundreds of millions of streams in order to make any money from it, and 97 percent of artists do not. That leaves musicians increasingly reliant on touring revenue, but because there are so few venues and thus more competition to book gigs, lengthy and profitable tours are harder and harder to engineer.

And yet:

I listen to Spotify. A lot. And, yes, I feel bad about it.

Honestly, me too! And to make up for it, I buy records, concert tickets, and merch. I spend more on tickets than I used to, and less on records. In 2022, for 18 shows, 14 records, and a Spotify subscription, I spent a total of $1,109.81 (voluntarily paying more than the asking price on Bandcamp for each of those records, by the way), which comes to $92.48 per month. The average ticket price, $44.78, was about the same as the average for the handful of tickets Roberts went on the record refusing to buy (for Alvvays, Christine and the Queens, Maggie Rogers, Sylvan Esso, and The National), and for the most part, the artists I supported were significantly less famous than the ones Roberts cited. I don’t have figures from 20 years ago, but I’d guess that, adjusting for inflation, my music dollar goes about as far now as it did then. I’m not sure why Roberts’ doesn’t.

I say this from a place of privilege, of course. Not everyone can budget $100 a month for music, but most people also aren’t as obsessive about music as I am. For those who are, giving 10 bucks to Spotify—which is apparently Roberts’ monthly music budget—will not cut it. Not if the musicians you claim to love are going to eat.

Look, I don’t like beating the “personal responsibility” drum when capitalism is clearly at fault here. The pandemic erased a lot of independent venues and Live Nation is capitalizing on that. But let’s not pretend the music industry’s exploitation of artists and extortion of consumers is something new. Predatory contracts, paltry royalty rates, exorbitant ticket fees—none of it will change without political will, which, when it comes to reining in big business, is typically in short supply. So harangue your representatives, donate to advocacy groups, take to the streets, do whatever you think needs to be done. But while you’re waiting for meaningful change—and short of earning our own Bastille Day, it will be awhile—support artists by buying records, concert tickets, and merch. Because at least for now, the song remains the same: If we as consumers aren’t willing to be extorted, then there won’t be any artists left to exploit.