Should Music Be Free?

Oldest argument in the world. Should music be free? Is it fair that people have to pay for music? Is it fair for artists if it’s free? How do they make a living?

You’ve heard it all before. The rise of music streaming and video platforms made it possible to listen to any music you want for free. Spotify and YouTube have been the well-oiled machines behind this revolution. You no longer need to go out to the store and buy that album there, or even go to an online store and pay to download the track you like. You have it all at your fingertips, no strings attached.

A Bit Of History

Music has been here since the beginning of times. I dare say it’s as old as human nature. There is evidence all around the world that music was important both socially and religiously in different ancient cultures and civilizations. For example, in Bulgaria prehistoric cave painting were found depicting people dancing. It is thought that music was initially mainly vocal and percussive echoing day to day sounds, humming or even imitating animals. However, it quickly evolved to be more than that and instruments started being crafted, patterns started emerging, songs being written, and meaning being attributed to it. The idea of music becoming an industry was not yet even imagined then.

This form of art developed greatly due to religion. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious, but it’s hard to deny that music does include a spiritual dimension. It’s a form of expression at its core, and if you’re not good with words, playing an instrument or simply humming along can help you say what you want to say. The Bible is full of references to music. For instance, see how the Hebrews celebrated their victories or cried their sorrows in the Old Testament — they sang.

“I will sing to the Lord for He is highly exalted. Both horse and driver He has hurdled to the sea.” — Exodus 15

In India music developed around religious beliefs and other philosophies. The Raagas are a good example of music that was created by influence of Hinduism.

“The Mundaka Upanishad uses it [the word raaga] in its discussion of soul (Atman-Brahman) and matter (Prakriti), with the sense that the soul does not “color, dye, stain, tint” the matter.” — Mundaka Upanishad, Robert Hume, Oxford University Press, page 373

In some places in Europe music was a bit like busking. Artists of all kinds would perform on the streets and travel from place to place to entertain the people. In other circles, musicians and composers would be hired by the rich or the church, to perform at their events or write specific pieces for them. Mozart and Beethoven moved in these circles, for example. When they weren’t touring on their own, they were hired by these noblemen and clergymen. A structured music industry was starting to flourish by then. Concerts were being promoted, instruments and sheets were sold and soon music would be spread to the masses.

It’s All About Perspective

As we see through history, music was initially just a natural form of human expression, but evolved to also become a profession, a business, an industry. There are several interests at stake in the music industry, but when you talk about this type of questions, there are two main parties, often in opposite ends of the discussion: the listeners and the artists. For listeners it is convenient not to have to pay for music. For the artists it is essential that their work is rewarded financially. I’ll cover artist rights and revenue on another post later on, but the it all goes down to John Kellogg’s key phrase:

When the music gets played, somebody gets paid.

Since there is an industry, the music we consume is a product. I know it’s more than that. But it IS a product. So, if we pay for a smartphone, why wouldn’t we pay for music? There’s someone putting the time to write it, play it, produce it, package it (I’m not talking about physical packaging, I’m talking about mixing and mastering), distribute it (even online) and then market it to get to everyone. It’s a whole process, just like in any other industry and to just craft one song and have it radio ready you can spend thousands of euros. Easily.

Now, I believe music should be accessible to everyone. It is a product and the involved parties need to be compensated for their effort. But it is also something larger than that. As we see across history, music is within each of us. It is entertainment, it is an escape, it is worship, it is feeling and emotion. Bottom line — it makes every day a little brighter. Besides, it has been proven to have a positive effect in people and society.

What do you think? Should music be free?

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