Pays Versus Plays: The Future of Digital Residuals

My MP3 play count for “I’m Not The One” by The Black Keys:  43

My MP3 play count for “Down for Whatever” by Ice Cube:  2

Who deserves more money, at least on my behalf? Well, obviously The Black Keys.

The way things are now, they each get the same. I purchased both MP3s for 99 cents and each artist collects a whopping 9 cents of that. Not fair, huh? The Black Keys should definitely get a bigger chunk of my money than Ice Cube (and a bigger chunk of that 99-cent MP3 sale, but that’s a different point). If an artist earns more plays, he or she should earn more dough. But it has never worked that way for consumer media ownership – pay for the album once and never have to pay for it again.

Artists theoretically collect more money per program their songs are used in. Current performance rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and SoundExchange) use abstract systems of surveys and credits to track television, radio and public space plays to determine artist payments. Their systems are just as arbitrary and myopic as the Nielsen ratings. Needless to say, artists’ residuals are not accurate and cannot reflect the actual popularity of their music.

As digital space envelopes us, tracking is becoming easier and easier. By the end of the year, I predict that our entire music library can be synced to the cloud (Grooveshark has offered library uploading for a long time and Google Music sounds like it will be a formidable competitor in this space). Eventually, all music will be trafficked through the Internet. When this happens, play count data can be synced and shared. Artists and record companies can finally get accurate reporting on their play counts (and even more accurate insight into audience reception). Artists can get paid the portion they deserve, at least next to other artists. Plays will become more valuable than pays.

The trick is getting money into the system. I don’t think Google will have a problem with that, though.

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