Taylor Swift is the Net Neutrality of Music

Hey, have you heard about this new singer named Taylor Swift? Apparently all the kids lover her, and she’s kicked up some dust recently by removing her catalog from music streaming service Spotify because she doesn’t think it pays musicians enough. Here’s how RedState’s Leon Wolf describes this existential crisis for people who are too young to remember CD’s:

This new economic reality will (and probably already has) had deleterious effects on the quantity and quality of popular music available on the market. The life of a struggling, pre-fame artist is a difficult one; travel conditions are awful, the pay is insufficient to live on, and frustration and rejection are nearly constant. The only thing that causes artists to persevere through years and years of this is the small hope of a large payday at the end of the road someday. As that payday becomes smaller and smaller prospectively, more and more artists should be expected to give up the game prematurely and more quality art will be lost to history. Sadly, the artists who will be lost will be those whose craft has been honed on the anvil of adversity and real life struggle for acceptance – and they will presumably be replaced by plastic veneer artists foisted upon us by reality television shows like American Idol and The Voice.

… I fully support Taylor Swift’s fight to reform the economics of modern streaming services – and if that means I have to pay significantly more for Spotify’s service or go back to an iTunes like model for music, I will happily do so – because ultimately, the content that has been created belongs to the artists both morally and legally, and I support their right to distribute it (or not) as they see fit, just like I do with any physical property that has ever been created. And whatever you think about Taylor Swift’s music (personally, although pop is not really my thing, I find her better than most pop artists currently working), you should recognize that what she is ultimately fighting against is the death of quality music altogether.

Emphasis mine, because what the heck? We’re definitely in a golden age for pop music — I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that there is more of it produced today than ever before. But that certainly doesn’t mean we’re in a golden age for good music.

In the Wall Street Journal, Swift wrote this:

Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.

“Music is art” is a meaningless statement akin to something like “Food is delicious.” The art-worthiness of music, and therefore the value, is determined by the listener.

Taylor Swift is really successful and rich not because her music is “art” or because it’s timeless or even good. It’s because her music has a very broad appeal. Lots of people like to listen to her, so she makes a lot of money, with or without Spotify.

The same internet that made it really easy to get music for free also made it really easy for lots of budding artists to distribute their music. That means we’re going to have more musicians with a narrower appeal, but maybe just enough of an appeal that they can make a living at it. For those artists, the cash they get from Spotify is insignificant compared to the opportunities that come from making their music available on yet another platform.

But in behaving like all music is equally appealing and all prices should reflect that, Swift is acting like the people who are pushing for the knuckleheaded net neutrality initiative. There’s nothing neutral about net neutrality. It just imposes market conditions from above, stifling innovation and guaranteeing that the current power players will remain power players.

If Spotify had to pay every basement dubstep DJ like he was Taylor Swift, then it would pay a lot fewer musicians for a lot less music, thereby guaranteeing a lot less exposure for up and coming artists and a lot more exposure (proportionally speaking) for Taylor Swift.

If the market grants less value to a product than you think it deserves, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the market. It just means that other free people in the market don’t agree with you.

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