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Why Taylor Swift is Wrong About the Value of Free Music

Taylor Swift's insistence that artists value their work by not giving music away for free is hopelessly outdated.

A lot of ink and spit has been spilled about the Taylor Swift and Spotify's totally dramatic breakup. In case you've been lounging underneath a rock for the last week: Swift pulled all her music from Spotify, accusing the service of not paying artists enough. "I just don't agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free," Swift said. Her album 1989 went on to absolutely slay, selling more copies in one week than any other album has in more than ten years. Some people took this as a sign that—contrary to popular belief—album sales are not dead. Who needs streaming? Long live the CD!

Today, Spotify's CEO Daniel Ek published a blog post in the hopes of demolishing the swirling accusations that Spotify doesn't pay shit. The real comparison shouldn't be between album sales versus streaming, but streaming versus illegal downloads, Ek argued. Spotify has paid $2 billion in royalties, while pirating websites have paid exactly $0. "Our whole business is to maximize the value of your music," Ek said in a pointed comeback to Swift.

So here we are again, standing on that old crossroads between Streaming Will Save the Music Industry Street and Streaming Will Kill the Music Industry Avenue. Both paths have been explored a million times already, and frankly, I'm kind of bored with both of them.

But what if there was a third road to consider? What if we dismantled this entire debate and discovered that the very heart of it is rotten? Swift says she pulled her music from Spotify because she doesn't want to perpetuate the idea that "music has no value and should be free." This statement assumes that somewhere out there, a vast contingent of people believe that music has no inherent worth, and therefore should be given away like cheesy flyers after a show. Therefore, thinks Swift, it's her job as the most successful pop star in the world to stand up for the value of music by insisting on getting paid via album sales.


Taylor Swift fans

Swift reinforced this crusading belief in her Wall Street Journal op-ed from earlier this year, when she said, "It's my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album's price point is. I hope they don't underestimate themselves or undervalue their art."

Swift's thinking—which is symptomatic of the music industry at large—is problematic for two reasons: It mischaracterizes those who support the streaming model as believing music has no value. It also unfairly accuses artists who give away their music for free of undervaluing their artistic worth. Both of these claims are essentially straw man arguments based on a central logical fallacy: that free music equals worthless music. This belief is not just total hogwash—it's also hopelessly outdated.

Swift has every right to defend the value of her work. But by using album sales as the primary validation of her artistic worth, she ignores the fact that the only people who still buy albums are Olds and children. (I'm exaggerating a little here, but let's face it: CDs are going the way of dinosaurs.) As the music industry adapts to the digital age, we have to re-think the ways music is distributed online. We also have to re-think the ways artists make money from their music. Hell, we have to re-think what the definition of an album even is when it's divorced from the physical object of a CD. But there's one thing we won't have to re-think: whether music has inherent value—because we all know that it does.


A screenshot from Skrillex's app 

While Swift rings her hands over free music, many other artists have been experimenting with ways to escape from the (slowly dying) album sales canon. In March, Skrillex released his debut album Recess via a smartphone app that unlocked access to one song after the other until all of them were available to stream—for free. (Let's not forget that Skrillex has always been one step ahead of the game; he released his first EP, My Name is Skrillex, for free on MySpace in 2010.) In interviews, Skrillex said he did this to build an experience around his music. "The people who got the record first were the ones who cared the most," he said, adding: "Record sales are trivial."

Another significant free release this year was Guy Gerber and P.Diddy's long-awaited collaboration 11 11. Both Gerber and Diddy made it no secret that they thought the album carried a huge artistic value—they described it in interviews with words like "genius!" and "weird." The fact that neither artist made money from direct album sales wasn't really the point—Diddy gained relevancy points by partnering with a cool electronic producer, while everyone who once said "Guy who?" now knows Gerber's name.


YACHT's Where Does This Disco? EP came with an unplayable clear disc containing their complete catalog 

Recently, Aphex Twin has been setting the electronic music world ablaze, first by coming out of his 13-year hibernation with Syro, then by showering the Internet with gratis releases, including a 21-track modular synth album. Again, it's clear that Aphex Twin isn't chucking out his music for free because he's undervaluing his artistic worth. They frigging amazing if I don't mind saying so myself," is how he described the motherlode.

We live in an age of digital abundance, and record labels are putting a value on albums that the market simply cannot bear. If artists want the album to retain its value both artistically and financially in the future, they have several options. They can make their albums extremely scarce—Wu-Tang Clan's single-copy Once Upon a Time in Shaolin fetched $5 million, and Aphex Twin's "lost album" Caustic Window surpassed its goal of $67,424 on Kickstarter. They can also enhance their albums with technology—Deru's Obverse Box was a hand-held pico projector that allowed users to watch a video with each song. (That went for $500 and $8000.) They can also treat the album as a novelty object—YACHT's most recent EP Where Does This Disco? includes an unplayable clear disc with the band's entire musical catalog. But much to the powers-that-be's chagrin, standing on a soap box insisting on the inherent value of an album doesn't automatically make it so. 

Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor of THUMP - @MichelleLhooq