The sharp irony of free music is that it can break artists but it cannot sustain them. That was the subtext of much of what musician Tinie Tempah said during his appearance at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon.
Tempah joined fellow artist Ne-Yo on a panel titled ‘The Truth About the Music Industry’ at the Lisbon tech event, and talked about his use of mixtapes in 2005 to get noticed.
“When I started putting music out everyone was well aware of what an MP3 was and that was very beneficial for me as a new artist. There weren’t any record labels interested in me from the offset. It was at that point where I was willing to give my music away for free – just to anyone who heard it,” he said.
“I used things like MSN Messenger and MySpace where there were these little groups of fans, whether it was 1,000 people or 2,000 people at a time on each platform. We engaged with them – whether that was through direct messaging or sharing pictures. I was just giving away free music. I started from there so it is something that I have always embraced.”
Tempah said that digital has democratised many things for artists, but argued that low compensation for online usage is a consequence of the old record industry being slow to work with rather than against technology companies.
“Now we are in the streaming era, I agree with Ne-Yo that I don’t feel artists are being compensated. But I think it is a good time for the artists that hasn’t been developed for the past five years behind the scenes. I think that anybody has a shot at becoming a big star. That, for me, is a great thing; I think it’s a plus,” he said.
“But the fact we are not being properly compensated is definitely not. Artists think that when you sign to a record label you have all your problems solved. But where I see the problems are that there was not enough collaboration from the onset [with tech companies]. It was a new language for record labels. I personally feel that if they were [more open at the start] we would be in a better place.”
Ne-Yo agreed that digital has lowered the barriers to entry for artists, but that at the same time it has made it harder for them to make a sustainable living from their work.
“The crazy thing is there is more music being consumed now than ever – which is really cool,” said Ne-Yo. “But it is not financially stable anymore. Songwriters are barely getting by now because of the fact there are no laws in regard to streaming. It sucks.”
Ne-Yo has been to the US Congress twice with ASCAP to try to force a legislative change around how songwriters are paid for online usage.
“When I first got into the industry, it was a lot harder to get your music heard and it was a lot harder to get people to pay attention than it is now. It was a lot easier to get paid, I’ll say that! It was definitely a different industry when I got in,” he said.
“Today I feel like a freshman again, trying to figure out the best way to get my stuff to everybody and, on top of that, the best way to get compensated for it. The way that people consume their music has evolved and music itself has evolved. But the laws regarding compensation for music have not. That’s the big issue.”
The pair expressed optimism that these problems can be solved as the streaming ecosystem matures, however.
“I feel that artists have always been exploited to a degree,” said Tempah. “However, I feel we are in a transitional period. I feel that it is going to get better and better. I feel we should be excited about streaming.”
Ne-Yo flew solo for another session at the Web Summit, when he was interviewed on-stage by Music Ally about his views on all things digital. Among the topics: the value of surprise album releases, including those from Beyoncé – with whom he co-wrote ‘Irreplaceable’.
“You want people to get excited about the stuff you are putting out so you have to make a big deal – especially nowadays as nothing is exciting anymore,” said Ne-Yo.
“Everything is so transparent, it’s hard to get people excited about anything. Which is why it was so genius for Beyoncé to wake up one day and go, ‘Hey, by the way, my album is out. The whole album. Videos and everything. Right now. Go get it.’ There was no set up. It was just BAM! Shock value. That is important. You have to make things different.”
Ne-Yo said that he was a fan of streaming as a technology and a means of discovery, but felt the whole business model was negatively tilted away from the artist – and even more tilted away from the songwriter.
“All that we are asking for as songwriters is a level playing field,” he suggested. “We are not asking to be over-compensated; we just want what’s rightfully ours. But we are not getting it because of these 74-year-old [licensing] laws that Congress [needs to tackle]. The recording artists aren’t getting what they deserve but the songwriters are really getting shafted.”
Is there a danger that streaming will create a new class divide within music, where the top 1% of artists and songwriters make a killing, while everyone else struggles to make ends meet? Ne-Yo suggested that this schism is already happening.
“That is kind of what it is right now. I don’t feel that Beyoncé or someone like that is so much concerned because they are making money hand over fist. But it’s the guys who fall under that who are suffering the most,” he said.
“At the end of the day, when Congress decides to take the problem seriously and get the licensing laws [on an even keel] it is going to help out everybody – every songwriter and every artist, whether you are top of the stack where Beyoncé is or somewhere below that. It’s going to help everybody.”
The problem, as Ne-Yo sees it, is that labels are benefiting from streaming but are not reinvesting their profits in new artists and new music in the way they used to.
“The investment in the artist has definitely dwindled because, the record labels tell you, the money being made has dwindled; they are not making the same money that they were because of the fact that people are not buying music the way that they did,” he said.
“Which I personally think is bull. I know for a fact that record labels are doing OK in regards to streaming. It is really only the songwriters and the artists getting shafted. It kind of boils over to a situation where the art isn’t as good.”
Ne-Yo suggested that there is a new cultural brain drain happening where young creative people are looking at the reality of compensation in music-making, shaking their heads in disbelief, and moving to other creative forms instead.
“If I am a songwriter and if I can’t feed my family writing songs, then I am going to do something else. That means that whatever great song that I was going to write is not going to get written now,” he said.
“Or whatever great performance I was going to do, I no longer have the money to put it on the way that it’s supposed to be because I am not making the money that I should be making. If you don’t give people what they have earned or what they are owed, they are going to go somewhere else. They are going to find something else to do. That’s the reality of it.”
He added: “The quality of artistry suffers. With that happening, everybody else suffers. You don’t get your favourite songs. You don’t get that song to help you through that breakup. That doesn’t happen anymore because the songwriter couldn’t feed his daughter with what he was going to get paid from it.”
That said, Ne-Yo claimed that the time is ripe for artists to circumvent the old model of relying on record labels, suggesting that Chance The Rapper’s total independence, as well as his huge success, is going to become more common for a new generation of artists.
“I remember a time when there was a thing called ‘artist development’ where they could see the raw talent in you and then take that talent and develop it and turn you into the Beyoncé or the Ne-Yo or whatever. That is not the case anymore, so you get a Chance The Rapper who says they are not waiting [for a label] and they will do it themselves,” said Ne-Yo, referring to his early days in the industry.
“In a time when it is easier to do it yourself and get your music to the people through the different platforms out there, I feel that is going to be the norm now. Now it is going to be about people who believe in themselves and get their music out there and do it that way as opposed to waiting on a record label to do it for them.”